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How can I teach students to conduct research in oral history?

Explain to students that thousands of oral histories are out there for them to use.  Show them websites that provide access to oral history collections online.  If there is a local library or archive with interviews available in the collection, take a field trip and have librarians explain how to listen to them.  Perhaps a local historian has done oral histories and can share some of their work with the students.  In any case, help them to see that they can get access to the real voices of real people talking about almost any topic that they might be studying.  Encourage students to use oral histories as sources in research papers.

Model using oral histories as primary documents. Choose a relevant oral history interview from an accessible repository, especially an interview that has both audio and transcript available, and share a part of it with the students in class.  Compare the written transcript to the audio.  Do they match?  What is different?  What do they learn from listening to the audio that they couldn’t have understood from just the transcript?  What does hearing the person’s voice, and emotions, allow them to understand?  What do pauses, or rise and fall of volume, suggest?

Ask students to analyze one interview.  Have students listen to a full interview as homework.  Ask them to write a reflection paper on what they learned from listening.  How did this person’s experience confirm or conflict with or complicate what they had learned about the period from written sources?  How does it change their sense of the period or event under consideration to have learned about it from an oral history interview?  What would they want to know from other interviews if they could listen to more?

Challenge students to create a performance to reflect their interpretation.  Assign each student in a small group to listen to and read a different oral history interview about a shared event, period, or concept (i.e., life on the home front during WWII, or desegregation of schools in a particular town, or the impact of industrialization on a region).  Have students pick their favorite sections of the transcript to share with their classmates, and then discuss the similarities and differences of the narrators’ experiences.  What themes emerge?  What connections do they see?  How do the interviews “speak” to each other?  Ask them to cut and paste sections of the interviews into a “script” and then perform it for the rest of the class.  Have a discussion about why they chose the pieces they did, and how they arrived at their analysis of what was most important.

Additional Resources

  • Library of Congress “Oral History and Social History:” This resource provides support for secondary student research involving the WPA Life Histories project consisting of oral history interviews conducted for the Federal Writer’s Project, 1936-1940.
  • The Smithsonian, National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, “Engaging Students with Primary Sources:” (pp. 33-43): This resource includes an excellent section on analyzing oral history interviews and transcripts, designed for educators.

Next Section: How can I use oral history myself as an educator?