Oral History as an Educational Experience
This page is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. (note below)***
To be used in conjunction with the lesson plan: Doing Oral History with Vietnam Veterans
Defining Oral History | Benefits of Oral History in Classroom | Importance of Historical Empathy | Oral History Supports Historical Thinking | Planning an Oral History Project | Selected Instructional Techniques | Specialized Issues and Considerations | Student Oral History Products | Evaluation of Oral History Process and Products | Preservation of Student History Interviews | Oral History Websites | Preparatory Bibliography
Introductory Strategies for Conducting Oral History Interviews with Vietnam Veterans
Maryland Veterans: A Journey through Vietnam
Following in the footsteps of classroom oral history programs dating back to the 1970s, one unique oral history experience is currently taking place under the direction of Mrs. Jennifer Davidson, an inspired educator at Southern High School in Anne Arundel County. Mrs. Davidson designed a program that has students work in groups to conduct oral history interviews with residents of Maryland who served in Vietnam. It was my pleasure to instruct the students about the processes and products of oral history, and I was energized by their ultimate enthusiasm.
Students learned about the “twists and turns” of life, the moment-to-moment decisions that changed lives, and the backstories that made essential connections between biography and history. Ultimately, they used their oral history interviews to produce compelling short video documentaries containing interpretations that give new meaning to the Vietnam experience. Public celebrations honoring the veterans have been the culminating events over the last two years of the program. In addition, the historical documents will ultimately reside at the Maryland State Archives
A consortium of the program’s partners made this long-term project possible, including Southern High School’s Signature Program; Maryland Public Television; The Maryland State Archives; the Maryland Museum of Military History; The Martha Ross Center for Oral History at UMBC; grant evaluator Dr. Laura M. Wendling; and Maryland Humanities, which funded the endeavor entitled: Maryland Veterans: A Journey through Vietnam. Thus, Mrs. Davidson and her students also benefited from strong professional support that allowed the students to get their hands “dirty” in history as they recorded accounts never before documented.
Based on this model oral history experience, the toolkit includes instructional concepts, ideas, and strategies for use by educators to design a curriculum that reflects their instructional goals and the needs of their students while appreciating Vietnam veterans in their community.
Dr. Barry A. Lanman, Director, Department of History
The Martha Ross Center for Oral History, University of Maryland Baltimore County
Defining Oral History, and Defining Oral History as an Educational Methodology
Oral history is the search for a connection between biography and history…. Oral history is the creation of something new! Dr. Alessandro Portelli, University of Rome
Defining Oral History
Oral history is a method of research that seeks to preserve the memories of individuals who shaped or participated in the events of the past. Through informed and empathetic interviewing, the oral historian creates information about the famous and the obscure, about events in daily life and those of international consequence.
Oral history interviews are like fingerprints.
Defining Oral History as an Educational Methodology
Oral history incorporated into the educational setting is a method of teaching that accepts the principles of creating and utilizing recorded interviews for the purposes of instruction. Research and surveys have shown that four major cognitive and affective goals can be met through well-planned oral history courses, projects, and programs:
- course content acquisition
- skill development
- student motivation
- subject appreciation
To accomplish these aims, oral history can be applied by involving students in two pedagogical approaches, both of which engage them in higher-level thinking, the pursuit of historical investigation, the interpretation of data, and the presentation of products derived from the research.
- Active Oral History: conducting oral history interviews
- Passive Oral History: conducting research and learning from oral history interviews
Oral history education, while continuing to evolve, is proven to address educational mandates in meaningful and profound ways. Oral history educators contend that this form of instruction can make a difference by providing an improved method of instructional delivery while inspiring young minds to become enthused and enlightened learners. While no method of instruction is a panacea, oral history provides creative alternatives for progressive educators who thrive on the cutting edge of their profession.
The Benefits of Using Oral History in the Classroom
- Oral history brings the social studies curriculum to life as students realize that they are surrounded by, and are part of, the creation of history. Oral history makes learning memorable.
- Oral history is interactive and can put the student in the center of learning.
- Oral history supports cognitive development and affective instruction.
- Oral history supports Common Core in a creative and motivational fashion.
