The core focus of K–12 ethnic studies is to provide students with the opportunity to learn about largely omitted histories, cultures, struggles, and contributions of marginalized groups. Distinct from a textbook-based course, ethnic studies encourages students to study texts authored by people of color who have firsthand experiences with the issues in question.
In addition to content requirements, these courses use a project-based learning approach to equip students with the tools to participate as community members in a changing democratic society.
As an English language arts and ethnic studies teacher, I found that centering oral history in the classroom engaged students in curricular themes such as identity and community engagement.
Reading oral histories allowed students to better understand injustice through first-person perspectives. And leading students through their own oral history projects encouraged interpersonal communication, empathy, and social and emotional skills.
After witnessing the power of these pedagogies firsthand, I’ve created several strategies and suggestions for other teachers looking to incorporate oral history into the ethnic studies classroom, though the practices are equally transferable to English language arts, history, and more.
WHAT IS ORAL HISTORY?
Oral history is a method of gathering, preserving, and interpreting the voices and memories of people and communities. The oral history process begins with a long-form, open-ended interview in which the narrator recounts stories from their life. While the narrator may have lived through a significant historical moment or personal hardship, oral history focuses on a person’s complete lived experience rather than limiting the conversation to a single event.
The recorded interview is edited and presented in an aural, audiovisual, transcript, or narrative format. For students, it is helpful to define oral history as a chance for a person to share their own story, in their own words.
READING ORAL HISTORIES
In reading oral history narratives, students have the unique opportunity to learn directly from individuals who witnessed omitted histories and undervalued contributions—which are often left out of mainstream curricula. By doing so, students examine the power of telling one’s story and the impact that personal narratives have on the democratization of history.
A foundational text in many ethnic studies classrooms is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” Here, students learn about the dehumanization and stereotyping that results from reducing a particular group to a single story. Teachers might introduce the idea of a dominant narrative—an often-incomplete version of history presented by the dominant culture.
In such a scenario, oral history can offer students a counternarrative—a story with the power to complicate or contradict the dominant narrative. A compare-contrast activity helps illustrate what is left out.
For example, invite students to read a news article or textbook chapter about a particular historical event, then read a selection of oral histories from people who lived through that same moment. This activity can occur in any ethnic studies unit regardless of the content focus and can address many of the course’s essential questions, including these:
- Which voices or perspectives are historically included in dominant narratives? Who or what is silenced or left out?
- What role do stories play in developing a better understanding of other people, cultures, and ethnic groups?
STUDENTS AS ORAL HISTORIANS: PROJECT-BASED LEARNING
For a culturally responsive, project-based learning opportunity, you can invite students to further explore these questions by conducting their own oral history projects in their communities. The interviews can focus on an ethnic studies theme that fits your unit, such as identity; migration and displacement; action and resistance; or community and belonging. Students can edit their oral history projects and compile and present them as a PowerPoint presentation, podcast, digital or physical book, website—even a cookbook. Ask your students to consider how the format of their work might inform its content.
As students prepare for their interviews, they should focus on an essential question geared toward developing interpersonal communication skills, such as “What strategies are effective for respectfully discussing personal and serious topics?” Be prepared to discuss consent, confidentiality, and respect in an interview context, then guide students through writing thoughtful, nonleading, open-ended questions.
In editing and presenting their oral history projects, students will have the experience of creating a cohesive final product that honors the narrator’s voice and identity and amplifies an issue that is important to their community.
COMMUNITY ACTION PROJECTS WITH ORAL HISTORY
While all oral history projects are meaningful opportunities to engage with community, teachers may choose to bring in a civic action or Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) focus to support units on social movements and creating change. In this type of project, students use oral histories to highlight a particular issue and present an idea or call to action.
Creating an oral history community map is an excellent way to aggregate interviews as community data. Starting small and focusing on the school community is helpful for students new to research and action projects. For example, students may choose to interview other students, teachers, and staff about an important community space in the school that has been affected by a lack of resources (e.g., a library, a health office, or an outdoor space). They can then place excerpts from the interviews on a digital or physical map of the school and present to administrators or the school board this call for change.
Advanced students can expand their community mapping projects to their neighborhood or city, creating a similar oral history map focusing on gentrification, urban blight, safety, parks, housing, or another relevant topic.
One of the benefits of integrating oral history into a YPAR project is the unexpected stories that come from students’ research. Since oral history interviews are designed to be open-ended, the conversation may take a detour into topics that might ignite student interest or deepen understanding and connection.
Overall, using oral history in an ethnic studies classroom is a valuable way to engage students, personalize history, and amplify the voices of individuals impacted by injustice. For more activities and strategies, you might visit The Power of the Story, an oral history guide for teachers, along with resources for English language learners.