Learning History from Those Who Lived It | Hooray for Monday

June 19, 2023

By Jenna Fournel, Director of Teaching and Learning, Center for Inspired Teaching

Hooray for Monday is a weekly blog filled with questions, ideas, reflections, and actions we can all take to remodel the school experience for students.

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Today we celebrate Juneteenth, a date that has been recognized as a Federal holiday for just a few years but that traces its origins back to 1865. The National Museum of African American Culture and History offers many resources to deepen our understanding of the holiday and to fuel our curiosity to learn more. The museum’s Oral History Specialist Kelly Elaine Navies introduces the content in this short video, and in her reflection on her own Juneteenth celebrations along with fellow museum experts here.

Ms. Navies speaks to the power of oral histories in Soul Talk: An Oral History Workshop and Discussion, where she encourages “everyone to conduct at least one oral history interview with an elder in their lifetime.” As she explains, “when you conduct an oral history you’re not only creating a primary document, you’re strengthening relationships and forging bonds between generations and you’re also becoming a part of a long tradition of storytelling.”

This resonates with us at Inspired Teaching. A few weeks ago we hosted students, families, and elder Washingtonians who were part of the Great Migration, during the last gathering of our 2022-2023 Real World History class. Students asked their peers, parents, and elders they’d interviewed to discuss: “What does oral history mean to you?” In one small group conversation, a student and her parents talked about how oral history is at the core of our growth and learning as humans. As far back as language exists, it’s how we have transferred knowledge and understanding from one generation to the next. 

A core project in the Real World History course is collecting, transcribing, annotating, and sharing oral histories of elders in the community who came to Washington, DC during the Great Migration. Students remarked that collecting these stories gave them a much better understanding of the significance of the Great Migration and the challenges their narrators experienced. Narrators described how the interview process gave them peace in knowing their stories would be remembered (all stories are archived at the DC Public Libraries). The experience of being listened to also sparked hope in the elders, who saw that young people are interested in learning about history, so they can be part of creating a better future.

Real World History students from the 2022-2023 class. 

This made me think of the role schools play in the passing along of our understanding of history. At a time of intense polarization, it’s more clear than ever that there’s no such thing as an apolitical classroom. The sources we provide our students for learning about the world around them always come with a perspective. People do too. But what if we made collecting oral histories a core part of our teaching and learning each year? How might that shape the way students understand the past, if part of their learning came firsthand from people who lived it? 

A Real World History student talks with her narrator.

Whether you gather with friends and families on this holiday or at other points throughout this summer, consider what histories you might learn from those around you. And imagine what it would be like to have your students collect oral histories this fall! Ms. Navies’ workshop includes a guide for how to do a family oral history, a great place to start!

What We’re Curious About

Each week a member of the Inspired Teaching community shares something that’s piquing their curiosity. We’d love to include what’s making YOU wonder right now! Submitting a curiosity is easy. Just follow these steps: 

  1. Identify something you’re currently curious about. This could be in the form of a question or just a concept. 
  2. Think about where this curiosity came from and what else it’s making you wonder about as you explore it. 
  3. Record a voice memo (no longer than 2 minutes) in which you share your reflection on the above. 
  4. Email the voice memo to Michelle Welk, Inspired Teaching’s communication and marketing specialist, at michelle@inspiredteaching.org. Be sure to include your full name, title, and where you work in your email. 

We look forward to learning with you! 

Teacher Resources

Profile Pages

This is a simple yet powerful activity that helps you to learn more about your students, to make sure introverts and extroverts alike feel heard and valued, and to reveal and strengthen meaningful connections between peers.

Listening With Someone Else’s Ears

This activity invites students to step into the role of someone else, imagine what they would say, and listen to what those around that person are saying too. 

Document History with First-Person Accounts

Students choose a historical event that took place within the last 20-30 years during which they know family or friends were alive, and ideally, experienced firsthand. Then they combine their own research with interviews to better understand that event. 

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