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Early in my career as an educator, I decided to compile an oral history of my students. I was inspired by StoryCorps, a nationwide effort to compile the oral history of the United States. The intention of StoryCorps is not only historical in nature, but also to promote the art of listening as an act of love – and who doesn’t need more of that in the classroom?! Becoming familiar with the StoryCorps project and introducing it to your students is a great way to introduce your own oral history project in your class.
In my class, we have not only compiled our own oral histories, but listen to the histories of others from the StoryCorps' website every Friday in class. It is five minutes of time that is truly anticipated and well-received by all of my students.
You might be asking how creating an oral history is relevant in a content area classroom. I teach biology, so have taken a biological theme for my oral history project. A chemistry teacher or math teacher may wish to do the same.
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Gather Your Materials
In order to record oral histories of your students you will need the following:
- 1 journal per student
- 3-4 minutes of classtime a few times per week
- 5 -10 minutes per student interview
- A digital voice recorder
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Introduce the Oral History Project
Begin by defining what an oral history is to your class. Ask your class to contemplate why it is important for a country or culture to compile an oral history. Tell your students that you will, as a class, compile a history.
I inform my students that ours will be about biology (health, the environment, technology, etc) and the many ways it affects our lives. From that day on, I ask the students to keep a journal (or a few pages in their science notebook) to record all of the ways that biology influences our lives. I give them 3 or 4 minutes to do this at least 3 times per week.
Ultimately, these reflections will be what they talk about in their oral history piece.
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Schedule the Interviews
Toward the end of the school year, it is time to record the oral history. I choose to interview each student privately outside of class. I place a schedule on my door and allow students to sign up for a 10-15 minute period before or after school.
The students appreciate knowing in advance when they will be interviewed and often feel more comfortable as they can choose to prepare.
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Conduct the Interviews
Each interview is as unique and special as each of my students. I start my digital voice recorder and begin by asking a general question such as the following:
How did you feel about science before this class? Before this class, did science make a difference in your life?
Based on their answers, the interview will progress in an individual way. Some students need only a few questions to convey what they want to say while others need several. Many students will tell a story of self-discovery while others will describe something in science that bothers them and they wish to change – like cancer or global warming.
Each interview lasts between 5 and 10 minutes. I ask each student if they are comfortable with their interview being listened to by others. If they are, then the rest of the class will have the opportunity to listen to it on our Oral History Day at the end of the year.
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Conclusion of the Project: Oral History Day
On the last day of class, we have an Oral History Day where we listen to our ideas and impressions that biology has made on our lives.
The students love to hear their voices and especially love to hear the interview from students of the past years. Some of them are humorous, some are inspiring and others touch your heart. Not only is this is a great way to promote listening and communicating in the classroom, but it creates a special sense of community and ownership over some piece of the biological world.