- Oral history supports close reading, research and oral language skills.
- Oral history develops strong oral language skills, which are an essential prerequisite to developing the ability to write well.
- Oral history encourages historical (and higher-level) thinking as students develop questioning and interviewing strategies; make judgments about the point of view of the person(s) interviewed; and analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the information from the interview or written documentation.
- An oral history experience provides a personal biography to a random set of statistics, dates, and facts.
The Importance of Historical Empathy
Oral history makes history personal!
When students shrug their shoulders and don’t seem to care about a topic of study, it’s likely they lack historical empathy. When students empathize with persons or historical figures from the past, they come to understand the past in a personally meaningful and memorable way. Thus, bringing in primary sources to supplement the textbook is essential… and oral histories are a particularly valuable tool for cultivating historical empathy and a sense of caring among students. ;
Oral History Supports Historical Thinking Skills and Strategies
Through myriad instructional strategies, the following historical thinking skills can be integrated into oral history research and oral history products.
- use of primary sources, maps, visual sources/photographs
- use of literary and/or musical sources
- comparison of differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions
- consideration of multiple perspectives
- comparison of competing historical narratives
- analysis of cause and effect relationships
- analysis of multiple causation
- historical filtering
- analysis of bias/the rationale for bias
By using oral history methodology and other instructional strategies, students should create an oral history interview that captures the “what” and the “so what” of history. (The content of history and the significance of history). By doing so, students can use historical thinking skills to analyze and interpret the primary source document created and develop an oral history product.
Planning an Oral History Project. Questions That Teachers Need to Ask
How would I use oral history in my classroom?
- Main purpose: Content, skill development, motivation, subject appreciation
- Develop a topic/theme
- Employ active/passive use of oral history
- Create potential sources of interviewees
- For student instruction:
- To what standards would I relate oral history instruction?
- What partnerships/community resources would I develop?
- How much time should be devoted to an oral history project: a term, a semester, or a full year?
- In what ways would I connect oral history with historical thinking skills and the construction of student narratives?
- What potential primary source documents would I consider using to support instruction of the selected theme? What passive oral history sources would I use?
- What products would I have students develop?
- How would I use technology to develop and support oral history processes and products?
- What assessments would I develop for the processes and products of oral history?
- How could the products benefit the school / community? How would I disseminate the final products?
- How would I archive/preserve the final oral history products?
- Other questions and considerations?
Selected Instructional Techniques to Prepare Student Oral Historians
The four jobs of an oral historian
- Create an oral history interview and find primary source documents.
- Analyze the information collected and/or created.
- Interpret the information collected and/or created.
- Preserve and publicize the completed research.
(Create a primary source interview and a new interpretation/perspective)
The ten steps of student oral history research
- Select an interview topic.
- Conduct basic research.
- Find a person or persons to interview.
- Schedule and complete a preliminary interview (to establish rapport, share information about the interview and obtain photographs/artifacts that can be copied and documented).
- Develop a question outline.
- Research! Research! Research!
- Develop a final question outline and set an interview date.
- Conduct the interview and secure permission (legal deed of gift).
- Write a thank you note to the interviewee.
- Analyze your interview and complete the assigned paperwork/project.
Fundamental techniques of oral history interviewing
Oral history interviews can focus on the following
- Biographical content
- Thematic content
- Hybrid content (combining biographical and thematic content)
Types of oral history questions
- Opinion questions (subjective questions)
- Factual questions (objective questions)
- Documentary questions (used to document validity, reliability, and subtext)
Structures of oral history questions
- Open questions: Who? What? When? Where? How? Explain…
- Closed questions: Did you? In what year? Yes or no questions
Research and questions can focus on the 7 C’s
- Before the oral history interview: Content Chronology Causation/s Context
- After the oral history interview: Corroboration of data, Constructing a “narrative” (written, video or oral), and Creating something new
Additional oral history interview tips
- Ask one question at a time: Give appropriate “wait” time.
- Use historical empathy. (Ask non-biased questions.)
- Use follow-up questions. (Ask the interview to explain.)
- Listen to the interviewee. (Ask the interview to define terms.)
