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Writing in Social Studies Classrooms (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Oral History Projects

Oral history projects use interviews with real people who have experienced an event as the primary source of information. They can be used anytime the event or phenomenon being studied is one that friends and relatives of the students have experienced. Many teachers use oral history projects when studying about immigration or societal changes. Often the oral history project begins in the middle of the unit when the students have enough background information to construct good questions. The first time this project is used, it is probably best to lead the class as a whole to construct the questions. As this format is incorporated into other units, students can work in small groups to construct questions and finally construct their own questions. Students may conduct the interviews individually or with a partner. After conducting the interview, students can report to the whole class about what they learned. In many classes, students write a book in which each interview is summarized and printed, perhaps with a picture of the person being interviewed.

Oral history projects make history come alive for students. Learning about the flood of immigrants that arrived after a particular war and the personal and societal upheaval that accompanies immigration takes on a whole different dimension when someone you actually know was one of these immigrants. Students develop new respect (and sometimes even awe!) for neighbors and relatives often previously ignored. Teachers of two-language children and newcomers find that incorporating oral history projects into their social studies classrooms is a way of involving and validating the experience of students struggling with English and with a new culture. Of course, personal involvement increases motivation and engagement, and writing becomes a tool for thinking as students write down the questions, write down the answers, and construct the written summary of what was learned. The name oral history refers to how the student gathers the information but, for the student, oral history projects involve a lot of purposeful, focused writing.

Writing Your School’s History

Beverly Fazio (1992) describes a wonderful social studies writing project in which U.S. history students began their study of history with their own school. Using old school yearbooks, newspapers, minutes of school board meetings, and interviews with community members, students studied the history of the 84-year-old school. One of the respondents to their advertisement in the local newspaper soliciting information from bygone days was a 1918 graduate who told the students that their high school in her day had three grades and three teachers—one for each grade. The building that housed the high school had neither electricity nor plumbing. Men who had left school in the 1940s to fight the war came forward to decry the fact that they couldn’t graduate and to explain the lack of a football team during the war years—not enough male students left in school! (The article describing this school history project gives many details about how to proceed, along with other fascinating tidbits.)

Doing the school’s history involved oral history along with lots of other research using primary sources. Writing was involved in all stages of this project, which culminated in the printing of a real book, eagerly bought by students past and present. History and how historians “do” history was directly experienced by these lucky students of American history.

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