Christina Bishop, a folklore student at George Mason University, taught fifth graders at Claremont Spanish Immersion Elementary School, conducting an oral history project that helped students learn more about themselves. Bishop recently wrote about her experience, sharing behind the scenes details about her work in the field.
Here’s what she had to say:
Once a week, from September of 2008 until the end of March 2009, I taught the fifth graders at Claremont Spanish Immersion Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, how to conduct an oral history project.
Because this was the first time such a project had been conducted at this school, I found myself having to seek out counsel from others who had experience with programs like this in other schools.
Paddy Bowman, a Public Folklorist involved in Folk Arts in Education, provided me with some fantastic sources to help me mold my lesson plans and know how to direct the students in their preparations for the "big interview."
My ultimate goal was to have each student conduct an oral history interview and then to take the information they learned and make a poster about their informant or "interviewee" to present at a poster fair.
After introducing the students to the idea of getting to interview someone, we began investigating what an oral history is.
An oral history is the recording, preservation and interpretation of historical information, based on the personal experiences and opinions of the speaker.
I also wanted the students to think about how oral histories did not need to only be conducted with older individuals, but that it could also be really interesting to learn the opinions and experiences of others their own age or only slightly older. When I asked the class what they thought oral history was, one student replied, “Isn’t it about connections?”
I don’t know if he meant that to be as profound as I heard it, but I was so impressed with his insight that after I closed my mouth from surprise, I responded, "Yes! It's absolutely about connections! We want to connect with other people!"
I was repeatedly surprised by the level of discernment I found in these students and their ability to articulate their thoughts.
The school administration wanted the project to focus on the community surrounding the school, because this particular neighborhood is a historical district and because of the nature of an immersion school means a great deal of multi-culturalism.
Because many of the students don't live in the same neighborhood as the school, I interpreted that to include any community to which the students belonged (ethnic, neighborhood, age, religious, school, etc.), which, in turn, adds to the overall sense of community at the school.
We discussed the different communities that we all belong to and participate in so that we would all have a clear idea of what we were discussing.
Students were instructed to choose an individual to interview that was their age or older, preferably at home, but it could be a neighbor or a classmate.
After exploring several options for subject matter, I decided to have the students focus the questions for their interviews on childhood pastimes and experiences.
During our preparatory lessons, the students learned how to ask good open-ended questions and follow-up questions and when they should be employed.
They learned how to do background research on their topics, prepare their own questions, and how to set up an oral history interview.
Each student was given a checklist of things to pay attention to, so that they could improve each time they held an interview.
The list included how to check equipment, how to prepare the environment properly, how to be courteous and how to be a good listener.
Thanks to Nancy Libson, Director of SPARK, the Cultural Arts Exemplary Project at Claremont Immersion School, digital voice recorders were made available to the students for use during their interviews.
It was exciting not only to expose the students to a new kind of project, but also to new technology. It helped them take the process more seriously and resulted in some really thoughtful interviews.
After they all conducted their interviews, I introduced the students to the very long process of transcription.
Although I did not require them to transcribe all of their interviews, I did ask them to choose one or two quotes from their interviews to type out and put on their posters.
I also asked them to include photos of their informants and a short paragraph about what they learned from the whole experience.
The interviews and the posters turned out so much better than I could have expected.
The posters were really eye-catching and for the most part, well-organized.
One of the best treats of this whole experience was the day that Nancy Libson arranged to have Arlington Independent Media come to conduct their own interviews of the students about their exposure to oral history.
It was really gratifying to see how well the kids actually understood what we studied for so many weeks and how much they really enjoyed it.
My favorite part was listening to one boy who had complained his way through the whole project explain to Arlington Independent Media how much he loved the project and how happy he was that he got to do it.
This was definitely a collaborative effort with help from all three fifth grade classroom teachers, Ms. Mich, Ms. Aldana and, Ms. Zamora, the principal of Claremont Elementary, Cintia Johnson, Nancy Libson, Paddy Bowman, and my George Mason internship Advisor, Debra Lattanzi Shutika.
June 25, 2009