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Blog: Notes from the classroom

Post written Miriam Laytner, Oral History Intern, Apollo Theater Oral History Project

The Apollo Theater Oral History Project at Community School 154, The Harriet Tubman Learning Center in New York City is almost complete for 2013-14. The interviews have been completed, the stories gathered and the group poem and plays performed.  Though the calendar says it’s spring, the weather outside is more reminiscent of autumn, when I first started as an Oral History Intern at the Apollo Theater.

As I sift through the folders of papers handed to me by the students and teachers at C.S. 154, a dog-eared page sticks out. I pull it out and realize it is part of a transcript from one of the oral history interviews conducted by this year’s 5th grade class. In this particular segment, the students are having trouble understanding that children in the 1940s and 1950s may have had yogurt, but they ate with a spoon. There was no such thing as Go-Gurt—the portable, disposable tube of yogurt favored by today’s nine- and ten-year olds. When I first transcribed the interviews, this conversation—which spans an entire page—first struck me as a waste of time. I was embarrassed that the students did not stick to the list of questions the teachers and I had carefully helped them cultivate over the previous weeks. But as the conversation progressed onto the next page, it blossomed into something more. The conversation turned to other differences between the children’s lives and the interviewees’ own childhoods. Students realized that the interviewees lived before there were refrigerators, color televisions or a 24-hour news cycle. As silly as it sounds, Go-Gurt became a springboard into a productive conversation on the historical changes witnessed by the interviewees during their lifetimes.

Oral history interviews, when conducted by a trained interviewer, can be valuable documents. During this project, I learned how oral histories gathered by young people are also valuable teaching tools. Students must learn a variety of skills in order to conduct an interview. They must learn how to be a good listener, how to ask open-ended questions, how to take notes, and how to conduct research in order to prepare for an interview. They also learned elements of theater production and public speaking. The structure of the oral history interview allows students to capture and internalize history in a way that makes sense to them as children. It is one thing to read a textbook that tells students that life was different in the 1950s, but it is quite another for them to come to the same conclusion on their own through conversations with an elderly member of the community.  A webpage can list technological advances from 1950 to 2014, but the nuanced impacts these changes had on the everyday lives of, for example, children living in Harlem, can really be felt when children compare their experiences to the experiences of their elders.

As much as I learned from my internship at the Apollo, I hope that the real beneficiaries of my work this year are the students at C.S. 154. They had an amazing opportunity to conduct interviews and translate those interviews to the stage—a process of internalizing and representing history that is valuable for strengthening community bonds and relationships to the past. I hope that the memories stay with them for years to come.

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