Building community and ecoliteracy through oral history

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By Andrew Shaffer

For our second blog post of 2015, we’re looking back at a great article from Katie Kuszmar in The Oral History Review (OHR), “From Boat to Throat: How Oral Histories Immerse Students in Ecoliteracy and Community Building” (OHR, 41.2.) In the article, Katie discussed a research trip she and her students used to record the oral histories of local fishing practices and to learn about sustainable fishing and consumption. We followed up with her over email to see what we could learn from high school oral historians, and what she has been up to since the article came out. Enjoy the article, and check out her current work at Narrability.com.

In the article, you mentioned that your students’ youthful curiosity, or lack of inhibition, helped them get answers to tough questions. Can you think of particular moments where this made a difference? Were there any difficulties you didn’t expect, working with high school oral historians?

One particular moment was at the end of the trip. Our final interview was with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s (MBA) Seafood Watch public relations coordinator, who was kind enough to arrange the fisheries historian interviews and offered to be one of the interviewees as well. When we finally interviewed the coordinator, the most burning question the students had was whether or not Seafood Watch worked directly with fishermen. The students didn’t like her answer. She let us know that fishermen are welcome to approach Seafood Watch and that Seafood Watch is interested in fishermen, but they didn’t work directly with fishermen in setting the standards for their sustainable seafood guidelines. The students seemed to think that taking sides with fishermen was the way to react. When we left the interview they were conflicted. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a well-respected organization for young people in the area. The aquarium itself is full of nostalgic memories for most students in the region who visit the aquarium frequently on field trips or on vacation. How could such a beloved establishment not consider fishermen voices, for whom the students had just built a newfound respect? It was a big learning moment about bureaucracy, research, empathetic listening, and the usefulness of oral history.

After the interview, when the students cooled off, we discussed how the dynamics in an interview can change when personal conflicts arise. The narrator may even change her story and tone because of the interviewer’s biases. We explored several essential questions that I would now use for discussion before interviews were to occur, for I was learning too. Some questions that we considered were: When you don’t agree with your narrator, how do you ask questions that will keep the communication safe and open? How do you set aside your own beliefs from the narrator, and why is this important when collecting oral history? In other words, how do you take the ego out of it?

Oral history has power in this way: voices can illuminate the issues without the need for strong editorializing.

The students were given a learning opportunity from which I hoped we all could gain insight. We discussed how if you can capture in your interview the narrator’s perspective (even if different than your own or other narrators for that matter), then the audience will be able to see discrepancies in the narratives and gather the evidence they need to engage with the issues. Hearing that Seafood Watch doesn’t work with fishermen might potentially help an audience to ask questions on a larger public scale. Considering oral history’s usefulness in engaging the public, inspiring advocacy, and questioning bureaucracy might be a powerful way for students to engage in the process without worrying about trying to prove their narrators wrong or telling the audience what to think. Oral history has power in this way: voices can illuminate the issues without the need for strong editorializing.  This narrative power can be studied beforehand with samples of oral history, as it can also be a great way for students to reflect metacognitively on what they have participated in and how they might want to extend their learning experiences into the real world. Voice of Witness (VOW) contends that students who engage in oral history are “history makers.” What a powerful way to learn!

How did this project start? Did you start with wanting to do oral history with your students, or were you more interested in exploring sustainability and fall into oral history as a method?

Being a fisherwoman myself and just having started commercial fishing with my husband who is a fishmonger, I found my two worlds of fishing and teaching oral history colliding. Even after teaching English for ten years because of my love of storytelling, I have long been interested in creating experiential learning opportunities for students concerning where food comes from and sustainable food hubs.

Through a series of uncanny events connecting fishing and oral history, the project seemed to fall into place. I first attended an oral history for educators training through a collaborative pilot program created by VOW and Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO). After the training, I mentored ten seniors at my school to produce oral history Senior Service Learning Projects that ended in a public performance at a local art museum’s performance space. VOW was integral in my first year’s experience with oral history education. I still work with VOW and sit on their Education Advisory Board, which helps me to continue my engagement in oral history education.

In the same year as the pilot program with VOW, I attended the annual California Association of Teachers of English conference in which the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) Voices of the Bay (VOB) program coordinator offered a training. The training offered curriculum strategies in marine ecology, fishing, economics, and basic oral history skill-building. To record interviews, NOAA would help arrange interviews with local fishermen in classrooms or at nearby harbors. The interviews would eventually go into a national archive called Voices from the Fisheries.

