Dialogue with the Past: Engaging Students and Meeting Standards Through Oral History.
We who teach oral history or work with teachers owe a debt to Don Ritchie and others for encouraging Glen Whitman to share his experiences with oral history in the classroom. We must also be grateful to Whitman's daughter Grace whose appearance on the scene gave rise to a parental leave and the opportunity to write and reflect on his decade of teaching through oral history. Whitman has produced an "all-encompassing resource to aid them in the integration of oral history into their classrooms or programs" (xi). He argues, "An oral history project is a natural fit into a history or social studies class, and is often associated with the U.S. history survey course." He calls for oral history across the disciplines (3). Whitman aims to persuade teachers of the value of oral history in learning, to guide teachers through the process, and to provide teachers with other voices and examples supplemented by a rich buffet of resources.
One of the more remarkable features of Dialogue with the Past is the compelling and skillful way in which Whitman has woven together student oral history projects, Web-based resources, national initiatives, scholarly monographs, oral history guides, and the personal narratives of educators to produce both a valuable guide and reflective commentary on oral history.
Oral history is defined here as an historical method that involves careful preparation and the production of "recorded interviews to preserve firsthand memories, accounts, and interpretations of a person's life, an event, a place, a way of life, or period" (2). These projects "require such a wide range of skills and intelligences. Through each phase of the oral history process, students are developing and refining valuable primary and secondary source research skills as well as their writing, editing, interviewing, active listening and questioning techniques, and their ability to analyze, interpret, and evaluate information" (2).
Whitman delineates teachers' worries about using oral history. He states that there are "Four major concerns that educators have with implementing an oral history project: it takes too much time, costs too much money, is limited by one's geographic location, and requires specific equipment" (3). He follows this up with a section on frequently asked questions that will put lingering concerns to rest.
Dialogue with the Past includes interviews with teachers as well as examples from many school-based oral history projects. He writes, for example, "In Allegany County, Maryland, identified by teacher Dan Whetzel as 'a poor town rich in history,' high school students created the largest collection of silk records in the country though an oral history project on the Lonaconing Silk Mill" (7).
Whitman quotes a student, "I think that the Oral History Project was one of the first times that I was ever challenged with the freedom of selecting a topic, actively pursuing that interest, then individually refining the results into a manageable product that could be handed in" (7). Another student interviewed former Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry on his work during the civil rights movement. The student found that the textbook account did not compare with the "detail that is given from a man who was behind the scenes and involved in the decisions at this incident" (2). Whitman dedicates a chapter to student reflections and testimonials on the value of the oral history project as constructivist learning and personally empowering experience, as a resume builder and a confidence builder.
Whitman uses his own "American Century Project" (http://www. americancenturyproject.org/) as the central case study throughout the book but he also draws actively and heavily upon the experience of educators working at different grade levels, in distinct disciplines, and in diverse settings to build a persuasive case that any classroom is a good setting for an oral history project. His numerous well-thought-out charts include one that suggests oral history projects across disciplines; for science, Whitman lists:
* Interview residents about environmental issues.
* Interview local farmers or miners about their work and its relationship to the land.
To which we might easily add, interview scientists about the process of discovery. While he does not include economics, I worked with a high school teacher whose students interviewed women about their economic and work lives.
Whitman's students, he writes, are "charged with the same responsibility as professional historians" and thus he projects going beyond collecting and transcribing interviews to evaluating and analyzing the historical value of the evidence gathered (13). He carefully breaks his oral history project up into clear steps which a teacher can implement: method training, interview selection, biographical research, historical research, interview, transcription, historical analysis, final product, and public presentation. He highlights these in a persuasive early chapter and then gets down to detailed nuts and bolts accompanied by student comments and examples later in the book. Whitman reaches beyond the classroom to show teachers how they can build bridges to their communities through oral history projects as public history.
Whitman draws on his own experience and his knowledge of teachers to supply distinctly valuable tools. Whitman explains how teachers and students may participate in national history initiatives--National History Day, the Veterans History Project, and the Sharing History Project with their own oral history projects. In one chapter, he reproduces excerpts from student interviews with boxed comments on the questions and responses demonstrating how a teacher and the student can learn from previous work. For example, an interviewer asks the narrator if he ever experienced racism growing up. When the narrator did not respond, Whitman recommends a follow-up question.
In the schools where I work, teachers must post each day the alignment between their lesson and the Ohio content standards and indicators. Whitman makes this task easy by aligning oral history projects with a wide variety of standards including the National Council for Social Studies, the Bradley Commission's Habits of the Mind, Maryland's State Content Standards, New York State Learning Standards for Social Studies and Language Arts, and others. Working with a teacher institute, we had no problem identifying many connections to the Ohio State Content Standards and the teachers gave Dialogue with the Past high marks for providing the tools that they need.
My only disagreement with Whitman comes over the way he contrasts doing oral history with using previously collected oral histories in the classroom: he reflects on the use of oral history resources by others, calling this passive history. This diminishes an appreciation for oral histories as a contribution to the building of a body of knowledge. Students should be encouraged to make active use of existing oral histories both as the starting point that Whitman suggests, but also as a resource to mine for any history research project. National History Day projects and others that use previously collected oral histories or no oral histories at all are no less active, creative, challenging projects in which the student can feel a sense of ownership. Whitman does, however, call for students and teachers to carry the work of historians through to their conclusions in thoughtful analysis of their own interviews, careful transcripts, and public outcomes.
In his foreword, James W. Loewen, writes "Also do it for me and the legion of other social scientists and historians who will come upon your students' work ages hence--perhaps after you and they are gone--and will learn important things about your community and how it was to live in what we, from our limited perspective, call 'modern times'" (x). We can already avail ourselves of this opportunity on The American Century Website. I am confident that this smart, thorough, thoughtfully crafted guide as well as Whitman's award-winning work will lead many other teachers and students confidently into oral history research.
Wright State University
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|Publication:||The Oral History Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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