Resources For Teachers: Oral History Overview

We hope that you will discover that any teacher of any subject can use oral histories in the classroom. The oral history excerpts are short enough to use in a single class period, the lesson plans are based on objectives from the Common Core State Standards and the North Carolina Essential Standards, and we've included lots of tips for how to use audio-related technology.

What is an oral history?
One historian characterizes it as a "maddeningly imprecise term". The Oral History Association says oral histories, though an ancient tradition, were formally initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s.

At its essence, an oral history is a dialogue between an interested party (interviewer) and a narrator (interviewee.) Usually the interview questions are broad at first, allowing the narrator to share one's general life history, and then become more focused on a certain time and place. An oral history often allows a greater breadth of detail than a formal, news-oriented "interview." As such, they can be quite long, spanning hours, even days.

Where are these oral histories from?
The Southern Oral History Program and Documenting the American South are in the process of digitizing more than 500 original cassette recordings, mostly from the 1970s and later. These digitized versions are part of a much larger collection recorded over the years by UNC professors, graduate students, and some outside historians. All told, the University houses over 4,000 interviews from men and women from "all walks of life." Original tapes, videos and transcripts are housed in Wilson Library's Southern Historical Collection at UNC.

Why should I integrate oral histories into my [already packed] curriculum?
These oral history lesson plans are based on objectives from the North Carolina Standard Course of Study. Rather than replacing a lesson you already teach, you can bring it to life with oral histories. This means that you do not need to worry about getting "off track" as you prepare for end-of-the-year tests. Rather, these lessons will help you achieve important curriculum goals while encouraging interactive learning through immediate and real-life examples.

What will my students get out of this?
Oral histories are people telling their own story in their own voice. Part of the tradition of the oral history is to capture stories from "everyday people." Students may appreciate hearing the life history of someone who is a lot like them. Some students are also fond of technology and "something different," so playing an audio excerpt from your computer or CD player may grab their attention. Finally, oral histories are an opportunity to share a primary source document with students. Textbooks lay a great foundation of background information, and oral histories can make it real.

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