Why Oral History?

While much of written history is based on tangible evidence such as printed texts, documents and sound recordings, some histories can only be known through oral narratives. Oral history is an opportunity to involve the everyday person in the writing of history.

Oral history is a research method that empowers young adults. Oral history methodology and techniques are easily adaptable to middle school and high school classrooms. Students can use it to archive important events in their own families, neighborhoods or local communities. The student oral historian is empowered by the act of documenting and preserving the memories and perspectives of ordinary people whose voices might otherwise be forgotten.

While oral histories have been traditionally collected for archival purposes in which unedited transcripts of interviews are preserved as historical records, many teachers today incorporate a new style of oral history writing into their classrooms. This new take on the genre, which one might call “crafted oral history,” can be traced back to the work of Studs Terkel, a well-known radio personality and oral historian who made a career out of interviewing people around the United States about their experiences with topics such as race, faith, work, the Great Depression and World War II. In crafted oral history, a student works with the transcript and makes decisions about what to leave in and take out as well as how to organize the text. The act of “revising” the oral history, then, asks students to balance the interview subject’s language and voice with the “readability,” grammar and conventions of a written text.

In your classroom, an oral history project can engage students in various stages of the research and writing process in the following ways:

  • Research: Students research a topic for their oral history project and become familiar with a period or event in history, a current social situation, or a community.
  • Interviewing: Students choose an individual or individuals to interview and learn both how to craft effective questions as well as the skills needed to conduct an interview.
  • Writing and Editing: Students create a rough draft of their oral history. They learn how to take out interviewer’s questions from transcripts and make sure that the subject’s words still make sense. They arrange the oral history and develop a structure that flows logically and smoothly. They learn to remove filler words and add parenthetical asides to give the reader further information about the subject, the theme, or the interview itself.
  • Revising: Students share and review their oral histories with their peers and teacher—and often the oral history subject as well— for clarity, structure, accuracy and impact. They make changes and revisions based on the feedback they receive.
  • Publishing: Students create a finished product based on the results of their oral history survey.

For more, see Project Notes: Conducting Oral History in the Secondary Classroom (Student Press Initiative, 2005) by Kerry McKibbin.

 

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