It hit me. This past summer, I panicked. I had never stopped to interview my 95-year old grandmother, Sara Whalen, who has had experienced so much during her life. From the time I was born until I moved out of my parents’ home in 2008, my grandmother had lived in the same house as me. However, I had never sat down with her to interview her about her life. I immediately worried that it was going to be too late.
Using the framework from the Veteran’s History Project, I focused my attention in August of 2016 on interviewing grandma. I prepared interview questions, researched the Women’s Army Corp and its contributions during World War II, read over handwritten letters and records of my grandma, and viewed numerous artifacts and photos from her life. I sat down across from her, with my iPad recording, and had a conversation about her life. I heard about her early life in an orphanage, her relationship with her step-father that led her to join the service, experiences in the WAC, and life after the war. Sadly, she would show her age at times, repeating stories that she had just told me. Sometimes, she would use vocabulary that may not be considered “PC” today. Still, I had it. I had her story to share with the VHP. This process, though, left me kicking myself. Why had I not done this earlier in my life and in hers? Surely, her story would have been more vivid, details more sharp in her mind. If I had only done this when I was in middle school in the late 1990s, I would have a more polished and authentic piece of history. If only…
This led me to realize how powerful an experience this would have been if I did this years earlier. During that conversation with grandma, I learned things I had never known. I felt more connected to her (and my) past by simply having a conversation. I had to share her story.
My students HAD to have this opportunity. But, how would it “fit”? Thankfully, I have an incredible English teacher on my team in my building, who was more than willing to amend and augment the annual our 8th grade research paper to revolutionize it to be something more meaningful. Over the course of an iMessage conversation this summer, we moved from a 5 paragraph essay on a westward expansion figure, to a project that had a few basic principles and goals:
- Connect our students with the community and/or a family member
- Conduct primary source research using archived newspapers and magazines to promote historical thinking skills
- Employ the services of our library/media specialist to teach database research skills
- Organize research into focus areas and develop a thesis that encompasses both the oral history and student research from legitimate primary & secondary sources
- Author a 5 paragraph essay that intertwines research with the oral history
- Create an multi-touch interactive iBook chapter per student that archives an image, the full audio interview of the student, and the student work.
- Design and release 5 volumes of multi-touch interactive iBooks available to the community (and the world!) to highlight student learning by the Spring of 2017
This project was a team effort on all angles. Prior to the holiday break in December, students learned of the project and used the break to make connections to relatives to figure out what significant event they would want to research and who they would want to interview. After the break, students watched my grandma’s interview as a guide and began to write their interview questions in English class. With the assistance of our library/media specialist, our English teacher did a fantastic job in explaining how to locate primary sources using Google News Archive in addition to utilizing databases that our school has access to this year. Moreover, she introduced NoodleTools, a web-based tool to cite sources, create focus areas, and create note cards, before seamlessly moving thoughts into an outline.
Many students went above and beyond. Several students elected to interview grandparents and great grandparents on the topic of the Great Depression and World War II. The Vietnam War was one of the more prominent topics as well. Still, some students reached out to relatives around the world, with one student interviewing a relative about the first post-apartheid election in South Africa while another interviewed her grandfather about living under Mao during many of his reforms. Some topics included significant personal tragedies, including a Holocaust survivor now living in Washington state, Kosovo under Slobadan Milosevic, a NYC emergency call center employee on 9/11, and a Washington, D.C. Air Traffic controller on 9/11, to name a few. Some topics were very local, including the closing of a local theme park that was part of the community, a major blizzard in the city, the decline of the steel industry, and how flooding impacted the region at various times.
No matter the topic, students reported an underlying theme: they became more connected to those they interviewed and took a greater interest in their topics. The community undoubtedly stepped up as well to contribute to student learning, which was simply awesome. I have the utmost respect for the English teacher that led the note-taking, focus area, thesis development, editing, and writing of the papers. As mentioned, our librarian and special education staff jumped right in as well. Many members of our teaching staff volunteered to be interviewed as well.
My role in this project was that of a guide of historical research, oral history, and, on the educational technology side, developing and releasing our class iBooks, which will be released on the Apple iTunes Store in late March or early April. Students certainly took ownership of their own learning, while being guided by our English teacher and supported by the community. It will come full circle when the students “give back” to the community members that assisted them as we are working on creating a book that archives such astounding stories and personal contributions to our local, national, and world history. A bridge was truly built using oral history and primary source research, and I have so many to thank for it, notably the English teacher on my team that was so willing to not only adapt to the oral history idea, but to completely redesign her research guides and templates and instruct students how to intertwine oral histories, primary, and secondary sources to make it happen.