Oral History at Housatonic Valley Regional High School

Congratulations Abigail Adam, HVRHS intern and graduate

In Academic year 2017-18, HVRHS senior Abigail Adam created this podcast using  11 oral history interviews conducted by her fellow students.  The interviewees, or narrators, were alumni/ae of HVRHS, who talked about coming of age in NW Connecticut in the 1950’s.  Those interviews were done as part of the Oral History Festival organized by history faculty member Peter Vermilyea.  (His comments below)
The Housatonic Heritage Oral History Center at Berkshire Community College funded and coordinated the internship.  WHDD Robin Hood Radio offered to run this podcast.  Here it is on demand on their site, at Robin Hood Radio, an NPR affiliate located in Sharon, CT.

https://robinhoodradioondemand.com/podcast/communitypartnership-creatingan-oral-history-podcast-hvrhs-senior-abby-adams/

In this photo, Abby is working with Mary O’Neill, who helps HVRHS students learn about and gain practical experience in workplaces and careers.

Oral History at Housatonic Valley Regional High School

By Peter Vermilyea
My students have been engaged in oral history projects since I began teaching at Housatonic Valley Regional High School twenty-two years ago. The student reaction has always been interesting: As they go through the preliminary work of finding a subject, gaining background knowledge, and formulating questions, they find it boring, no different from reading a textbook and answering questions. Of all the projects we do, however, it is oral history that has the potential for the magical result the history teacher seeks. The transformation in the students can be quite dramatic, if not necessarily sudden. While they might complain about the tedium of transcribing, nearly all of the students reflect that it was the project they most enjoyed, from which they learned the most. And occasionally students will return years later to see if I still have that interview he or she did with their grandfather.

I have used oral history as a means of having students recognize that the textbook version of history can be at odds with the experiences of individuals. In this way, oral history can exemplify one of the fundamental ideas I try to get across to my students, that the best answer to any question in history is, “it’s complicated.” A student might read in their textbook about how popular Franklin Roosevelt was only to find their great-grandfather was an ardent opponent of FDR. Similarly, a student whose research into the 1960s focused on the anti-war protests might find his grandfather supported the war.

These encounters can muddy the waters of history and help the student understand that there is no single narrative of the past. It is for this reason that the project culminates with the students writing a reflection paper on what they learned, concentrating especially on what surprised them. Recently, for example, students interviewing a group who graduated high school in the 1950s were surprised to learn that very few of them smoked cigarettes. Their assumption from our research was that cigarette use was widespread. Some speculated that as our group consisted primarily of very serious students, we did not have a random sample of the 1950s population. It is often the personal details of people’s lives rather than what most would recognize as history that most resonates with the students. One student recently wrote, “Another thing that I found interesting was that she got married so young. Nowadays I feel like no one ever gets married so young. My grandmother was only 19!”

 

 

An Oral History Festival

 

Traditionally I have had students choose their own subjects for their interviews. I feel it provides an important opportunity for the student to forge a closer personal connection to a grandparent, aunt, neighbor or family friend. Students often comment about this, including one recent student who wrote, “I personally really enjoyed this project because I was able to learn a bunch about my grandmother’s life that I never knew before. I had never really thought about asking my grandmother what her life was like growing up as a kid, but this assignment encouraged me to and it was really interesting.” One challenge that is often faced is getting students to understand that a good interview subject doesn’t have to be a war hero, astronaut, or civil rights marcher. Often the best interviews that are conducted are about subjects on which the interviewer and interviewee can relate; in our case this occurs most often when a student interviews a subject about their time attending Housatonic Valley Regional High School. The most interesting interviews for students are often with those people who can recall daily life in the past with great detail.

 

 

Student-selected interviewees was the method used in two of my three United States History classes this year. In my third class, which is taught as a co-operative with the University of Connecticut, we decided to do something different. Working in consultation with Judith Monachina, director of the Housatonic Heritage Oral History Center at Berkshire Community College, we adopted a thematic approach to the oral history project, deciding to use the oral history project to catch a snapshot of life in the northwest corner of Connecticut in the 1950s.

Rather than have the students secure the interview subjects on their own, and conduct the interviews on their own time, we decided instead to hold an “oral history festival.” With the help of Pat Mechare, president of the Housatonic Alumni Association, and Julie Lang, HVRHS executive secretary, we culled the list of graduates  between 1945 and 1964 and invitations were sent to approximately fifty alums whom we deemed likely to participate in interviews. There was tremendous enthusiasm among those invited, with some who were so eager to participate they asked if they could be interviewed at a different time because they would be out of town on the day of the event.

