Many teachers have found that telling stories and writing about self and family fit easily into their literacy curriculum. But, as teachers Sandy Bangert and Robert Brooke (2003) conclude in their book, Rural Voices: Place-Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing, engaging the community takes more work — but work that is well rewarded. In our highly mobile society, children — whether in urban or rural communities — may not always have a “sense of place.” Even children growing up in small, rural villages and towns where their relatives have lived for generations may not have a sense of pride in belonging to that area. Helping students to explore their community through reading, writing, and hands-on activities can build a sense of belonging to the school and community.
My developmental approach to children’s literacy actually depends on layers of community, from classroom to family and friends, to extended family and church and townspeople, to the heritage and values these people bring to their lives and places. For children to be fully active learners, they must notice the ways literacy is part of community activity in all these settings, and they must explore ways they can participate
Bangert & Brooke, 2003
While engaging in a “real-life project,” students can develop their oral and written language skills; explore the use of technology, such as tape recorders and digital cameras; and bridge gaps between school and communities. Reading specialist Bernice Cullinan (1992) points out there is a reciprocal influence between reading and life experience: “Children use real life experiences to help them understand books, and books help them to understand real life.”
The importance of oral interviews
Projects that reach out into the community often include interviewing members of the community. They might be grandparents who attended the school and can tell students about schooling when they were children. They might be nursing home residents who live nearby, who have stories to tell. In a multi cultural community, students and teachers can learn about the cultures and languages that make up their school and community. For example, in places with Alaska Native and/or American Indians, there might be elders who have a wealth of knowledge to share about language and culture. Many teachers have found that when students interview community members, conduct research about their communities, and create books, calendars, and other products, there are many benefits to students, families, schools, and communities.
Oral interviews play a central role in the goal of making communities more education- centered, says Michael Umphrey, director of the Montana Heritage Project. The program is a community-centered, project-based learning initiative that’s designed to help Montana students learn about their communities and their heritage. Students give back to the community by presenting their final projects as “gifts of scholarship.” Umphrey (2002) writes that a student in Libby, Montana, who had done oral interviews of community members, “said that she learned that every person is more fascinating than a novel — a wealth of stories — and all you need to do is ask questions and listen — really listen. The great adventure of learning had to do with exploring other minds, she said”.
Even young children can learn the art of asking good questions and listening. In White Mountain, Alaska, first — and second-grade children visited community elders’ homes and interviewed them about their experiences, memories, and words of wisdom. They transcribed these interviews using documentation from their own notes, tape recordings, and/or memory, and selected excerpts to include in their publication
In the small, rural town of Springhill, Montana, students in a one-room schoolhouse created nine annotated note cards featuring local buildings — a barn, chicken coop, log cabin, and church. Each card includes a history of the building, put together from interviews with the owners and other community members. Teacher Linda Rice explains:
My goal was for students (ranging in age from 6 to 14) to look at their community in a different way. We drive by these buildings all the time. But once you’ve done the artwork and the investigation, you have a vested interest in that building. You have something to talk about, you have something to think about, and you have a connection to the community.
Rice is also interested in using the cards as a starting point for writing a more comprehensive local history, expanding the project to include interviews with other community members who have knowledge of the history of their small town.
The telling of oral histories is one of the most ancient of the arts and we feel that it is an art if done well. Through the centuries, it has provided not only entertainment, but has also been used to pass on traditions, community and cultural paradigms, and moral and ethical codes of conduct. Personal histories provide a golden thread of awareness in humans. They help us know, question, remember, and understand (Sidwell, 1996).
Through oral interviews, students may gain an understanding of their own culture and community or of people very different from themselves. Penyak and Duray (1999) designed an oral history project and followed the work of middle-class students visiting rural areas of Mexico. The students experimented with different genre and narrative devices to explore the experiences and voices of the people they interviewed. Encountering, speaking with, and documenting people whose poverty and lack of education they never had to think about before became a critical juncture in their lives and in their writing.
Students asserted that interviewing had taught them to respect people from different cultures. Other students added that although people in the provinces should have the same rights and opportunities that they had, they should also try to understand what other citizens want, rather than impose belief systems on them
A number of oral history projects are profiled in this document. The projects described below took place in rural and — in some cases “remote” settings — with bilingual students:
- Project Fresa is an example of a project that provided elementary students with rich language and cultural experiences while exploring their own rural community. Two teachers from Mar Vista Elementary School in Oxnard, California, created a multimedia, cross-curricular project to help their predominantly Latino students under-stand the relationship between their own lives and the strawberry crops that surround and sustain the local community. Project Fresa illustrates how a well-planned, collaborative, integrated project can provide a medium in which students and families may voice their daily realities.
