ERIC Identifier: ED393781
Publication Date: 1996-03-00
Author: Siler, Carl R.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Oral History in the Teaching of U.S. History. ERIC Digest.
Oral history is a stimulating classroom activity and an exciting process
designed to increase student involvement in a United States history class and
improve student understanding of the historical topic. Further, oral history
involves students directly in a method of historical inquiry, which includes the
organization and presentation of data acquired directly from another person.
WHY HAVE STUDENTS CONDUCT AN ORAL HISTORY PROJECT?
history project, regardless of the historical topic being investigated or its
duration, helps students understand all phases of designing, implementing, and
completing an activity. Students of all learning and comprehension levels can
use the oral history process to increase their active involvement in the study
of United States history.
An oral history project is an attempt to preserve a small segment of a
relatively recent historical period as viewed through the eyes, experiences, and
memories of people who lived during that time. Capturing their experiences and
memories on either video or audio tape is invaluable. Over a period of time,
memories can fade and those feelings or emotions associated with the events can
easily be lost or altered by time.
An oral history project involving local participants is an exciting method of
providing students the opportunity to "experience" history firsthand, which
makes the learning of United States history a more valuable experience and
places local history within the overall context of United States history.
Participants are eager to share their experiences with students. Students are
enthralled to hear the stories of the participants and usually cannot wait to
share them with the rest of the class.
Oral history projects add to the collective knowledge of local and national
history, because such projects document citizens' participation and memories
concerning a specific event or time period. Students begin to understand that
United States history is not simply a series of isolated events from the pages
of a textbook, but rather it is composed of life experiences and memories of
many Americans just like themselves. Students learn that history is in essence
the collective memories of actual events that have directly affected the lives
of their friends, acquaintances, and relatives.
WHAT INSTRUCTIONAL GOALS ARE MET BY CONDUCTING AN ORAL HISTORY PROJECT?
An oral history project has a multitude of instructional
goals for the students. Students will increase their understanding of a specific
historical event. First-person information about any historical event makes it
much more relevant to their lives. Students will create and administer various
interview instruments. They must pilot the interview instrument to better
understand that various questions may elicit unanticipated, unexpected, and
The selection of the participants will result in comprehension of the
dynamics of time, continuity, and change among age groups.
Students will improve their questioning skills as they ask the various
questions and follow-up questions of the "what" variety, and the probing
questions of "how" and "why." Students will improve their writing skills as they
become cognizant of how people use their language skills. Students will enhance
their listening skills by accurately listening to what was said, and by
listening for how and why the person being interviewed chose to describe an
event as he/she did. Students will gain organizational skills pertaining to
their use of time, energy, and information. Finally, the students' proofreading
skills will be enhanced as they read and re-read their final product to insure
WHAT TOPICS CAN BE USED FOR AN ORAL HISTORY
Various topics involving events that are national, state, or local
in scope and importance can be used for an oral history project.
Students need to be aware of the dynamics of age and time as they select a
historical period. If students select a topic involving the Depression or World
War II, they must remember that the participants to be interviewed typically are
65 years of age or older. However, a topic such as the assassination of JFK or
the Vietnam War could involve participants as young as 40. The potential pool of
participants can be affected by the topic chosen. The level of recollective
ability and historical accuracy also can dramatically be affected by the age of
the participants being interviewed. Hence, the selection of participants is a
critical component for an effective oral history project. Students will soon
discover that some participants are simply better interviewees than others.
Students will usually approach relatives or friends as their first potential
interviewees and then expand their pool of people to be interviewed.
An oral history project can be as simple as a student interviewing one
person, writing the responses of the participant, and reporting those survey
responses to the class. Another project could involve audio- or video-taping of
the participant and the student composing a written account of the dialogue. But
a more sophisticated and encompassing oral history project could involve the
entire class during a semester or school year. The class would conduct taped
interviews throughout the school year, type the dialogue of the interviews, and
print the results in a book format. The culmination of the year's project would
be to publish the interviews and make the books available to interviewees,
students, libraries, and interested individuals in the community.
WHAT IS INVOLVED IN THE PROCESS OF CONDUCTING AN ORAL HISTORY PROJECT?
The oral history project is a process-oriented activity.
The students are responsible for the entire project. It is imperative that
students have adequate background knowledge of the historical topic and time
period before interviewing the participants. Good content knowledge will enhance
their understanding of the historical topic or era and vastly improve their
questioning skills; thereby, they will have a better understanding of the person
Students must design the interview instrument focusing upon questions that
will elicit much more information than merely "yes" or "no" answers. Practice
interviews must be conducted to test the interview instrument, which allows
students to practice their interview skills and insures the validity of the
questions and answers. Students will learn that some questions simply do not ask
what was intended.