The trainer for VOB and I knew many of the same fishermen and mongers up and down the central and north (Pacific) coast. I arranged a meeting between the two educational directors of VOW and VOB, who were both eager to meet each other, as they both were just firing up their educational programs in oral history education. The meeting was very fruitful for all of us, as we brainstormed new ways to approach interdisciplinary oral history opportunities. As such, I was able to synthesize curriculum from both programs in preparing my students for the immersion trip, considering sustainability as an interdependent learning opportunity in environmental, social, and economic content. When I created the trip I didn’t have a term for what the outcome would be, except that I had hoped they would become aware more aware of sustainable seafood and how to promote its values. Ecoliteracy was a term that came to fruition after the projects were completed, but I think it can be extremely valuable as a goal in interdisciplinary oral history education.

I believe oral history education can help to shape our students into compassionate critical thinkers, and may even inspire them to continue to interview and listen empathetically to solve problems in their personal, educational, and professional futures.

What pointers can you give to other educators interested in using oral history to engage their students?

With all the material out there, I feel that educators have ample access to help prepare for projects. In the scheme of these projects, I would advise scheduling time for thoughtful processing or metacognitive reflection. All too often, it is easy to focus on the preparation, conducting and capturing the interviews, and then getting something tangible done with it. Perhaps, it is embedded in the education world of outcome-based assessment: getting results and evidence that learning is happening. With high school students, the experience of interviewing is an extremely valuable learning tool that could easily get overlooked when we are focusing on a project

For example, on an immersion trip to El Salvador with my high school students, we were given an opportunity to interview the daughter of the sole survivor of El Mozote, an infamous massacre that happened at the climax of the civil war. The narrator insisted on telling us her and her mother’s story, despite the fact that she had just gotten chemotherapy the day prior. She said that her storytelling was therapeutic for her and helped her feel that her mother, who had passed away, and all those victims of the massacre would not die in vain. This was such heavy content for her and for us as her audience. We all needed to talk, be quiet about it, cry about it, and reflect on the value of the witnessing. In the end, it wasn’t the deliverable that would be the focus of the learning, it was the actual experience. From it, compassion was built in the students, not just for El Salvadorian victims and survivors, but on a broader scale for all people who face civil strife and persecution. After such an experience, statistics were not just numbers anymore, they had a human face. This, to date, for me has been the most valuable part of oral history education: the transformation that can occur during the experience of an interview, as opposed to the product produced from it. For educators, it is vital to facilitate a pointed and thoughtful discussion with the interviewer to hone in on the learning and realize the transformation, if there is one. The discussion about the experience is essential in understanding the value of the oral history interviewing.

Do you have plans to do similar projects in the future?

After such positive experiences with oral history education, I wanted a chance to actively be an oral historian who captures narratives in issues of sustainable food sources. I have transitioned from teaching to running my own business called Narrability with the mission to build sustainability through community narratives. I just completed a small project, in which I collected oral histories of local fishermen called: Long Live the King: Storytelling the Value of Salmon Fishing in the Monterey Bay. Housed on the Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project (MBSTP) website, the project highlights some of the realities connected to the MBSTP local hatchery net pen program that augments the natural Chinook salmon runs from rivers in the Sacramento area to be released into the Monterey Bay. Because of drought, dams, overfishing, and urbanization, the Chinook fishery in the central coast area has been deeply affected, and the need for a net pen program seems strong. In the Monterey Bay, there have been many challenges in implementing the Chinook net pen program due to the unfortunate bureaucracy of a discouraging port commission out of the Santa Cruz harbor. Because of the challenges, the oral histories that I collected help to illustrate that regional Chinook salmon fishing builds environmental stewardship, family bonding, community building, and provides a healthy protein source.

Through Narrability, I have also been working on developing a large oral history program with a group of organic farming, wholesale, and certification pioneers. As many organic pioneers face retirement, the need for their history to be recorded is growing. Irene Reti sparked this realization in her project through University of California, Santa Cruz: Cultivating a Movement: An Oral History Series on Organic Farming & Sustainable Agriculture on California’s Central Coast. Through collaboration with some of the major players in organics, we aim to build a comprehensive national collection of the history of organics for the public domain.

Is there anything you couldnt address in the article that youd like to share here?

I know being a teacher can be time crunched, and once interviews are recorded, students and teachers want to do something tactile with the interviews (podcasts/narratives/documentaries). I encourage educators to implement time to reflect on the process. I wished I would have done more reflective processing in this manner: to interview as a class; to discuss the experience of interviewing and the feelings elicited before, during and after an interview; to authentically analyze how the interviews went, including considering narrator dynamics. In many cases, the skills learned and personal growth is not the most tangible outcome. Despite this, I believe oral history education can help to shape our students into compassionate critical thinkers, and may even inspire them to continue to interview and listen empathetically to solve problems in their personal, educational, and professional futures.  This might not be something we can grade or present as a deliverable, it might be a long-term effect that grows with a students’ life long learning.

Image Credit: Front entrance of the Aquarium. Photo by Amadscientist. CC by SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.