- In Clarks Point, Alaska, a determined teacher and a small group of middle school students produced a 40-plus page book and Web site, the first book about Clarks Point written by community members. This was an important milestone for this village of approximately 65 residents located on Nushagak Bay, which empties into the larger Bristol Bay. The middle schoolers who worked on the book learned many writing skills. They also discovered that the elders in their village have taught them important skills for surviving and thriving in their environment, skills the young adolescents hadn’t valued before. The students found special meaning in their small village, and learned that they are part of something much, much larger — a community of interdependent and caring people .
- In Aleknagik, Alaska, Yup’ik students interviewed elders for a history of the village and learned about subsistence, ceremonies, and other Yup’ik traditions. They studied the difference between stories about real events and myths or fables that are told as both entertainment and to “teach lessons about life.” They discovered why almost everyone in their school has both a Yup’ik and an English name. Their teacher, Brendan McGrath, learned along with them, discovering how writing provided a way for students to explore their own lives and to express their deep feelings.
While it is somewhat easier to use a sense of place to teach students in rural areas, projects can also thrive in urban communities. Teacher and consultant Pauline Hodges (2004) reminds us: “All communities have so much to offer students. All students have to do is ask the right questions”. While researching the history of their school building and its former residents, at-risk teens at Open Meadow Alternative School in Portland, Oregon, developed many academic skills and a connection to their local community. Teacher Elizabeth Jensen says the project has also helped them “gain a sense that they can go forward and … [open doors, make connections, and be successful] again in other places in their lives.”
One Open Meadow student said he liked the project “way better” than school projects he’d been forced to do in the past. “You know, there’s always a project somebody doesn’t want to do,” he says, “but this was one everybody wanted to do. We took a lot of time and were really serious about it. It was fun.” Additionally, he says he learned skills that will benefit him for years to come — how to work cooperatively in a group, how to conduct library research, how to prepare for an interview, how to speak publicly, and how to use technology to augment a presentation.
Building intergenerational relationships: exploring the past, present, and future
Many oral history projects involve interviewing older people in the community: They may know the history of the community and — having lived a long life — may have many interesting stories to tell. At Cherry Valley Elementary School, in Polson, Montana, children visited a local nursing home and began establishing relationships with one or more residents. Children then interviewed the residents, who frequently told stories about their lives. Younger children remembered as much as they could of these stories, while older children took notes or used tape recorders. They then wrote the stories and brought them back to the residents for editing. Once published, they took them back to the nursing home where they read the stories to the elderly residents. The project was met with enthusiasm from the staff at the nursing facility and the residents themselves. A social worker at the facility writes:
I have witnessed contacts between young and old, which can only be described as “touching.” Residents are able to hold a child’s hand or see a bright young smile. They look forward to these visits and are delighted by the children’s eagerness to please and entertain. These intergenerational exchanges are a benefit for both age groups. They nurture an understanding and acceptance of age difference (Novick, 2002).
In Nikiski, Alaska, eighth-grade students assumed roles of historians, writers, scientists, and statisticians, working on projects ranging from recording oral histories and composing poetry to preparing scientific field reports and summarizing mathematical studies. An important part of the published document, titled Away From Almost Everything Else: An Interdisciplinary Study of Nikiski, was the relationships students developed with the elders in the community.” An important byproduct of these interviews was the generational interaction that cannot be achieved by field trips to the senior citizens’ center for Christmas carols. Here, the young and old were working together, creating something real and important,” said teacher Scott Christian. “Time after time,” he adds, “the interviewees expressed how delightful it was to sit down and have a meaningful conversation with a teenager”.
Students in another Alaska Native village also discovered the value of talking with community elders. White Mountain, Alaska, located 65 miles east of Nome, “is beyond rural,” says teacher Cheryl Pratt. “It’s downright remote.” The approximately 200 residents of this primarily Inupiat village practice subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering. Respect for elders is a strong part of the culture. But Pratt wanted to see the elders’ wisdom play a more central role in the school curriculum. She and the students decided to create a calendar with a picture of an elder for each month and a summary of the children’s interviews with the elders. “Our elders are our greatest resource,” Pratt writes in the introduction to the 2001 White Mountain Calendar. “They are the culture-bearers of our community.”
Further, she says: “Allowing young children to take part in the process of documenting Indigenous nowledge gives them the opportunity to develop their skills and options as professional researchers in their future especially for the documentation of their own people. It also allows both Alaska Native children and elders to experience education in the traditional way of learning. Elders are given a strong sense of purpose in their traditional role and students are able to learn much about their past, present and future.”
