Oral History in the Classroom

Case Study: Oral History in the Classroom

by Glenn Whitman

At its core, an oral history interview is story telling. So I want to begin this case study by telling you the story of the creation and evolution of the American Century Oral History Project, the largest pre-collegiate oral history project in the United States.

In the winter of my first year as a high school teacher, an ambitious student approached me about conducting an independent study for history credit. The one catch is that she wanted this experience to be more than about learning another period in history; she wanted to do history. I quickly called upon what was, for me, the most authentic experience I had as a student historian. As a Dickinson College freshman I had the chance to interview three Vietnam War veterans as part of a historical methods class. This experienced transformed me froma  passive absorber of historical information to a producer of primary source material. It also became an indelible part of my instructional practice as a pre-collegiate educator.

Thus, when this student sought a similar opportunity, the American Century Oral History Project (ACP) was born. Since 1991, the ACP has empowered, trained, and challenged high school history students to collect and preserve nearly 1,000 recorded interviews (as of 2012). Each year, every student enrolled in A.P. United States History or United States/European History Since 1860 at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland (www.saes.org), interviews a non-family member about a particular period or event in the past. It is a signature program at St. Andrew’s, a school that has particular expertise in linking research in educational neuroscience to best classroom practices (www.thecttl.org). What research shows is that most students learn by doing. The brain, the organ of learning, is able to store information in its long-term memory when a learning experience has meaning, or when students can make an emotional connection with the past

As one student said about her experience conducting the project:

 “The Oral History Project was one of several occasions at St. Andrew’s when history really came alive for me in a way it never had before. I have still not forgotten the name of my “primary source” and the history of the Scotland Community is never far from my mind. In fact, I have since been called/emailed/interviewed about the research conducted, people met and stories uncovered. Much like history, the Oral History Project never truly ends it becomes part of you, in a way, not only because of the history you learn, but because of the way you come to read and understand history in a more personal, connected way. It was a game changer for me because it altered my perspective by broadening and deepening it in the context of local history.”

If you are surprised that a project of this size is not more well-known, than you have hit on one of the most significant challenges we have faced bringing this collection of useable primary sources to the larger historical community.

The mission of this project is three fold.

  1. Empower students with the opportunity to create, preserve, and publish a useable primary source document through an oral history interview.
  2. Develop students’ understanding of the oral history process and the strengths and weaknesses of this historical methodology in comparison to more traditional historical sources.
  3. Make the complete voice recording and transcription available to educators and researchers through both an institutional and online archive.

There is no question we have surpassed our expectations on the first two goals, overcoming the three biggest challenges educators face in bringing oral history into the classroom: time, scheduling, and lack of training. As one student said:

I learned about diligence, perseverance and taking a risk. While looking for an interviewee I stumbled across a small website by a Beat poet. I emailed him and eagerly waited for a reply, not expecting one at all. Within the hour, he had written a lengthy and happy response along with sending me a collection of sources that pertained to my project [The Beat Generation]. Over the course of the next few months these emails continued and I got to know him for the great man that he is. If I hadn’t gone out on a limb and attempted to make a connection, I wouldn’t have had such a great interviewee. [I learned] that great history comes from taking risks and diving into the unknown hoping to find some valuable and meaningful information.

We have worked particularly hard at training our students to be effective interviewers while making them aware of their larger responsibility to the historical community. The students’ work is informed by the Oral History Association’s  Principles of Best Practices and they are trained in fun but informative ways through our Interview and Transcription Workshop and its “Bloopers and Blindfolds” activities (www.americancenturyproject.org). In short, 16-year old students, when trained in the methodology of oral history, can make valuable and enduring contributions to the nation’s historical narrative.

From the first year of this project, we felt it was essential that it be archived. This is particularly challenging for pre-collegiate projects where the fate of so many of them is to be completed but not shared. The old adage that interview recordings remain entombed in boxes or in a teacher’s desk remains sadly true. The desire to make our project available to the historical community began with an institutional archive. Every one of our projects is archived in the Dreyfuss Library at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and, depending on each project’s release form, is made available to researchers. In fact, the most validating phone calls I get each year are when graduate students desire to use our archive for original research.

