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TeacherLore

Oral history video available

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Project Director
Michael L. Umphrey

Mike Umphrey hopes that lots of teachers in Montana will engage students in learning about the people in their communities this year. To help make that possible, the Montana Heritage Project, which he directs, has created a 40-minute DVD--"When History Speaks"--to show students what they need to know to get started on oral history projects.

He believes that doing oral interview projects helps teachers and students think in fresh ways about the power of learning. “Kids--all of us really--need something that shakes us awake. We need to be stopped by wonder. That’s more likely to happen when we head out into the community and begin asking questions about what’s really happening.

“How is the drought affecting people? What happened in droughts in the past? What do people think is going to happen now?

“What’s the worst thing that ever happened here? Was it a flood or a fire or a train wreck or a war? How did it happen? What did people do? Were there any heros? What were their names? How did they end up?”

“What are those big old buildings sitting empty down the street? Who built them, and for what? Who put up the money? Who opposed them? What happened next?

“When we go out into the world and start asking people real questions, we start to wake up and so do they. If there’s one thing that makes oral history a dramatic teaching technique, it’s the potential it has for waking people up to wonder.”

“When History Speaks” was produced by the Montana Heritage Project in cooperation with the Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society. The video covers the basics of oral history: planning a project, doing preliminary research, forming a set of questions, choosing equipment, conducting an interview, using a microphone effectively, and transcribing and archiving final products.

The Montana Heritage Project is a community of high school teachers committed to passing on to the next generation of Montanans a living heritage: our love of the people and landscapes here, our commitment to learning and thinking, and our desire to use education to serve society. Through partnerships with the Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society, the Project began in 1995.

Oral history projects allow students to make important contributions to the history of Montana and to their own communities, and the understanding that they are doing real work of enduring worth is motivational for many young people. But a good oral history project is more than just recording the memories of elders, as important as that may be.

“A good oral history project is about asking questions, and then asking better questions, “ Umphrey said. “It is about searching for answers, and then searching for better answers.” Until we have a question, he said, all the information in the world is just noise. 

“We become more intelligent by improving our questions, figuring out better strategies for getting answers and learning more about where we are and what is going on all around us. Well done oral history projects let wise teachers guide young people into all the little secrets of being intelligent.”

“Once we have real questions, we pursue answers everywhere we can. We read old newspapers, magazine articles, letters, and books. We talk to people. We go places and walk around, looking and thinking. We follow links on web sites.”

Umphrey is quick to dispel the misconception that oral history can replace written history. “When I hear young people saying such things as ‘this was a lot more interesting than reading dusty, old books,’ I wince,” he said. “Researchers form their questions through their reading. They find partial answers and new questions through reading. They think by reading. Interviewing doesn’t replace reading, it helps us become better readers.”

“Teachers engage young people in oral history to engage them in real life. We focus on local places because that’s where the world actually exists, but there’s nothing provincial about what we are doing. 

“We hope to wake kids up to a fundamental reality: our towns and neighborhoods and families are a story--a complex order held together by ideas and knowledge. We want them to understand that the elder before them has been a participant in that story, and that the story could always have turned out differently.

“From there, they see more clearly that they are themselves participants in the story. We want them to see that the story is always changing, and that we are all linked together in it, and that something dramatic is always just about to happen, and how it turns out is not yet known.

“We want them to understand that each of us has a role, each of us has a part. Important issues are at stake. It really matters what we do, and what we do is based on what we think. That’s why we ask questions and learn things.”

How do oral history projects fit in the accountability movement that’s swept through schools? “I get asked that everywhere I speak,” said Umphrey. “It’s easy to answer. Our kids do original research, they read significant texts, they interview people, they analyze the information, and then write about their findings and present it to the public. That’s real accountability. Our motto is ‘Keep it real.’

“I don’t have any problem with tests--I tested a lot when I taught--but tests are quick and relatively low-quality measures. They’re okay to set minimums and to get some simple data quickly, but if we want kids to learn deeply and to demonstrate complex skills, we need to go way beyond paper and pencil tests.

“If you want your kid to play oboe in an orchestra, you wouldn’t be content with a music teacher who gave a paper and pencil test about Bach or about bass clefs. You want to hear the symphony--the performance.

“Well, our kids perform. They read and listen and then they write and speak. They create digital stories that they present to the community. If you want to know how well they’re learning, come to the show! Give them something that really helps: an appreciative audience!

To order the “When History Speaks” DVD, visit the Heritage Project’s Online Store.

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