Oral history can be a powerful tool to help students understand the impact events have on individuals’ lives, to expose students to the stories of people who are often marginalized in conventional history curriculum, and to consider how the legacy of the past continues to shape the present. Oral history gives individuals and communities the opportunity to tell their own stories and can introduce students to the power of seeing the past through multiple perspectives.
Oral history can be defined as “knowledge about the past that is relayed by word of mouth from one generation to the next” or “the practice of recording, archiving, and analyzing eyewitness testimony and life histories.”1
However it is defined, oral history always focuses on the stories of individuals and communities. People construct their identities through narratives, and when individuals or groups of people share their personal stories, they can be a bridge, allowing one person to glimpse other’s experiences or views.
This strategy is designed to help students engage with oral histories in order to deepen their understanding of how past events impacted individuals and communities, and to gain new perspectives on the present. You can use this strategy to complement a historical unit or to explore the history and narratives of people who belong to different identity groups during heritage or commemorative months.
1Kristina R. Llewellyn, Alexander Freund, and Nolan Reilly, eds., The Canadian Oral History Reader (Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), 3.
Preparing to Teach
A Note to Teachers
Before using this teaching strategy, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.
Oral histories allow listeners to experience the past through the lens of individuals and communities. Select multiple oral histories that touch on the same historical events or theme in order to allow your students to engage with different perspectives. It can be helpful to set aside time periodically throughout a unit or month to listen to oral histories.
The following resources may be helpful for finding oral histories to share with your students:
How to Use Oral History to Connect the Past to the Present
Explain to your students what oral history is, and if students are unfamiliar with any events referenced in the oral histories you plan to listen to, share an overview of the historical context with them.
If the oral history is shorter than 10 minutes, you can play it during class for your students. If it is longer, you may want to either choose shorter excerpts to play in class, or ask your students to listen outside of class as homework. As students listen to the oral history, they should take notes on any information they learn about the narrator’s identity.
Ask students to work together in groups of three to create an identity chart for the narrator of the oral history. (See our teaching strategy Identity Charts for more guidance on how to create one.) Each student should save a copy of the identity chart to reference in their reflections on additional oral histories.
If time permits, have students listen to the oral history a second time. Then, ask them to reflect individually in their journals or in small groups on one or more of the following prompts:
What historical events impacted the narrator’s life? How did these events impact them?
What choices did the narrator describe making? Is there anything we can learn from these choices about how to navigate challenges people face today? If so, what?
What are some differences between the world the narrator described and the world you live in? What are the similarities between the world the narrator experienced and your world?
If possible, repeat steps 2 through 4 with additional oral histories that focus on the same time period or historical theme. After students listen to and reflect on the additional oral histories, ask them to discuss the following questions:
What are the similarities and differences between the identity charts of the different narrators?
What are the similarities and differences between how the narrators experienced the time period they lived through or past events they experienced?
How might the identities of the narrators have impacted how they experienced the past?
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