Students select their own participants to be interviewed and set up an
interview time, which helps to enhance their organizational skills. Interviews
can be conducted during school time or on the student's time, whatever is
convenient for both the student and the participant. It is imperative that the
student obtain from the interviewee a signed release form giving the class and
the school the right to publish the oral interview. This is important because of
the legalities involved in publishing an interview.
All interviews are done with audio or video tape, and typewritten transcripts
are made by the students from the recordings. This element of the process takes
a considerable amount of time. Students proofread their own material, as well as
other students' material, to insure spelling accuracy, historical accuracy, and
The final copy can be printed at school, and the school printing department
can usually produce multiple copies. Hard-cover bookbinding can be commercially
obtained, or soft-cover binding can be done at any instant copy business.
It is imperative that the teacher keep students on task and on schedule with
such an oral history project because as the end of the school year approaches,
finishing a project of this magnitude can be overwhelming. A convenient timeline
is presented below:
* Introduction of Project and Investigation of Event--September
* Creation of Interview Instrument--September
* Interviewing of Participants--October-March
* Transcribing of Tapes--October-March
* Typing of Rough Draft--October-March
* Proofreading and Finalization of Document or Book--April
* Final Copies to Printer and Binder--May-June
The finished product of such an oral history project is a published book that
focuses upon a particular topic in United States history encompassing the
memories and experiences of local participants. An oral history project,
regardless of the topic, grade, or academic level of the students, or
sophistication of the final product, is an extremely rewarding experience for
the students, participants, and classroom teacher. Because a variety of teaching
methodologies and strategies is a vital component of any successful United
States history class, an oral history project can be a significant instrument
for success. A project of this extent enhances students' understanding of any
historical era and improves the quality of teacher instruction. Students will
realize through an oral history project that historical events affect the lives
of people they know and love. Years after the students have left the classroom,
they are more likely to remember the oral history project than other aspects of
their United States history class.
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
The following list includes
references used to prepare this Digest. The items followed by an ED number are
available in microfiche and/or paper copies from the ERIC Document Reproduction
Service (EDRS). For information about prices, contact EDRS, 7420 Fullerton Road,
Suite 110, Springfield, Virginia, 22153-2852; telephone numbers are (703)
440-1400 and (800) 443-3742. Entries followed by an EJ number, announced monthly
in the CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN EDUCATION (CIJE), are not available through
EDRS. However, they can be located in the journal section of most larger
libraries by using the bibliographic information provided, requested through
Interlibrary Loan, or ordered from the UMI reprint service.
Baum, Willa K. ORAL HISTORY FOR THE LOCAL HISTORICAL SOCIETY. 2nd. ed.
Nashville, TN: American Society for State and Local History, 1975. ED 110 404.
Brant, Heather, and others. MUNCIE REMEMBERS THAT DAY OF INFAMY. Muncie, IN:
Muncie Southside High School, 1993. ED 359 137.
Brody, Barry, and Alan J. Singer. "Franklin K. Lane High School Oral History
Project and History Magazine." OAH MAGAZINE OF HISTORY 4 (Spring 1990): 7-9. EJ
Brown, Cynthia Stokes. LIKE IT WAS: A COMPLETE GUIDE TO WRITING ORAL HISTORY.
New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1988.
Clegg, Luther B., and others. "Creating Oral History Projects for the Social
Studies Classroom." SOCIAL STUDIES REVIEW 32 (Fall 1992): 53-60. EJ 466 110.
Lanman, Barry, and George Mehaffy. ORAL HISTORY IN THE SECONDARY CLASSROOM.
Los Angeles: Oral History Association, 1988. ED 348 330.
Pass, Olivia McNeely. ORAL HISTORY: A VOICE FOR AMERICA. Paper presented at
the Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English (Louisville,
KY, November 12-18, 1992.) ED 363 882.
Ritchie, Donald A. "Teaching The Cold War Through Oral History." OAH MAGAZINE
OF HISTORY 8 (Winter 1994): 10-12. EJ 484 232.
Siler, Carl, ed. THE WAY IT WAS: MUNCIE IN WORLD WAR II. Muncie, IN: Muncie
Southside High School, 1992. ED 342 701.
Wood, Linda P. "'What Did You Do in the War, Grandma?' An Oral History of
Rhode Island Women During World War II." SOCIAL EDUCATION 58 (February 1994):
92-93. EJ 485 622.