Michelle Skowbo: Who do students interview for their oral history projects and how do they decide on this person?
Jessica Fagen: At Voice of Witness, we help teachers and students across the country figure out how to create their own oral history projects. Typically, we have students interview either family members, community members, or each other. Teachers will come to us wanting to do an oral history project around a specific theme like cultural identity or connecting with students’ personal histories. The details of the project, including who students interview, emerge from that initial theme.
We've done a couple of oral history cookbooks, where students interview a family member about a family recipe. We’ve done an immigration stories podcast, where students talk to a family member about how they arrived in this place. We had one teacher put links to all of the different podcasts on a world map, so it became an interactive map where you could click on locations and see where all of the students in that classroom are originating from.
We also have students going out and interviewing community members. A lot of the time, those projects are around building relationships with people in our community. For example, we had a third grade classroom located in Chinatown in Oakland. Their teacher had drawn a map of their neighborhood, and then she actually brought in community members to the classroom: restaurant owners or residents, people who had lived there for a long, long time. Students interviewed those community members as a way to fill out their map of Chinatown.
Michelle: What do you do to make sure that the classroom is an emotionally safe place, while doing these projects?
Jessica: I'm really glad that you asked that question because it is such a huge focus that we have at Voice of Witness. We're really focused on ethical storytelling and talking about the importance of telling our story and what that could mean to somebody emotionally. We have ethical storytelling principles that we present to adult partners that have also been adapted into a student-facing version.
Pretty much every time we go into a classroom, we always run a discussion circle where we ask: What would you need to feel brave and safe enough to tell your story? We'll talk about what environment would make you feel comfortable, bringing snacks, or just establishing a rapport.
We really emphasize the idea of consent as ongoing throughout the interview process. So it's not just, can I interview you? It's thinking about every single question, making sure students let their narrators know that they have the option to skip that question. Or if somebody answers a question and later on they realize they don't want that part to be included, that's always okay. It's a rolling consent process where everyone has a mutual hand in the final piece. And it's really important to check in with your narrator and make sure that the final product is something they sign off on and are okay with.
We want to make sure that we’re accurately representing that person's story. We're not editing to make changes that might misrepresent that person's meaning or that person's feeling towards a subject. The narrator (the interviewee) is the person who owns their story. Just because you interviewed someone and you turned their story into a podcast, it does not make that your story.
Michelle: Have there ever been situations where you or an instructor have to intervene, thinking specifically about students interviewing each other. For example, when would you or the teachers and potentially step in?
Jessica: I can't think of a specific instance where we have intervened in the past. We try to design our oral history projects so students can choose the amount of vulnerability that they're willing to share if they're interviewing each other.
For example, we had eighth grade students bring in something that's important to them. Some students brought in some beautiful family artifacts and really went deep with the project, and other students brought in a pencil or AirPods. And it was okay! Students know how much they're really willing to get into when exploring their identities and sharing stories with people, so we try to leave room for that variation.
Michelle: So that flexibility prevents potential drama.
Jessica: We also let students choose their partners. We're not going to force them to talk to somebody new or talk to somebody unfamiliar, although I think it's a good practice in general, but for something like this, it’s okay to do this with your friend.
Michelle: What is something that you've learned about teaching and ELA students through these projects?
Jessica: Great question. There's so many different components. We collected data from our past students and saw that almost all of them talked about improving their communication skills and academic skills: their reading, writing, critical thinking.
Even more important was that so many of them mentioned the social and emotional learning piece: They were really talking about the lasting impact of learning about other people through their story, building a sense of empathy and this very caring, intentional way of communicating. We surprisingly found that a lot of the people that we interviewed said something like, “This class was the catalyst that got me to start caring about social justice issues or things happening in the world.”
And quite a few of them talked about how these experiences with oral history projects impacted their eventual career choices. We had a few different people who had chosen to go into careers where that interpersonal communication piece is a major part of it–like social workers, other educators. We have one person who went into journalism who talked about how the ethical component of the Voice of Witness methodology was really helpful in the journalism field.
It does seem like on top of the academic skills, the lasting care for community or care for the world seems to really come through with oral history.
Thinking specifically about our English language learners: we run an intergenerational storytelling project with an ELD class that spends seven weeks visiting a senior living facility and interviewing an elder. One student wrote something in her reflection, saying because her elder is old, he can't hear very well and so she has to repeat herself multiple times and speak more slowly and speak more clearly, and she found that was a really helpful practice for her English speaking skills. And I just loved that. I thought it was such a beautiful example of this asset-based thinking that we try to encourage.
The students and elders loved the program so much that we ended up getting a grant to expand this program even further. So, next year students and seniors are going to cap off their time together with a field trip to the Oakland Museum of California. The framework for the program will be around California history: how students’ families arrived here, what their senior partner remembers about California history, how their families came here. The field trip to the museum will be another way to start the conversation and get talking about memories and history and different stories. We're really excited about it!