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How can I use oral history myself as an educator?

Make history “come alive” with real people’s voices. Find an interview with someone who lived through the era you are teaching, and play a short clip in class.  They might describe what it felt like to leave the farm and go work in a factory, or integrate a school, or to wait for their father to come home from WWII.   Many interviews specifically dwell on people’s childhoods and youth, so they provide a particularly resonant perspective for students.

Show that “history happened here.”  Many students feel that history happened somewhere else, to people different from them. Oral history projects in your community can help students understand that people all around them lived through the major changes they are studying in class.

Build students’ sense of civic engagement. Some young people believe that if they can’t be the next Martin Luther King then they can’t really “make a difference.”  Use oral histories to show regular people who identified a challenge and figured out a way to get involved and create change.

Engage students who struggle with the written word. Have students who need other avenues into the material than textbooks? Oral histories can be a powerful teaching tool for those who learn better through listening than reading.

Harness students’ creativity. Have students curate clips of interviews into a Soundcloud playlist and explain why they picked the ones they did. Ask them to choose a part of an interview and perform it as a monologue to the class, and explain why they selected that piece of the whole. Have students work together to create a group performance using oral history excerpts in conversation with each other. Have them undertake an oral history of their school or their community and then organize an event in which they share the results of their research with the public.

Community Issues: Using oral history to have students engage their communities surrounding issues that are of particular importance to them. This allows students to reflect on their personal histories and their communities. It also allows students to be creators of original historical work.

Service Learning: Use oral histories to have students create solutions for the questions and challenges faced within the communities where they live.   Applied oral history can transport students from the role of researchers to actual agents of change for their communities. Oral history as service learning provides opportunities for students to use skills learned in the classroom to their daily lives as engaged and civic-minded individuals.

Additional Resources:

  • Southern Oral History, “Like a Family:” This site includes research findings, images, oral histories, and teaching resources about industrialization in North Carolina and life in mill villages, based on the major oral history project that also resulted in the book Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World.  
  • Louis B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky, “From Combat to Kentucky:” This resource documents the experiences of veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars who were students at the University of Kentucky in video oral histories.
  • History Matters, George Mason University, “Oral History Online,” This resource highlights more oral history collections that are available online.
  • Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, University of Florida, “Resistance, Respect, & Regrowth:” This is a documentary film based on oral history conducted by students at the University of Florida as a service learning class project.
  • USM 8th Grade Service Learning,” This resource explains a service learning project conducted by 8th-graders surrounding an oral history project involving veterans.
  • Whitman, Glenn. “Case Study: Oral History in the Classroom,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger (Eds.). Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012.

Next Section: How Does the Oral History Association support Oral History Education?