Oral history has been defined as “a method of conducting historical research through recorded interviews” between a narrator or interviewee - someone with “personal experience of historically significant events” - and “a well-informed interviewer, with the goal of adding to the historical record”. (See UC Santa Cruz, University Library website.)
Of course, the phrase, “personal experience of historically significant events”, begs the question: what are historically significant events? And who decides?
At its core, oral history interviewing is story telling. It has been described by the “Oral History Society” as
A living history of everyone’s unique life experiences
An opportunity for those people who have been “hidden from history” to have their voice heard
A rare chance to talk about and record history face-to-face
A source of new insights and perspectives that may challenge our view of the past.
(See the society’s website here.)
Different organisations have established their own guidelines on conducting oral history interviews. They often recommend, for example, that there should be only one interviewer. However, it Is not always practical – or even, educationally sound - to follow guidelines like these in the classroom.
In any case, we believe that the important thing, in oral history work in the classroom, is not the outcome (the recording of the interview), but rather, the process itself: the encounter, the shared experience, between the interviewee, and the class.
For the “Breaking Down Barriers” project, we invited people from different communities, to talk about their background and heritage, and their experiences of migration. The result, we believe, was to highlight the contributions that different communities have made to the area where they live; to increase awareness of the environment as a shared space; and to lead people from different backgrounds, to recognise the things they have in common.
We believe that conducting interviews like this also raises awareness of the place that migration has played in everyone’s history, or background.
Moreover, it reveals the impact that historical change has played, and continues to play, in ordinary people’s lives.
And this, we believe, is where the real focus of history teaching should be.
For further information on oral history in the classroom, see the article: Tell Me A “History”: Oral History and its Role in the Primary School Classroom.
Photos from the Midland Actors Theatre “One Area Through Time” project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. For more information go to the “MAT" page, here.