Teachers Need Oral History and Oral History Needs Teachers

This week doctoral student Jennifer Standish turns our attention to building a mutually beneficial relationship between teachers and oral history archives, drawing on the experiences of the Carolina Oral History Teaching Fellowship.

By Jennifer Standish

K-12 teachers need oral history, and oral history needs K-12 teachers. This is the basic premise of the Carolina Oral History Teaching Fellowship (COHTF), which debuted last summer as a collaboration between the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) and Carolina Public Humanities’ Carolina K-12 program.

Unlike many professional development opportunities for K-12 teachers, COHTF recognizes that the fellows, who had been selected from a large pool of highly qualified applicants from across North Carolina, brought their own knowledge and expertise to the table. In both 2017 and 2018, these teachers came to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill for a deep dive into oral history and the Civil Rights Movement. They learned from Movement scholars, toured the rich SOHP archives of over 6,000 interviews, and developed techniques and tools for incorporating oral history into their classrooms. When the four-day workshops were over, the teachers chose oral history clips from the SOHP archive to incorporate into lesson plans or teaching activities that will be made publicly available.

“I felt like we were contributing and that made the entire experience valuable.”

The idea behind this assignment is that K-12 teachers—not just university professors and oral historians—are experts as well. These teachers don’t only participate in the COHTF to learn from historians, but also to workshop with other experts in K-12 teaching to develop concrete ways to bring oral history into the classroom. While oral historians are primarily trained to use oral histories as a research tool, K-12 teachers are trained to engage students in critical thinking and learning. In our post-fellowship survey, Watauga County middle-school teacher and 2017 Fellow Allison Hodge articulated this principle especially clearly:

“I thought it was a great model of learning from professionals in history and then using resources we have as professional educators. A lot of times professional development for teachers is more of a here-is-what-you-should-do experience, but this was very different! I felt like we were contributing and that made the entire experience valuable.”

Equipped with the skills needed to access and use oral history interviews, teachers can apply their own expertise in teaching to choose interview segments that will enhance their students’ understanding of history. Instead of waiting for the historical and educational value of oral history to trickle down from academia, students—guided by their teachers—can jump right into these sources. At the end of each oral history fellowship, teachers were confident that their students would benefit from listening to oral histories. Jen Painter, Durham Public Schools teacher and 2017 Fellow, explained:

“My students are typically very interested in and inspired by stories of ‘ordinary’ people overcoming oppression. These lessons do that in a way that is engaging, inter-disciplinary, and that works across language domains, including the often-neglected area of listening…This will be huge for my student to understand historical people were just humans and my students who speak English as a second language will experience conversational learning.”

In addition to oral history’s transformative potential for K-12 teaching and learning, bringing teachers directly into the archives may also have implications for the field of oral history as well. If we really want to take seriously K-12 teachers as experts in using oral history interviews, there are some things we may want to consider.

We accept that oral history is not simply a received document, but one collectively created between interviewer and interviewee. So, if we know that K-12 teachers may use interviews to engage their students, should we adjust the way we conduct interviews? Thinking more broadly, do we need to reconsider which interviews we prioritize? In other words, should oral history programs now consider K-12 classrooms when deciding into which projects to invest resources? Instead of trying to answer these questions, I can highlight what our teaching fellows found most salient about oral histories for their K-12 students.

“I hope that the actual voices they will hear from the oral history project will help them understand that these were real people who participated in the movement.”

Almost unanimously, teachers discussed how students would benefit from hearing the “actual voices” of those who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. “I hope,” explained 2018 Teaching Fellow and Brunswick County School teacher Lisa Chinn, “that the actual voices they will hear from the oral history project will help them understand that these were real people who participated in the movement.” Particularly powerful for their students to hear, many teachers believed, would be oral histories about or by people their own age. While the SOHP and other archives offer thousands of fascinating interviews with adults, K-12 teachers are eager for youth voices. Perhaps oral historians should reconsider how strictly we limit ourselves to interviews with older adults or dedicate more time and thought to interviewees’ younger experiences.

Teachers also noted oral history’s power to simply demonstrate to students the wide range of people who exist in the world and shape history. In their lessons, for example, teachers emphasized the voices of a teenager who desegregated a library in Oxford, Mississippi, a queer black woman who contributed to the legal case that won Brown v. Board of Education, African-Americans living in Appalachia, and Lumbee Indians who also struggle against racial discrimination in North Carolina. Many oral history projects are designed to highlight the voices of groups otherwise marginalized by prevailing historical narratives. Yet, are there groups or people whose value as interview subjects become more apparent in the framework of K-12 teaching?

In creating their lessons for students, COHTF fellows used the SOHP archives to explain why equal access to democratic processes is so important, to discuss why certain people and groups are written out of the popular narrative of history, and to affirm the role and existence of overlooked people in creating social change. Their expertise in K-12 teaching allowed them to use oral history to inspire and engage students while guiding us at the SOHP on reaching audiences beyond the academy. Again, K-12 teachers need oral history, and oral history needs K-12 teachers.

Jennifer Standish is a doctoral student at UNC Chapel Hill, with a research focus on civil rights and Southern labor history. She has worked at the Southern Oral History Program on the Carolina Oral History Teaching Fellowship during the last two summers, and will begin as a field scholar at the SOHP in the fall.

Featured image courtesy of the Carolina Oral History Teaching Fellowship 2017