However, we also recognize that a larger Internet presence also needs to be an outcome for an oral history project. We have taken steps to post online the transcripts our students have produced at www.mdch.org. Our students have also led the design of our project’s Web site that is not only evolving into an archive for transcripts, but is also a resource for educators. Thus, we have found that by harnessing the skill set of our most important resource, our technologically-savvy students, we are able move toward a larger virtual presence. In fact, during the summer of 2012, students will receive funding to help populate our Web site and consider ways to make it more user-friendly.

What makes oral history different from all other historical sources is the voice of the interviewee. Too often, however, educators who integrate oral history projects into their classrooms and programs lack the time, resources, money, and skill set to bring quality voice recordings to their projects. Even if a classroom project makes it online, what you often get are typed transcripts without a search function or the voice of the narrator. In fact, consistent, quality recordings of interviews are a big challenge as we conduct 70 to 80 projects a year. We do not have the resources to provide interview kits to our students. Therefore, our initial approach was that each student secured his or her own recording device that ranged from tape recorders to Marantz Digital Field Recorders. Explore the current state of our own project at www.mdch.org and you will see 670 primary sources available, text only and not searchable.

However, technology, such as the iPhone, is making consistent, quality digital recording possible for each interview we conduct. We are also moving away from solely recording the voice of the interviewee by using digital video recording cameras to capture both the voice and images from the interview. Students are also using their digitally recorded interviews to create historical documentaries that can be accessed through our school’s YouTube channel.

Fortunately, some exemplary online models exist. The model pre-collegiate oral history project Web site that combines both transcripts and audio can be found at the Urban School (www.tellingstories.org). Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project (http://www.densho.org/densho.asp) and From Combat to Kentucky: Interviews with Student Veterans (http://www.nunncenter.org/c2ky/) are also models we aspire to replicate. But this will require an influx of financial support and professional expertise not readily available to most schools. In the future, we will look to foundational funding and targeted grants to offset our costs.

Where do we go from here? Each year when I introduce our project to students I pose the question, “Who are we doing this for?” My response to this question is three-fold. First, the reason to conduct an oral history project is that it empowers students with authentic opportunities to be and think like historians. It allows students to be creators of primary sources rather than passive absorbers of historical information. The second beneficiaries of an oral history project are the individuals whose life has been validated by collecting their story. This work gives back to the communities in which students live and study. It is service learning.

Finally, despite their age, when trained in the methodology of oral history, students can generate useable interviews for the historical community. If the collection and preservation of oral history interviews were left solely to professional historians, far too many stories would be lost.  But it is the work of student oral historians that often preserves the marginalized stories for those historians living and yet unborn that only the recorded interview can provide. Thus, the experience of being an oral historian has always superseded our efforts to make this project more accessible to the historical community.

So what should you take away from the story of the creation and evolution of the American Century Oral History Project? First, it is critical that all students experience being oral historians. Oral history is a transformative educational methodology that is accessible to divergent student populations and can aid in the collection and preservation of historical memories. Second, voice matters and it is what makes oral history different from other historical sources. Whenever possible, the best quality recording equipment that your project’s budget can afford should be used with particular attention being paid to an external microphone. Third, archive. Fourth, lean on your students to take ownership of all facets of collecting, preserving, and publishing an oral history project.

The American Century Oral History Project serves as a model of what is possible when educators, their students, and interviewees collaborate to collect, preserve, and publish the memories of the celebrated and uncelebrated voices and experiences of the past. However, it is also a reminder that “doing oral history” is hard but rewarding work, and that creating access to classroom projects that meet professional standards is a gift to historians living and unborn.

Citation for Article


Whitman, G. (2012). Case study: oral history in the classroom. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/oral-history-in-the-classroom/.


Whitman, Glenn. “Case Study: Oral History in the Classroom,” 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, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/oral-history-in-the-classroom/


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

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