[Workshop Reflection] Who’s listening?

by Sheila Gilliam

Once upon a time, oral histories were recorded solely by researchers who tucked them away neatly into archives deemed for academic research; many were never heard from again. However, with the variety of technology available today, many former methods have been called into question so that valuable records may be fully utilized by historians as well as non-historians. Although I recognize the value of traditional platforms for archival storage, I, too, believe that the public, in particular high school students, could benefit from these living testimonies if only these records were given room to breathe outside of the enclosed spaces in which they are buried.

                      Steven High (bottom right) and Montreal Life Stories Project Participants

                      Steven High (bottom right) and Montreal Life Stories Project Participants

This is the very reason I chose oral history as a second career. After nineteen years as a middle school educator, I discovered by chance a professional development course encouraging educators to apply methods of oral histories within the classroom, an ideal way to link historical fiction, social studies and technology. As a result of the workshop, I came to believe oral histories would offer students an opportunity to view history from a different vantage point as opposed to its more formal lens. Plus, students tend to respond negatively to mundane teaching techniques of the past. In fact, educators are inundated with the need to accommodate varied learning styles and to meet the needs of a more tech savvy generation. In my estimation, the inclusion of digital technologies, oral histories, and project based research in the classroom is a win-win approach as compared to the federally mandated testing frenzy. Last month in the OHMA Workshop Series we learned about a collaborative model of oral history that I believe could be replicated throughout secondary schools in the United States.

Steven High, director of the Center for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, began his presentation by sharing his development as an oral historian, emphasizing the need to close the distance between history and the ones who record it. Over time, his projects have sought to include digital approaches such as sound walks, living archives, oral history performances, and online memoryscapes. Creating these projects requires collaboration between artists and oral historians, narrators and interviewers, and across the disciplines.

 What a real way of relinquishing the need to control the creative process and involve members from communities with diverse areas of expertise! This collaborative model would give students an opportunity to develop meaningful ways of engaging historical pasts in the present while establishing cultural tolerance and mutual respect. It is the sense of disconnect among generations that provides an opportunity to find a new way of offering these histories. In High’s case, the goal of shared authority is met by engaging with multiple forms of multimedia projects. For years, he has successfully led an effort in Montreal to implement this vision by focusing on stories of genocide and trauma in the “Montreal Life Stories Project.

In his presentation, he indicated the project was particularly important because approximately 25% of Montreal’s immigrant population is comprised of citizens who have undergone catastrophic changes; this population includes Cambodians, Rwandans, Haitians, and other French speakers. The uniquely designed project serves as a way to provide collaboration among all parties and eliminate boundaries among local stakeholders. For nearly seven years, Canada’s Community University Research Alliance (CURA) provided funding for this project to address the needs of a growing immigrant population through research and collaboration.

In order to complete these collaborative efforts, researchers must consider ridding themselves of the “my work” philosophy by entertaining the interdisciplinary approach that would also be highly effective in public and private schools. Each working group decides collectively how to build on the strengths of their community. Prior to the interview process, each interviewer completes a series of training modules, developing a shared skill set in oral history methods as well as cultural and historical knowledge.

The implications these collaborations have for public education are countless. A project like this would actively engage students and adults with 21st century skills and global initiatives. Despite their limited skills as “historians,” students doing oral history are involved in work that is relevant and therapeutic. For example, an extension of the project’s work with refugee youths involves a project entitled Roots to Rap With: Expressing Identity through Music. The nature of this collaboration bridges the lives of a group of culturally diverse hip hop artists with their love of music. In my estimation, incorporating music is an effective teaching tool that reflects the distinct cultures of students’ communities. I believe, with the unique and obvious success of the Montreal Life Stories Project, wouldn’t it just make sense to equip students with opportunities to use new technologies, engage with different methodologies, and have a fun way of learning about the diverse world in which they live? What would it take to replicate this project? Who’s listening to the lessons learned through this work?