Know our roots
The unincorporated town of Glenoma, with fewer than 1,000 residents, is located in the Cowlitz River valley in central Washington about 40 miles east of the Interstate-5 corridor. The community has been deeply affected by an economic downturn sparked by the closing of several lumber mills and a decline in tourism. More than half of the students became eligible for free or reducedprice lunches. “It became important to implement a program that was connected to the students’ future,” says district superintendent Rick Anthony (Lewis, 2001). During the course of a decade, the school gradually built a focus on promoting youth entrepreneurship, contextual teaching, and service learning with assistance from a mini-REAL (Rural Entrepreneurship to Action Learning) grant.
The mini-REAL program, which lasted eight weeks each year, engaged students in building a model community within the school. Each of the school’s 100 students had a job and worked within the simulated community, which included a court system, bank, revenue department, various mall shops, post office, and recycling department. This experience not only provided a rich opportunity for service learning, but also helped students develop an interest in their local community and its history.
The classroom curriculum grew to build upon the mini-REAL experience’s focus on community. For several years, students in Linda Mettler’s second/third-grade and Janet Collier’s fifth-grade classes had created “life maps,” where students documented their personal history from birth to the present. The teachers expanded on this theme to include family history in the life maps. Then, Mettler and Collier had students learn about the history of their community through reading books, visiting local historical museums, and interviewing long-term residents. They aligned the project with state writing, communication, and social studies standards. The teachers also used it as an opportunity to put into practice what they were learning through professional development opportunities in technology integration and contextual teaching and learning.
Learning about local history from senior citizens
To prepare for their interviews with community members, students were trained in interviewing techniques. A reporter from the East Lewis County Journal visited the classes to give students pointers on nonverbal communication, questioning, and note taking. In the words of one student, “We learned to shake hands, make eye contact, and try to look interested in the person.” Students from the nearby high school then came to talk about their interviewing experiences and participate in mock interviews with the grade school students.
Students were given additional preparation through a field trip to the Lewis County Historical Museum, where they learned about the county’s history. This gave them a context for the information they would gain in interviews.
After sufficient practice, the students scheduled the interviews with senior citizens. They mailed between 30 and 40 invitations to people who had lived in the community for most of their life. About 16 people agreed to come to the school for an interview. Later, students interviewed elderly residents of the Morton Senior Center. On the interview day, many seniors arrived early and teachers hastily improvised a waiting area in the library. The visitors ended up staying after their interviews to visit and catch up with each other. Most of the guests hadn’t visited the school since they were enrolled as students, and they appreciated the opportunity to return and reconnect with others.
After the interviews, students used scanners and PowerPoint tools to create presentations that tied together their writings, observations, and pictures provided by the seniors. The project expanded into an after-school writing class where students used their interviews as the basis for more developed stories. A community business owner, who was also a skilled writer, volunteered to assist with the project: helping the students expand on the most interesting aspects of their interviews and calling senior citizens with further questions as needed. Students worked through the writing process and used a rubric to assess each other’s work. They compiled the stories into a student-published book featuring 16 senior citizens. The topics ranged from early May Day celebrations to Christmas parties, a women’s basketball championship, and school experiences. One of the stories was published in the local newspaper.
Appreciating generational differences
As they did their research, students were intrigued to learn that there used to be a Community Day in Glenoma, and they decided to revive the event. Mettler and Collier never intended to carry out such an event, but agreed to do so because of the students’ excitement. Students chose to use the Community Day to celebrate the 70th birthday of the school building - another fact they uncovered in their research. Again, students wrote personal invitations to those who had been involved in their local history research. More than 100 parents, students, and senior citizens came to the school on a Saturday for a party featuring dancing and building tours. Students documented the event with photographs and videotapes.
Students used journals to reflect on their field trips, interviews, and the Community Day. The project gave students an opportunity to write in real contexts, practice interviewing skills, and use technology while meeting state academic standards in writing, communication, and social studies. The teachers report that previously unmotivated students became motivated because of the relevance of their schoolwork. They were motivated to learn about the history of their rural community and felt pride in it. Because many students do not have grandparents who live in the area, they benefited from the opportunity to learn about the lives of the elderly and to appreciate generational differences.
The senior citizens had an opportunity to meet the students and get to know them in a positive light — countering the negative stereotypes of youth in the media. They felt their knowledge and experience were valued by the teachers and students. As a result, the school improved its relationship with the major voters in the area.
Unfortunately, due to declining enrollment, Glenoma Elementary School was forced to close at the end of the 2003-2004 school year. The loss is surely felt by everyone in this small community. As Collier explains, “This makes it even more significant, I feel, that we were able to document some of the school’s history with our Know Our Roots project.”