Creating an oral history documentary isn’t a typical high school writing assignment. But it’s one that can offer big benefits to students—academically, creatively, and personally.
In fall 2018, the Oregon Writing Project at Southern Oregon University teamed up with Stories of Southern Oregon, a video documentary project also based at the university, to offer a workshop for middle school, high school and college teachers in all subject areas on creating an oral history video using students’ own smartphones. The workshop was co-led by Maureen Battistella (Stories of Southern Oregon) and SOU Associate Professor of Anthropology Jessica Piekielek.
“We are always looking for engaging, authentic ways to get people involved in writing,” said Margaret Perrow, Oregon Writing Project director. “Empowering students to tell their own stories or stories from their communities is one of the things that language arts is all about.”
Creating oral histories can teach a wide range of literacy skills, she noted, such as conducting research, supporting main points with evidence, sequencing information, and connecting images to words in a logical way. It can also be interdisciplinary, drawing on history, politics, and environmental science.
Conducting an oral history also gives students “an opportunity to understand another point of view and relate it to their own experience,” said Maureen Battistella, a research anthropologist with the Stories of Southern Oregon project. “It’s a way to build empathy, compassion, understanding, and tolerance.”
Battistella, who travels across southern Oregon recording stories in rural towns and digitizing photographs, led the one-day teacher workshop. A series of workshops in the future will take teachers from start to finish in creating an oral history.
Stories are all around us, she said, and workshop participants learned how to find them. “Stories can be buildings, they can be streets, they can be people, they can be myths. It’s a matter of opening your eyes to your environment.”
Participants learned how to make stories compelling, good interview techniques, and how sound and visual can create “a more captivating narrative,” said Battistella.
Cassandra Costa, an English teacher at Eagle Point High School, said she was particularly interested in how what’s left in or out of a story, even inadvertently, can shape the audience’s impression. “What’s your responsibility as editor?” is a conversation she intends to have with her students.
Costa also plans to use what she learned for an upcoming narrative nonfiction unit in her creative writing class. She anticipates having her students research local history and interview community members in their grandparents’ generation or even older. “How powerful would it be for students to explore some stories that are never really told anymore,” she said. “They are definitely going to be interested.”