“Oral History and Personal Connections”
Written by Lisa Thyer, English Teacher at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Palos Hills, IL
Oral history is an extremely attractive and powerful teaching tool to many educators. When my colleague, Mary and I sat down to write a grant proposal that aimed to bring in writers, editors and publishers that could work with our students to show them the “real world” applications of the writing, speaking, listening and critical thinking skills we emphasized in our English curriculum, we had oral history in mind. In many ways oral history provides the perfect amalgamation of so many common core standard skills—as readings it provides our curriculum with the much needed bolstering of non-fiction writing, allowing students to engage with and analyze the text on a primary source level; as a writing or interview assignment it forces the student to practice listening, speaking and writing skills and then to become meticulous editors of their own writing. More than anything, to us, oral history emphasized the importance of social justice and helped to show students that the common core skills we taught in our classrooms were only as valuable as the endeavors for which they were applied.
Upon receiving our grant, Mary and I reached out to Voice of Witness and after a wonderfully conducted workshop by their educational outreach facilitators, Mary and I wanted our students to apply the empathetic interview skills they learned in hopes of beginning a larger project. We asked our students to interview and write an oral history essay of someone they believed to be an “Everyday Hero”, a person defined by a Langston Hughes quote as “[…] the living heroes who are your neighbors—but who may not look or talk like heroes when they are sitting quietly in a chair in front of you […]” and conduct and craft an interview into an oral history essay that accurately shared their Everyday Hero’s story. The project went well, but seemed to just be any other school assignment until we received an email from a student after the passing of his grandfather:
“Also, when the class was assigned the interview project at the beginning of the semester, I interviewed my Grandfather. I am glad I did too, because I now have his whole life story because of it. My Grandfather really enjoyed reading that essay. Also, a good friend of the family read it at his funeral for me. Everyone loved it. I am glad I had the opportunity to do that project. So thank you for it.”
Brian’s simple thank you helped Mary and I to realize the genuine impact of oral history in the classroom—the personal connection to memories and to people whose experiences and stories truly change us. Sadly, this realization took on a new meaning for me personally when Mary was hospitalized in the spring. After being diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that caused her to need a liver transplant, Mary contracted an aggressive infection while awaiting her transplant and at the age of only 33, she lost her fight with her disease. Mary’s loss was devastating—our students lost a beloved teacher, our school lost one of its most dedicated and passionate faculty members, and I lost one of my closest friends. In dealing with her loss the students and staff turned to stories for comfort. We shared stories about Mary, about her influence, her wisdom and her love for education and life.
In memory of such an integral part of our Stagg High School family our students and several teachers in the English and History departments have begun to plan the creation of an oral history collection from our Stagg family that centers around building a connection between our history and our future as a diverse school and community. Ideas include interviewing staff, former students and community members that were present during such major events as September 11th, when our school gained national attention for coming together to protect our Middle Eastern students in the face of violence and hate crimes in the community, or the overwhelming student and staff response to helping a Stagg teacher’s family that was displaced during Hurricane Katrina. And of course, we plan to include the stories of those touched by such amazing teachers as Mary. It is our hope that with this oral history project we can personally connect to our shared past as a school and, in remembering the legacies and struggles of those that came before us, we can continue to support one another to build a stronger future for those that are to follow after us. In the end, fostering a personal connection and sense of community is the true value of oral history, not only in the classroom, but anywhere that people need to be reminded of the potential we all have when we come together to share our stories.