History Speaks: Empowering Teachers to Incorporate Oral History

When Professor Shelley Rose broached the idea of developing an Undergraduate Summer Research Award (USRA) proposal around the practice of utilizing oral history in K-12 classrooms, I knew it meshed with one of my own goals: to invite broad use of the Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection, a growing repository of more than 1,000 interviews conducted as part of an ongoing project of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities. This born-digital collection includes minute-by-minute content logs and abstracts and a growing collection of annotated highlight clips, but it is still not a resource I could expect many teachers to utilize without some work on our part to share examples of how they might use content and how best to go about discovering and adapting material in the least possible time for their classroom needs. I hoped that our USRA project, History Speaks, might help teachers connect the local to the national and international in ways that enhance their students’ learning.

Over the past decade I have worked with both college students and K-12 teachers in courses and workshops that involved either collecting or applying oral histories for teaching and learning history. Students in my urban history course conducted interviews to inform curated multimedia entries that appear on touchscreen kiosks along the Healthline transit line. Concurrently, I served as Academic Director of a U.S. Department of Education-funded Teaching American History grant (The Sounds of American History) that supported summer teacher institutes built around the use of sonic history (historical or re-created ambient sounds, speeches, meetings, songs, produced radio or podcast pieces, and oral histories) to enhance teaching. Teachers incorporated sound, including oral history clips they made, into lesson plans to take back to their classrooms. More recently, my public history students took a series of previously collected interviews, used their logs to find portions that connected to their research topics, created short sound clips of relevant stories, and researched the local and national layers of context surrounding these stories through both primary and secondary sources, ultimately writing research papers and curating multimedia stories from those for display on the Cleveland Historical website and mobile app. Assembling their app stories, they produced a “tour” of sites that exemplified major themes in African American history told through Cleveland experiences.  

While these forays into teaching and learning with oral histories produced important products that aided in public education, they were produced under circumstances different from those that K-12 teachers face in their day-to-day work. With the exception of Sounds, which trained “master teachers” who shared their newly honed skills and materials with other teachers in their district, they offered no trail of crumbs for others to follow in adapting them to different settings. Minus the structure and carefully constructed timeframes built into course assignments and teacher institute activities, those who wish to incorporate oral history into the K-12 classroom must identify and adapt recordings in real time during their busy semester while being very attentive to how these materials connect to state education standards. Thus, one of the purposes of History Speaks was to investigate and disseminate a series of best practices and usable materials keyed to the current Social Studies content standards.  

In the course of the summer project, I was struck by how much oral history is available online but how uneven the content is in terms of discoverability.  Few collections provide the highest level of discovery tools. Abstracts are helpful but save the teacher little time. More useful are time-stamped content logs, which reflect one curator’s decision on where important stories begin and end, but these are very particular and open a window onto one possible interpretation of content while obscuring others. Logs that include more agnostic time-stamping at regular one-minute intervals are a little less subjective, although they also reflect one person’s listening.  Transcripts reduce subjectivity, but they are labor-intensive and therefore not cost-effective. Another problem with logs and transcripts is that they are almost never aggregated into a single database that permits discovery across multiple interviews.  Some sites, such as those that incorporate OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer–developed by the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky) timestamps or Soundcloud annotation, make oral histories more discoverable for instructors, but they are very much the exception among oral history websites. Further, they tend to “trap” content by allowing only streaming capability. Many teachers are not able to stream online content due to connectivity issues or school policies that govern the use of the Web. If unable to download MP3 files, a teacher may not be able to utilize such content regardless of how much work went into its discovery.

Discoverability was the watchword of the summer. A major part of our project entailed building student researchers’ skills quickly so that they understood the mechanics of oral history and the tools for curating an existing digital collection. I was pleased that the summer allowed exploration of major online oral history collections as well as the CROHC. Although the CROHC is organized in dozens of “series,” each of which corresponds to the circumstances in which its interviews were conducted (e.g., as part of a course or perhaps a community partnership), the collection’s organization, like that of pretty much all collections, does not readily lend itself to satisfying teachers’ need to determine how to find usable content, connect it to standards, and extract it for classroom use. The project produced a varied collection of short story clips annotated in ways that not only show teachers how they fit the standards and how they might be incorporated into a lesson plan but also provide both models and clues for how teachers might approach using the rest of the collection more effectively. History Speaks emerged as a resource that responds on two levels: an invitation to iterative development of new classroom content and an immediate go-to source of material. When linked to related posts created for the Social Studies @ CSU blog, History Speaks combines professional development support with a ready-to-use block of lesson plans that include sound clips that teachers can use right away. In short, it is a site that does not get set aside for “next time,” when a teacher has more time, but can be used right away. Hopefully History Speaks inspires teachers, through a sort of proof of concept, to return to do the harder work of bringing sound into the classroom in a more programmatic manner.  

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