- Take notes during the interview.
Specialized Issues and Considerations for an Oral History Experience Interviewing Veterans
Ways in which to find Vietnam veterans for oral history interview
- Ask family, friends and people you know in the community.
- Write an article for the local paper. Write an announcement for local radio or cable stations.
- Contact local military organizations such as the VFW, VA, military museums, etc.
- Post signs on bulletin boards (libraries, grocery stores, etc.).
- Develop a network of associates and people who can help find Vietnam veterans.
Develop core questions with the entire class
- Have the students develop a list of questions that will be asked to all Vietnam veterans.
- By doing so, students can analyze the varied responses and interpret the data collected.
Interview categories for an oral history interview with a Vietnam veteran
- Life before the military
- Reasons for enlistment or the draft
- Initial induction into the military
- Basic training/training for MOS
- Assignment in the U.S.
- Orders to Vietnam/initial reactions
- Non-combat experiences in Vietnam
- Combat experiences in Vietnam
- Personal relationships in Vietnam
- Leaving Vietnam
- Coming back home
- Assessing the Vietnam experience
- “Legacy” questions
Each category should have multiple questions. Follow-up questions should be asked.
Sub-themes that can be discussed with Vietnam veterans
- “Flashbulb moments” (Memories that are burned into the brain.)
- The study of turning points
- Compare and contrast different accounts during the same conflict
- Compare and contrast different conflicts
- Making connections with the present, then and now
- Issue analysis: studying different sides and justifying a position
- The “what if” scenarios of history
- A study of the progression of technology from 1941 to the present
- What does it mean to be a hero? (The rights and freedoms we enjoy are not accidents.)
- “The changing face of a hero” (the change in the ethnic and racial composition)
- The inclusion of the women in war from 1941 to the present
- The military’s role in advancing equal rights
Photographic analysis using oral history interviewing techniques
During the preliminary interview or before the oral history interview, have the interviewee select five to ten photographs that best represents his/her tour of duty in Vietnam. Have the interviewee bring those photographs with them during the interview. If the interviewee can obtain copies of the photographs, that will expedite the oral history process during the recorded interview.
For each photograph, have the students ask the Vietnam veteran the following:
- Why did you select this photograph as one of your most important photographs of Vietnam?
- What are the date, time, and location of the photograph?
- Who are the people in the photograph?
- What event does the photograph depict?
- What was the significance of the event?
- What equipment appears in the photograph?
- Do any unique items appear in the photograph?
- Does the photograph include any signs, vocabulary, or terms that may be relevant?
- What was the impact of this event (personal and overall)?
After the interview, have the students corroborate the factual data by researching
- The veteran’s DD-214
- The veteran’s general orders
- The veteran’s decorations, badges, and citations
- Photographic analysis
- Compare statements with other class interviewees
- Compare statements from interviewees found in archives on the internet
- Compare the factual content of the interview with credible publications
- Compare the factual content of the interview with published statistics
- Compare the factual content of the interview with published photos
- Determine if the factual information obtained in the interview was accurate
- provide documentation to support your assessment
- Determine if the interviewee was a reliable source
- provide documentation to support this assessment
An extended learning experience about Vietnam
- Have the students analyze their interview in relation to other oral history accounts.
- From the analysis, have the students develop interpretations about the following themes:
- Different eras in Vietnam and how combat changed
- How combat was different in the various regions in Vietnam
- How experiences compared and contrasted between the military services
- Compare combat in the air and on the ground
- Compare combat and non-combat experiences
Ways to demonstrate appreciation for the veterans who were interviewed
- Produce and present Challenge Coins to the Vietnam veterans
- Develop and present student letters of appreciation to the Vietnam veterans
- Honor the Vietnam veterans in the school and the community
- Have students continue their association with their interviewee through letters, cards, emails and/or phone calls
Student Oral History Products
Depending on the curriculum, standards, and educational mandates, the following are some suggestions for the development of oral history products.
The oral history interview portfolio
Portfolios may include: a title page, deed of gift, project abstract (250 words), photographs of the interviewee and interviewer, transcript or partial transcript, indexes, definition of terms, historical interpretation of the interview (three to five pages), appendices, and labeled copies of the digital recording or digital video. Note: criteria can be altered depending on the archival institution.
