Conversations Across History...

High school students collect oral histories of elders.

Starting at the beginning.

The formation of this class for high school students developed over time, finally resolving into the current Local Culture class I teach. From the start I have been passionate about what can happen in a classroom when the students are allowed to really become the researchers, discovering the history by reading, analyzing, comparing, discussing, and interviewing a person that can share their real life story about a significant historical event that has affected our town over time.

And so we gather around a table.

Students put on their Sunday best, load the equipment, and look over their notes one more time. Once on location, students work together to assemble a real movie studio, in between the giggles, smart phone checks, and snacks. Soon we are able to test all of the equipment, insuring that all is on go.

Let the conversation begin!

Our guest of honor arrives, our lead students take time to build a rapport with this person they've never met. Most of them are a bit nervous. There are a few nervous chuckles, but finally they are comfortable enough to be seated around the table. The conversation can begin. Most often, the very first question, after we take the shot of all of them gathered around the guest, is "can you tell us about your very first memory." This transports the guest far back in their memory, trying to find that early memory they can share. This is a question that they probably haven't prepared for. And that is good. Gradually, with deliberation, the lead interviewer takes the guest down memory lane. With each interview the trip is different, but with all of them we stop along the way to sit around a family dinner table on Sunday after church, play with their siblings on the swings in the backyard, and remember the shock of seeing Emmett Till's face on the cover of Jet Magazine as a young teenager.

Collaboration is key.

Over the years, we have collaborated with teachers and classes in other parts of the country. Our first and primary collaboration has been with the Urban School of San Franscisco, CA. Their oral history project, www.tellingstories.org, is a well respected, often researched source for those looking for primary sources about a variety of topics. Howard Levin, the developer of this archive, taught a summer workshop for teachers and other professionals to learn how to conduct a professional full length interview. It was at one of these summer workshops that I learned how to prepare the students and take the movie studio on the road to gather these stories. From this training sprang a friendship and respect that allowed Howard and myself to involve our students in collaboration across the country using a variety of technologies. They brought a group of students to Mississippi, and we in turn took a group of students to San Francisco.


Later in our progression, we were able to collaborate with the Overlake School in Seattle, Washington. They brought a group of their students along with two teachers to Mississippi to learn about the history and collaborate on the gathering of an oral history.