Post by Rachel F. Seidman, Associate Director, Southern Oral History Program
In March of last year, Lisa Nagel, Head of St. Anne’s School in Annapolis, Maryland, invited Felice Belman, then Editor in Chief of the Concord Monitor newspaper, and me to lead a workshop on interviewing, historical research and oral history. The eighth grade students at this small, intimate private school were being put in charge of a significant project—preparing a history of their own school for it’s twentieth anniversary. Although many schools don’t have the resources, the small class size or the flexible curriculum to allow for this in-depth project, nevertheless the workshop provided a case study for the kind complex historical lessons that can be conveyed and the intellectual engagement garnered when students are asked to take on an oral history project.
The two classroom teachers and half a dozen students (several were out sick due to the flu going around the school that month) had set aside an entire school day for our workshop. We spent the morning talking about how they would approach their background research on the school. We talked about what a primary source is, and how one can learn from them. Archival boxes, arranged by year and filled with school newsletters, annual reports, and special event advertisements, were brought into the classroom for the students to study. Each student received a box, and had time to look through it, take notes, and report back on what she had found. The students were enthralled—completely silent, until one would burst out in laughter at a photograph or simply have to share a particularly juicy tidbit with her neighbor. We spent time discussing their findings. But even more important was the time we spent discussing how history is created—who chose what went in those boxes? Would you choose the same things? What are you NOT likely to find in these boxes that might be important to understanding the history of the school? These boxes were organized chronologically—what would be different ways of organizing them? How might that change what you noticed?
We spent the afternoon talking about interviewing and oral history. We asked the students to think about where and when they have seen interviews, and what kinds of interviews they can think of. TV and movie portrayals of attorneys dominated their responses, as well as locker room interviews with athletes. Some also mentioned job interviews. Having an oral historian teaching in tandem with a journalist provided us, the teachers, and the students with a fascinating dialogue on the similarities and differences between the types of interviews that journalists do, and the life history approach to which the Southern Oral History Program generally adheres. We talked about the purposes of each one, and how that shapes the form it takes. And we asked the students to think about what they wanted to accomplish, and how they might approach their own interviews for this project.
Finally, we gave them a training on oral history interviews. We worked with the students on an interview guide in preparation for an interview with the Head of School, Ms. Nagel. We talked about the differences between “narrative” questions that ask a person to describe an event or an experience; “lyrical” questions that ask her about her emotions at the time, and “reflective” questions that ask her to look back on the event and reflect on its importance. They prepared some of each kind, and we practiced asking follow-up questions in order to pull more from the narrator. Then came their favorite part—interviewing their Principal. Each student got a chance to ask a few questions, and we audio taped the entire thing. Afterward, we excused Ms. Nagel and talked about how it went, what they learned, and what they still wanted to know.
As a result of their work, the students later produced a history of their school for the anniversary. While not all schools can replicate the amazing student-teacher ratio or the level of commitment from school administrators, it is clear involving students in planning for school anniversaries and teaching them the methods of oral history can be a great way to show them the art and the applicability of historical research.