The Student Oral Historian in the AP United States History Classroom

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Authored by

  • Glenn Whitman
    St. Andrew's Episcopal School
    Potomac, Maryland

When I began teaching AP United States History, I was determined to broaden the focus of the class beyond preparation for the exam. I wanted my students to experience meaningful, enduring, and authentic opportunities to function as historians. While the Document-Based Question provides an effective opportunity for students to think like historians, I chose to integrate a three-month-long oral history project into the curriculum. The "American Century Project" gives students a chance to make a human connection with the past that they will remember far longer than the writings of Jefferson and Lincoln.

A Practical Challenge

The idea of integrating such a project into an AP class challenges those educators who fear that it takes away from covering the breadth of material and developing the skills assessed on the AP Exam. That concern is extended by the outcome-based pressures schools place on test scores. Not surprisingly, each time I share the American Century Project with fellow educators, AP teachers in particular wonder how I can cover all that is required for the AP Exam and still conduct such a lengthy project. Invariably they ask, "Don't your scores suffer?"

My response is twofold. First, I do not attempt to cover every aspect of U.S. history, nor do students read every chapter in our textbook. Although I have purposefully chosen shorter textbooks such as The Brief American Pageant and A Short History of the American Nation, like all historians I must be selective in determining what is essential for my students to know. I believe giving students a chance to explore a topic of their choice in depth by assigning a project that helps them master all the reading, writing, historical thinking, and interpretive skills needed to succeed on the AP Exam will have an impact that extends beyond the end of the term.

Second, the oral history project takes place within the context of our survey of U.S. history, reinforcing and exposing material traditionally covered through textbook readings and lectures. The students begin the project during a unit on World War I. The end of the project coincides with their completion of an examination of the 1960s. At various points during our study of the American century, a student who is in the process of conducting an interview on the same subject we are covering in class emerges. That student invariably becomes a co-teacher for the course and is often better able to connect his peers to the material through what was uncovered in the interview.

As for my students' scores, I would argue that an oral history project actually enables them to score higher because of the higher-level historical thinking and writing that is expected of them. In the seven years the project has been conducted at my current school, 80% of the students have earned scores of 4 or higher on the AP Exam.

Methods and Goals

Oral history is a method that uses recorded interviews to preserve first-hand memories, accounts, and interpretations of a person's life, an event, a place, a way of life, or a time period. These interviews and supporting materials are made available to researchers, educators, and students.

Classroom oral history projects generally fall into one of two categories: biographical/life review interviews, and projects that usually focus on a particular theme, event, period, topic, or place. Our project is unique in that it is perpetual: Each class of students adds to the rich collection of interviews archived in the school's library. However, equal emphasis is placed on the oral history process and the goals for the final product, two complementary educational goals.

The following outline highlights each phase of the project and illustrates how each part contributes to a historically reliable and valid interview.

Oral History Method Training: Training students to understand the challenges associated with oral history as a historical methodology is reinforced throughout each phase. Such training actually begins when students discuss their summer reading of Studs Terkel's My American Century at the beginning of the school year and continues after reading excerpts from Donald A. Ritchie's Doing Oral History, just prior to the project's introduction in early November. Method workshops for interviewee selection, interview preparation, and transcription techniques take place during the course of the project. Students apply their evolving understanding of the oral history process in a mini-interview and transcription titled "Where Were You?," which takes place over two nights and focuses on the days surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Interviewee Selection: Students are responsible for selecting an individual of no relation to interview about a particular period or event in American history. This is a formidable, yet enriching, task for most students. The objective here is to take students out of their comfort zone by requiring them to interview a non-family member. Interviewees must be willing to sign a release form that allows access to tapes, transcripts, electronic publications, and additional materials, though restrictions can be attached. Without a release, interviews would be inaccessible.

Biography: Students develop a one-page biography (with photograph) that provides a sense of the interviewee's background and a context for understanding the place of the interview in each person's life.

Historical Contextualization: After securing an interviewee, students are responsible for a substantial research paper (approximately 7 to 10 pages) that examines primary and secondary source documents, creating a context for better understanding the interview. Students are expected to include in their source selection "newspapers of the day," as well as what leading historians say about the period, event, or person the interview covers.

Interview and Transcription: Each interview is expected to last approximately one hour, which usually equals six hours of transcription—often the most dreaded part of the project for students. Prior to the interview, students use their research to formulate a logically ordered set of questions that are refined during a conference with the teacher. Even with a list of prepared questions, the unpredictability of an oral history interview challenges students to think on their feet by developing follow-up questions for clarification or further exploration.

Historical Analysis: Students' ability to determine the historical value of their interviews is an essential skill in training them to think like historians. It also teaches students to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of oral history as a historical methodology. Students are required to determine where their interview fits in the existing history that they uncovered in their historical contextualization and how it might add or detract from an overall understanding of the American past. Students examine questions as to whether their interview was biased, if it shed new light on a particular period or event, and whether or not it complements or contradicts the research they collected prior to conducting their interview.

Final Product: Each student submits two bound copies of their project, as well as their interview tapes. One bound copy is archived while the other is graded and returned. An additional copy is also made and given to the interviewee.

Public Presentation: At the end of the project, students must present their interview to a general audience that includes their interviewee at the Annual Oral History Coffeehouse. This event celebrates the work of the student oral historians and celebrates the lives of those they interviewed. Over the years, students have transformed their interviews into poster exhibits, one-act plays, PowerPoint presentations, and video documentaries. With written permission, interviews are also posted on the project's website, making them accessible to a worldwide audience.

Conclusion

An oral history project is flexible enough to be integrated into the curriculum at any grade level and across disciplines, regardless of student ability or geographic location. However, when considering the benefits of an oral history project, the most important is having the same number of “teachers” for your course as there are students in the class. That is essentially what each interviewee becomes. Moreover, in a time when we continue to search for ways to help students connect with the past and develop respect for the experiences of earlier generations, what better way to do it than to have them speak with someone who can say, "I was there"?