Oral History in the Classroom
This post was written by former undergraduate interns Alex Ford and Devin Holman. Alex is a senior majoring in Middle Grades Education and plans to teach social studies at a middle school or high school. Devin is a junior majoring in History and Political Science and plans to teach social studies at the high school level.
As part of our internship, we worked on mining the SOHP’s archive looking for content-rich interview clips that teachers can incorporate into their curricula (see the new K-12 Map, “Mapping Voices from North Carolina’s Past”). As future educators, we have been considering the many potential uses of oral history in our future classrooms while working on this project. We have mostly focused on the social studies classroom, but we believe that oral history can bring value to classrooms in a variety of subject areas.
First and foremost, oral histories can serve as content resources for students. Oral history interviews can provide richer and fuller accounts of important historical events than textbooks and other traditional sources can offer because of the interviews’ personal nature. Not only do oral history interviews give voice to perspectives that are often unrepresented in traditional curricula, but they expose students to valuable firsthand accounts that expand upon and complicate the typical third-person “objective” narrative found in conventional curricula.
Relatedly, critically evaluating sources is an important skill taught in social studies classrooms. Students should be able to recognize the values and limitations of each source they encounter and consider the role that point of view plays in how a source interacts with the historical narrative. We believe that oral history sources can both supplement and challenge the existing historical narrative while also developing these critical thinking skills. Challenging this narrative is especially necessary when entire groups of people are excluded from the conversation. Oral history can be a pivotal tool for teaching students to consider how power is related to the creation and preservation of the historical record. In this way, teaching history can serve as a form of social justice.
Using oral history in the classroom can help students realize the relevance of history and historical processes in their everyday lives. Oral historians recognize the importance of emphasizing this relevance; the SOHP’s motto is “You don’t have to be famous for your life to be history.” Though the historical record has often been shaped by the hands of the few and elite, we know that these individuals have not been the sole shapers of the flow of history in reality. Michel-Rolph Trouillot articulated this idea that “we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands.” Through the realization that past historical moments have been influenced by many rather than few, students will hopefully embrace that they too can be makers of history rather than passive observers. The importance of “ordinary” individuals becomes especially clear when oral histories are used to tie larger national themes of history into local contexts. Because the life histories of individuals tend to be closely tied to their local environments, oral histories can serve as gateways into understanding local histories and their relationship with national historical trends.
The standardization of educational content has reduced the subject of history to a compilation of facts that must be memorized for a test. Laurel Schmidt has asserted, “In short, we’ve taken the social out of social studies. As a result, many students graduate from high school without ever realizing what history buffs have always known – that history is first and foremost an engrossing story about people, full of daredevils, dunderheads, and scoundrels.” We see oral history as a solution to this problem because it brings these colorful characters back into the classroom. Because students are listening to the stories and actual voices of real people, they are more likely to develop empathy for individuals who are different from themselves and for these individuals’ experiences. Alternatively, students may encounter oral histories of individuals to whom they relate, which can validate students’ own experiences and encourage self-acceptance.
Educators can also incorporate oral history into the classroom as they teach the process of conducting historical interviews as a skill set. Interviewing others gives students a sense of agency as creators and interpreters in the historical process and a deeper understanding of the value of oral history. After having participated in the oral history process in the classroom, students are more likely to take initiative in their lives and communities to collect oral histories that they think are important. Beyond the value of conducting oral histories, this dual inquisitiveness and proactivity can give students the confidence and consciousness to become more effective citizens.
 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 153.
 Laurel Schmidt, Social Studies That Sticks: How to Bring Content and Concepts to Life (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2007), 3-4.