History Speaks: Reflection from Naomi Randt

The experience of working with Tori McDonough under the guidance of Dr. Shelley Rose and Dr. Mark Souther has been nothing short of invaluable. I have learned a wealth of new information about the teaching profession, the historical process, and how oral histories can have an impact in the classroom. Our project, History Speaks: Using Oral History to Teach Historical Thinking, set out to make oral histories more accessible to teachers. Using the Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection (CROHC), we were able to find content that could be mapped to Ohio Department of Education Social Studies curriculum standards. Our effort of tagging and categorizing oral history interviews and the story clips we created was not exhaustive, simply because that was too big an endeavor to accomplish over a single summer. However, the work we have done illustrates their viability as primary sources of information and versatility in a classroom setting.
I came into this project with excited curiosity. The experience of working in an academic setting, creating tools for teachers, and going hands-on with history and other people’s stories was intriguing. It was particularly fascinating to see how our approach to the CROHC evolved throughout the early part of the project: from deciding on how to tag oral histories and which content standards to align them with to how those tags and standards shifted as we started listening to and bringing content out of the interviews through the creation of story clips. The process was much more organic and less rigid than I would have anticipated at first. As we delved into the collection and began listening to the interviews, it became clear that the initial search, in several cases, was misleading. Each interview in the CROHC has an abstract describing the content of the interview. Sometimes a keyword showed up in an abstract but was mentioned very briefly in the actual interview. However, the rest of the interview contained information that could be used in conjunction with a different standard. For example, one of the first keywords I searched for was migration. In the abstract for Russell J. Toppin Sr., the Great Migration is mentioned, but this topic is covered very briefly at the beginning of the interview. Mr. Toppin goes on the cover a wealth of information regarding Cleveland and segregation during the 1950s and ’60s. So, while his oral history could not be used to introduce migration in the United States, it could be used to examine the African American experience in northeast Ohio, particularly Cleveland. The true value of these stories was found through listening to them and highlights the need for stronger abstracts along with the availability for logs to be able to search the actual interview.
This process also reinforced the necessity to create strong, detailed abstracts for the story clips we created. In order to showcase the content and how to use them, it was imperative to provide teachers and those who might be accessing our work with a detailed account of the content covered coupled with the standards we felt the story clips related to. Overall, the process of plumbing the depths of the Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection, listening to interviews, pulling out content and matching it with standards was invaluable experience on how to think like a teacher. The rationale for what our story clips covered, and how they might pertain to a high school history classroom, speaks to the kinds of work a teacher has to do. The mantra of “always have a rationale” seems common among teachers. Hearing professors mention it in class, getting the same advice from Dr. Rose in this project, and gaining an appreciation for that sentiment through writing lesson plans has solidified it in my own mind.
Perhaps the biggest take away from this project, and there are a lot of great things to remember, is the experience of having to think like a teacher. Writing lesson plans forced me to consider how I would teach a certain subject or topic, evaluate supplemental information and sources, how to engage the classroom with the content, and so forth. The four hours I spent in the Case Western Reserve University Archives finding flyers and photographs of anti-Vietnam sentiments was fascinating on an intellectual level and then having to incorporate those into a lesson plan caused me to think about content beyond just the “wow” factor. As a teacher, you cannot include a picture or video simply because it is neat, or poignant, or stunning. You have to have a rationale behind it, a reason why it enriches your lesson, what more will your students gain by the inclusion of this photograph or that video clip. These are questions and considerations I will take with me throughout my career, and I hope make me a better teacher. I hope, too, that our work these past few months serves as an effective primer to the power and versatility of oral histories. With the power of modern technology and its pervasiveness throughout society, perhaps the stories of Russell J. Toppin Sr., Bill Leshinetsky, Roman Zorska, and thousands of others just like them–ordinary Americans with a story to tell–will find their way into classrooms across the country.
I wish to thank the Cleveland State University Office of Research for choosing History Speaks: Using Oral History to Teach Historical Thinking as one of its summer programs. It has been a wonderful, fulfilling experience. To Dr. Shelley Rose and Dr. Mark Souther for being outstanding faculty mentors. I have learned a great deal from them both. To Dr. Rose for her knowledge of Social Studies and the teaching profession. I am glad I had to write a lesson plan for her. To Dr. Souther for his expertise on oral histories and how to create story clips. Molding audio clips into stories that stand on their own was an especially fun enterprise. And to my colleague Tori McDonough, for letting me pick her brain from time to time and being a wonderful person to work with. This summer has provided me with a wealth of knowledge and new experiences that shall influence the kind of teacher I hope to be.
Our work will be on display September 3rd at the Undergraduate Research Poster Session from 10am-2pm in the Student Center Atrium. We will have an interactive listening station to showcase the many story clips we have created. As always, feel free to leave comments below.