Additional oral history products
- Student presentations (presented in school and in the community)
- PowerPoint presentations
- Digital history videos
- An interpretive paper on various aspects of the oral history interview
- A newspaper or magazine article
- A cable television presentation
- The creative use of oral history quotes from several interviews
- Example: Any war that you fight, whether it’s on the ground or in the air… Friendships that are bound through blood and war can’t be duplicated…there was a feeling of patriotism in those days…it was your duty. General Robert Cardenas, USAF, WWII, Vietnam
- Student presentations incorporating multi-disciplinary experiences
- Student-developed theatrical play using oral history content
- Oral history presentations (Students recount oral history stories and/or portray the interviewee using direct quotes.)
- Be creative in developing ways in which students can extend their skills of analysis, interpretation, and their ability to create something new.
- The above suggestions include oral history products that focus on written, oral, and visual assignments, which accommodate different learning styles and academic strengths.
Evaluation of the Oral History Process and Oral History Products
Some points to consider when developing assessment criteria:
- What components are going to be assessed (process and product[s])?
- What criteria are you going to use (based on the curriculum and Common Core)?
- What methods are you going to use (letter grades, points, rubrics, etc.)?
Components of the oral history experience that may be evaluated
- The preparatory research process and finding an interviewee
- The preliminary interview and the extended research
- The oral history interview
- The oral history portfolio
- Oral history products in written, oral or media formats
Methods of assessing the oral history process and product
- Teacher evaluation (Also a team of teachers who have participated)
- Student: self evaluation
- Student: peer evaluation
- Evaluation by organizations participating in the oral history experience
The student interviewers can be asked to address the following assessment questions in oral, written and/or media formats
- What was the most significant fact you learned about Vietnam?
- What did you learn about human nature?
- What did you learn about the military?
- What did you learn about the bonds that develop between soldiers?
- What did you learn about history and the processes of history?
- What respect did you develop for veterans?
- In what ways did you change your initial impressions of Vietnam? Vietnam veterans?
Students can also study the following issues about Vietnam through the perspectives of their interviewee and then compare and contrast the interviewee’s statements with published sources.
- Some topics that can be researched are:
- Military technology
- Military communications
- Personal communications (with family/friends, etc.)
- Safety issues
- Medical issues
- The role of the media
- The ways in which the soldiers were treated by the military
- The ways in which the civilian population was treated by the military
- The age, education, and demographics of soldiers
- The “appreciation” of soldiers
- The experience returning home
The assignment may also have the students compare and contrast Vietnam experiences with contemporary military engagements.
Note: The student should justify and document their responses using historical thinking skills and high-order thought processes.
Preservation of Student History Interviews with Veterans
Of all the steps in an oral history experience, preservation of the oral history interviews is usually the least developed component. This is often attributed to cost, the lack of archival expertise, and the inability to find an organization willing to catalogue and preserve the oral history materials. It is imperative to consider this important element to safeguard and disseminate the oral history interviews produced.
Student components that can be preserved
- The oral history recording (audio or video)
- Transcript or written summary of the interview with index
- Legal agreement and other paperwork
- A student research portfolio
Organizations that can be considered for preservation
- State archives, colleges and universities, local historical societies, and specialized organizations relating to the theme of the interviews such as military museums.
Suggestions for teachers and students who are interested in archiving oral history interviews
- If a teacher and/or a student intends to donate an oral history interview or a collection of interviews to an organization for preservation, a person of authority from the organization should be consulted in before the project begins. Thus, the librarian or archivist can provide specific guidance for the creation and organization of required documentation.
- In addition to the above advice, the following techniques are normal archival procedures:
- For each interview, students should develop a document listing the interviewee's name; date of interview; location of interview (if relevant); and a brief list of key events, dates, or subjects covered in the interview. File names of all documents, pictures, and audio-visual files relating to the interview should also be created and will become an inventory. The data on an inventory is best collected on a spreadsheet such as Excel or GoogleSheets.
