Incorporating Oral History into K-12 Curricula

Incorporating Oral History into K-12 Curricula

by Mary Larson

K-12 teachers throughout the United States have embraced oral history as a way of making classes more interesting, but they have largely approached this through two somewhat divergent means. By far the most dominant has been the effort to develop curricula that teach students how to conduct interviews. While there are some programs and organizations that have tried instead to incorporate existing oral histories into lessons, the latter is a much less utilized technique. In the first instance, relevant lesson plans are usually developed by individual teachers based on the intent of a class project, but in the second category, it has been more likely that curricula have been created by various oral history programs and archives and then provided to educators as a finished product that they can work into their current plans.

Over the last two decades, many educators have jumped on the oral history bandwagon by adding interviewing projects to their classrooms as a way of introducing students to both primary research and the advantages of oral history as a methodology. Any number of things stand in evidence of this trend. First, a search for oral history workshops offered at state, regional, and national meetings– as well as through separate programs and institutions– reveals an abundance of courses that provide teachers with the tools to turn their pupils into interviewers. These workshops predominantly address the development of lesson plans or projects that help to turn the process of conducting oral histories into a learning experience, taking students through a range of tasks including background research, interviewing, and the creation of end products that are accessible to the public in some way. At all grade levels and across the United States, wonderful projects are emerging from student-conducted interviews, and many of the teachers behind these projects have been honored with the Oral History Association’s (OHA) Martha Ross Pre-Collegiate Teaching Award, which is bestowed biennially.

The OHA is also involved with other activities that support curriculum development. OHA’s Education Committee is dedicated to incorporating oral history into classrooms at all levels, and it sponsors relevant workshops, sessions, and roundtables at the association’s annual meeting. As an additional sign of its commitment to K-12 education, in 2001 OHA commissioned the writing of the pamphlet Oral History Projects in Your Classroom. Authored by Linda Wood, this volume includes almost anything a teacher might need to start a student-based interviewing effort, from forms, to exercises, to curricular suggestions. An additional organization that is separate from OHA, the Consortium for Oral History Educators (COHE), is also active in supporting the use of the methodology in classrooms, sponsoring the Betty Key Oral History Educator Award and providing links to resources at its Web site. (Although there are no signs that the Web site has been updated recently, the organization is still understood to be extant.)

Most of the workshops and materials referenced above, however, are targeted to those K-12 teachers who want to start interviewing projects with their students, but what of those who want to introduce their pupils to oral history in a less extensive way? With educators increasingly being pressured to “teach for tests”, many do not feel that they can dedicate class time to long-term experiences like quarter- or semester-long exercises. They may, however, want to infuse more local voices into their lesson plans to make their discussions more engaging, or they may want to utilize oral histories to help students understand more about the nature of memory or the writing of history.

As noted at the beginning of this essay, curricula in this area are primarily developed either by repositories (e.g., oral history programs, archives, museums) or state teaching organizations, with an eye to providing something for instructors in a pre-packaged form that meets state or regional standards. As technology has evolved, it has become easier for these groups to make lesson plans and activities more readily available online—complete with supplemental multimedia materials designed to hold students’ attention–and this accessibility gives teachers an opportunity to incorporate oral histories into their lesson plans without having to commit to the completion of entire projects.

Most organizations developing curricular packages have worked with local instructors to determine what would be most helpful for them. Whether interacting through a focus group or through phone calls or surveys, polling educators about their needs is an important first step. These conversations have provided information to lesson-plan creators about local and state teaching standards as well alerting them to the grades in which regional history is taught. (For example, many school districts throughout the United States teach state history in fourth grade and again during one of the high school years. Knowing these details is crucial when creating lesson plans.) The oral history-based curricula that are currently online tend to list (some broadly, some more specifically) which state achievement standards are addressed by various lesson plans, activities, and exercises.

Collaborating with instructors involved with the Teaching American History Project (TAHP) has proved useful for many groups, because this constituency is one that has already exhibited an interest in history and has made an extra effort to consider how to effectively deliver material in the classroom. With federal funding for this program in jeopardy, however, these cooperative ventures may not be an option for much longer. However, pairings between oral history repositories and the TAHP have been successful in a number of locations.

A survey of online oral history curriculum resources indicates that developers tend to go one of two ways when producing materials for teachers. Either they create full-scale curricula, with themed modules, detailed lesson plans, lectures, and related resources, or they use oral history interviews as part of smaller, more portable exercises and short discussions that can be easily inserted into existing lessons. The more extensive curricula are often developed around larger topics, such as the Civil Rights Movement, World War II, or the Great Depression. Because these are issues that might normally receive a more thorough treatment in classrooms due to their importance on a national as well as local scale, teachers do not have to feel like they are taking away from a required topic if they use the longer lesson plans.

The shorter curricular options—the discussion questions and other activities—still give teachers an opportunity to incorporate oral history in their lessons, however. On the Web there are examples of a wide variety of materials, ranging from starting points for conversations on serious topics to lighter crossword puzzles and scavenger hunts, which require students to read or listen to oral history interviews to find the answers. Many free software programs are also available for creating crosswords, word searches, games, and worksheets, and these make development of these activities simple and inexpensive.

In a number of states, oral historians have collaborated with the nationwide Newspapers in Education program, and the results of a number of these cooperative ventures are online as well. Depending on the focus and funding for state or local projects, opportunities exist to develop everything from full-scale lesson plans to shorter, informational pieces combining oral histories with classroom activities.

While recent developments in technology (and attendant conversations about ethics) have allowed oral history programs to make large amounts of material available online, many educators have rued the day that they wished for more Web resources, since an overabundance of interviews can be just as daunting as a complete lack of them. Most oral history programs, however, do tend to provide subject guides to their collections, whether they develop curriculum packages or not. Teachers have noted that these have proven to be valuable assets when they want to use local voices to get their students more engaged in topics that younger people might otherwise find boring. These topical guides give instructors some guidance as to where to look for information and they narrow down the myriad choices they would otherwise have.

Across the board, a few main suggestions have been made by oral history repositories that have experience in developing various types of packages for educators. First, it is necessary to be aware that statewide achievement standards are not static, and any change in them may require updating any curricula that have already been developed (either in terms of the baseline skills listed or the lesson plans themselves). Second, those repositories working with professional curriculum developers need to be sure that they have contracted with someone who is knowledgeable about oral history, or, if not, they need to realize that the process will have to be very collaborative in order to take advantage of oral history’s strengths when creating lesson plans. Third, recognize that home-schoolers represent an important part of the educational constituency and that, because they may have more flexibility in how they conduct and structure their classes, they may be even more open to using oral history as either a methodology or a resource for their lessons. The same is true for some charter schools and Montessori centers.

In the end, what is clear is that more and more resources are available for teachers, whether they want their students to learn by doing oral histories or by accessing existing ones. With the technological advances of the last 20 years, guidelines and content for curriculum development are more easily accessible than ever, and instructors have a wide range of options, regardless of whether they are limited to utilizing short exercises or have the freedom to do nine-week projects. There are templates or examples out there for just about every imaginable type of project, lesson plan, or activity, so no matter how instructors decide to introduce their students to oral history, there will be a clearly marked path that they can follow.

Citation for Article


Larson, M. (2012). Incorporating oral history into k-12 curricula. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from


Larson, Mary. “Incorporating Oral History into K-12 Curricula,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012,


This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project ( sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Please consult for information on rights, licensing, and citation. 

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