Oral History in the Classroom

Rachel Northrop is a public school teacher in New York City's District 79, where agencies providing essential services partner with school programs to support students with unique needs. She is also a freelance writer and author of the book When Coffee Speaks: Stories from and of Latin American Coffeepeople. In this post, she reflects on attending OHMA's One-Day Oral History Workshops in January.

OHMA’s winter workshop series offered attendees an ample menu of tools for and case studies in successful oral history application. I work as a freelance writer and a public school teacher, and the OHMA workshop turned out to be full of resources to help me meet my current challenges as an educator. I have nine years of classroom experience, but I was recently transferred to a high school program with a student population who is forcing me to rethink everything I know about curriculum design. 

The Oral History Workshop with OHMA couldn't have come at a more opportune time. I attended Oral History and Human Rights Work with Mary Marshall Clark and Oral History for Writers with Gerry Albarelli, and during the workshops all of my notes related to how I could bring workshop content back to my students. 

In the session on Human Rights work Mary Marshall Clark opened with the powerful statement that the process of collecting oral history is a dignifying act for the person telling the story, as it validates people’s stories and “documents difficult dialogues that would otherwise be lost.” Clark identified oral history as a multidisciplinary experience, a way of getting to larger community narrative behind personal ones.

As Clark and workshop attendees cited examples of human rights projects with oral history components, she emphasized that, “there is no pastness to trauma.” People all have a “need to claim their own narratives in most basic ways.” This leads to something Clark called “human literacy.” Different from the onslaught of information that mass media generates, oral history has the power to truly tell people something about all that information.

As I sat in the workshop, it clicked. Oral history was not just something I could use as journalist and a writer; it was something I needed to bring to my classroom. The students I am newly in charge of are all veterans of the juvenile justice system. Ages 16-18, the majority are on probation after varying periods of incarceration, many have open court cases with pending trials, and most have family members who have also experienced the justice system from the inside. All have an extensive history of truancy and a common loathing for school, without any motivation to earn a diploma. 

If anyone has stories to tell, it's these young adults. Their stories are not the innocent woes of abandoned victims; but for every wrong a student knowingly committed, he or she has suffered injustice in return. I can make these statements because, in the weeks since the workshop, I have been priming students to grab their own narrative reins and start becoming active voices in their lives by writing about personal experiences. This priming is important; the OHMA workshops inspired me to set the bar high and settle for nothing less than narrative excellence.

In his session on Oral History for Writers, Gerry Albarelli gave an overview of the methods and intent behind the life history approach to gathering oral histories and personal narratives. He offered many aesthetic standards for interviewers to aspire to, such as to “focus on objects. Include the concrete in every sentence. Hold your interviewees to high literary standards." He advised that, "Tension is a good place to go for stories,” and that “oral histories are stories that don't die…They gain rather than shed meaning over time." Using the life history approach is “improvisation within a framework” and requires significant intuition to fully evoke presence of the characters and places interviewees introduce in their tellings.

These are tall orders for anyone. I'm now engaged in the work of translating these expectations to my particular classroom. I teach English Language Arts and US History, so the final project for the spring trimester will address the question, "How do people overcome impossible odds and achieve their goals even with so many forces working against them?" To answer that question students will look to texts we will read in class, such as Enrique's Journey, which itself contains moments of oral history, but mostly they will turn to their own lives and the lives of those around them, specifically their classmates. 

In preparing students to become interviewers and interviewees, there are several hurdles to clear, such as the degree of removal. I will not be the one directly interviewing students; they will interview each other. How will I get students who barely read to hold each other to high literary standards? To differentiate between the kind of conflict that creates interesting narrative tension and the kind that leads to an open brawl? The relationship between interviewer and interviewee is one of trust. Can I build trust among class members who were dropped in a room against their wills?

I'm focusing on priming activities to make any of the above possible. I started by assigning written homework that includes the types of questions that might generate Albarelli’s meaty narrative, and the types that might lead to Clark’s dignifying experience of telling your own story. For example, "Describe a time you were betrayed. What happened to break a trust you had? How did you react?" And "What's something you do really well? How did you get really good at it? How does doing it make you proud?”

Preparing students to share personal information is one hurdle, another is teaching them to listen to each other. To practice active listening, I'll be teaching lessons centered on excerpts from the audio/video interviews in CCOHR's Rule of Law Project. Not only will close listening prepare students to tune into each other’s stories, the content models the flow of effective interviews. 

To practice analyzing what makes an engaging story and asking critical "How?" and "Why?" questions, we will be using the curriculum Voice of Witness developed around excerpts from its Patriot Acts collection of narratives of post 9/11 injustice. 

Currently students are working on a research project investigating who holds power and authority in the US, how power-holders got that power, and how to hold power-holders accountable for their actions. I encourage students to talk to and interview people they know as part of their research. I'm not yet giving them any prescriptive instructions as to how to do this, but by including "Personal Interview" among suggested sources, I am showing students that research means more than Wikipedia or textbooks; the most meaningful research can come from talking to people and listening to their responses.  

Pulling these pieces together presents a challenge, but I am optimistic that students will be able to use oral history techniques to become storytellers and storygatherers, and maybe in the process also acquire academic skills and discover curiosities they will carry beyond the classroom.

Read Rachel's blog, When Coffee Speaks.