- If the student has collected copies of photographs or documents and has permission to include them in an archive, the student should create a file folder for each interviewee. The student should also record information about the documents, photos, or artifacts on the spreadsheet inventory such as the subject matter, date, and information about the collection of the item.
- Along with a written legal release, students should ask the interviewee on the record (video or audio recording) if he or she consents to the interview and having the interview archived. Copies of any paper release forms signed by interviewees should be included along with the transfer of any materials to an archive.
- If a transcript of the oral history interview is produced, an archive may be able to put electronic transcripts into a format that allows for keyword searches.
(The above archival suggestions were provided by Ms. Maria M. Day, Director of Special Collections, Maryland State Archives.)
Oral History Website Examples
Oral History Education, Oral History Standards, Oral History Interviews, and Military Themes
- Columbia University: Oral History Research Office (A leading university oral history program and oral history collection.)
- Maryland Veterans: A Journey through Vietnam, Maryland Humanities (Example student interview with Vietnam veteran.)
- Oral History Association (Oral history standards, legal issues and oral history education)
- Rutgers Oral History Collection: Vietnam Interviews (Oral history interviews with Vietnam veterans)
- The Distinguished Flying Cross Society (Example oral history videos with DFC recipients who served in Vietnam.)
- The Oral History Project of the Vietnam Archive: Vietnam Center and Archive (A leading source of oral history interviews with Vietnam veterans.)
- Veterans History Project (The Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center collects, preserves and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans.)
- Maryland Veterans: A Journey through Vietnam, Maryland Humanities (Example student interview with Vietnam veterans.)
Preparatory Bibliography for Oral History and Oral History Education
- Dunaway, David K., and Willa K. Baum, eds. Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology. Second Edition, Nashville, TN: AltaMira Press, 1997.
The sole source for a wide range of articles about oral history as a research method.
- Lanman, Barry A. and Laura M. Wendling. Preparing the Next Generation of Oral Historians: An Anthology of Oral History Education. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2006.
A unique source containing articles by over thirty experts on the field of oral history education.
- Ritchie, Donald A. Doing Oral History. Third Edition, Cary, NC. Oxford Press, 2016.
An excellent introductory text on how to conduct an oral history interview and how to develop oral history products.
- Whitman, Glenn, Dialogue with the Past: Engaging Students and Meeting Standards Through Oral History, Lanham, MD. AltaMira Press, 2004.
A book produced by a high school teacher that outlines many curricular strategies in a multi-disciplinary setting. Oral history processes and products are discussed in detail.
- Wood, Linda P. Oral History Projects in Your Classroom, Oral History Association Pamphlet Series, Cary, NC. Oxford Press, 2001.
A pamphlet written by a high school teacher with practical ideas on oral history as an educational methodology.
***Note: copyright and intellectual rights to the material contained in this website is owned by Dr. Barry A. Lanman and Dr. Laura M. Wendling. The material may be used by teachers for educational purposes with appropriate credit.
The oral history content was created by Dr. Barry A. Lanman and Dr. Laura M. Wendling
Sponsoring and Supporting Organizations:
National Endowment for the Humanities
The Martha Ross Center for Oral History, University of Maryland Baltimore County
The New Media Studio, University of Maryland Baltimore County
The Signature Program, Southern High School, Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Maryland
The Maryland State Archives
A Special Thanks to:
Ms. Jennifer Davidson, Southern High School, Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Maryland
Ms. Meghan Hryniewicz, Director, The Signature Program, Anne Arundel County Public Schools, MD.
Ms. Judy Dobbs, Maryland Humanities
Dr. Phoebe Stein, Director, Maryland Humanities
Mr. Dustin Roddy, The New Media Studio, UMBC
Ms. Maria A. Day, Director, Special Collections, Maryland State Archives
The students’ own words demonstrate the value of this educational opportunity
One student stated: “It was an amazing experience to meet and talk to a veteran.”
A fellow classmate shared: “I feel more connected to history.”
Another student participant said: “I feel very proud and happy that I did this… My opinion of history has changed... it seems much more interesting now.”
And finally, a young convert exclaimed: “This oral history experience was amazing. I learned so much and will never forget this!”