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Staff Pick: Bringing History to Life in the Classroom

Abigail Nover, an SOHP field scholar, is a graduate student in folklore. Her MA thesis is a music-based interactive web application for fourth grade classrooms, designed to supplement the NC Common Core Social Studies Standards for teaching North Carolina’s history and cultural heritage.

The history textbooks I read in middle and high school were not particularly memorable. What I do vividly remember from social studies and history classes, however, are the guest speakers who visited, the interviews we listened to, the documentaries we watched, and the debates we had as a class. Those moments most likely stick out in my mind because the history in the textbook that seemed distant and detached became personal and immediate through hearing and discussing peoples’ firsthand experiences. Now, as I focus on K-12 educational materials in my graduate studies and as a field scholar here at the SOHP, I am excited by the incredible potential of oral history to bring history to life in the classroom.

Last summer, the SOHP partnered with Carolina K-12 to host The Carolina Oral History Teaching Fellows program. Middle and high school teachers from across North Carolina gathered here at UNC-Chapel Hill for a three-day seminar, which focused on oral history and the Civil Rights Movement. The teachers then returned home, worked on creating lesson plans using oral history clips from our archive, and several weeks later, returned to Chapel Hill to share their work with one another.

The lesson plans that resulted from the program creatively delve into complex topics relating to the Civil Rights Movement like voting rights, education, and disenfranchisement, just to name a few. Each lesson weaves multiple voices together in oral history-based classroom activities, providing students with the opportunity to examine primary sources, evaluate historical events from diverse perspectives, and extend their critical thinking. Oral history as a pedagogical tool is unique in its ability to convey the impact of historical events on personal and community levels, garnering deeper understanding and empathy among student listeners.

I have been working with Christie Norris, the Director of K-12 Outreach for the NC Civic Education Consortium, to edit the lesson plans and make them available to teachers as a free resources online via the SOHP’s and Carolina K-12’s websites. As I read through the lessons and listened to the accompanying interview clips over the past weeks, I was absorbed by the materials. Listening to Pauli Murray, for example, describe her many trailblazing accomplishments, I was floored by her persistence and powerful outlook on civil rights and citizenship as well as how little I had known about her previously. It is easy to become engrossed in listening to someone tell their story, and I am excited for students to experience the lessons I have been reading in the classroom. These lessons will be memorable, I am sure.

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the North Carolina Council for the Social Studies’ annual conference in Greensboro where I was able to broaden my understanding of social studies instruction. In the sessions I attended, I heard educators describe the challenges and triumphs of engaging students in current events and history, helping students to understand multiple perspectives on key issues, integrate research techniques and primary sources into classroom activities, and work towards public engagement projects. It was incredible to hear teachers share their innovations. As I listened, I recognized many facets of the lesson plans I had edited. I am honored to support teachers as they share their ideas and work towards integrating oral history into their lesson plans.

Find more information about the Carolina Oral History Teaching Fellows program, and access the lesson plans here. You can also listen to the clips features in the material by visiting the SoundCloud playlist.