20 Questions

We made a decision that to capture a rich understanding of life in northwestern Connecticut in the 1950s, we should ask all interviewees the same questions to gain a wide variety to perspectives on the same topic. To become familiar with the 1950s, students spent the third marking period writing research papers on the 1950s, with topics ranging from popular music and television to science and technology to civil rights and McCarthyism. Students shared their findings with the class, and together with our class discussions and activities (reading Betty Friedan, watching “I Love Lucy” and “Red Nightmare”, listening to Elvis), these became the basis for our questions. Students were asked to generate their own lists of questions.. From these dozens and dozens of questions, students selected what they considered the best twenty. These tended to be very serious, heavy questions about topics like racial tensions, nuclear war, and gender roles. I intervened at this point to urge the students not to miss the opportunity to ask questions that would help them learn about the finer details of life at the time: where did they do their shopping, what did they eat for dinner, etc. The students developed a list of twenty questions, but then insisted on adding a twenty-first: If age was not a factor, would you rather live in the 1950s or the 2010s?

Housatonic Heritage purchased seven recorders for our students to use; the rest of the interviews were conducted with iPhones, as iPhone series 6 and above possesses excellent digital recording capabilities.  A decision was made to pair up the students so that one could focus on asking the questions while the other focused on operating the recorder and asking follow-up questions. A two-hour block of time was set aside on the morning of Friday, May 12th, for the interviews.

Housatonic’s first Oral History Festival began with coffee and donuts in the school cafeteria, which our returning graduates were quick to point out was the gym in the 1950s. The interviewees, many classmates from nearly sixty years ago, and the students got to know each other while I attended to final details. One interviewee wore her poodle skirt from the 1950s. Several brought their yearbooks. The excitement was palpable! I welcomed the interviewees, our principal, and the invited press and explained what the students had done to get to this point. Students and interviewees then paired up and went to tables around the room for the interviews.

To walk around the room and listen to the conversations was to hear the same questions spark divergent conversations. The common denominator over the next 90 minutes was extraordinarily rich conversations between 17-year olds and those in their 70s and 80s.

More Reflection, after transcription. Alumni and students come together

When the excitement of the interviews ended, the recordings were uploaded to a Google Team Drive, and students settled into the dryer task of transcribing their interviews. Transcribing, while time-consuming, was essential for allowing students to quickly read other interviews to gain a broader understanding of life in the 1950s. Each student was required to read five transcripts, and from those to craft a reflection paper describing what they had learned about the topic and their thoughts about the project as a whole. The reflection papers shared many similar themes: the surprise students felt that smoking wasn’t more prevalent and that McCarthyism was felt by residents of the northwest corner; that while there were seemingly no racial tensions at Housatonic, this was largely because there was a lack of racial diversity; that there were clearly defined gender expectations at the school – there were no girls’ sports, most girls pursued careers as nurses, teachers, or secretaries.

Four weeks after the oral history festival, we reconvened the students and interviewees to share what we had learned. The students shared their observations about the 1950s, and the interviewees either highlighted or corrected these impressions. After about ten minutes, however, the interviewees began to pepper the students with questions about what it is like to grow up in the 2010s, with the pressures of SATs, college and career expectations, social media, etc. And while most felt that the 1950s were a simpler time in which to grow up, today’s students have never really had to live with the fear of nuclear war.

It was clear to all of us involved that this project had created a valuable source of information about life in northwestern Connecticut in the 1950s, a collection that could be useful to historians in the future. As such, we have been working with the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut to donate the interviews – and those from our future festivals – so that the transcripts and recordings can be protected and made accessible to the public.

More than twenty years ago I began using oral history as a means to better connect students with the past. In reading student reflection papers about the 1950s interviews, it was clear that this had been achieved. One student commented, “I’m honored and happy to have taken part in it and to have learned so much from it.” Another said, “It is incredibly fascinating to hear a firsthand perspective of what life was like around here during the 1950’s. I certainly knew that times have changed since then, but the interviews truly put things into perspective.” And in keeping with my goal that students can answer the “so what?” question in history and understand why studying the past is so important, one student wrote, “By learning from the past we are able to apply those situations and events to the present. I now have a better understanding of what life in the 1950’s was like and in some ways it makes me very grateful to be living in 2017. As a young woman in this time period I have greater freedom and more opportunities to look forward to.”

One thing was unanimous among the students who took part in the festival: they urged that this become an annual tradition. So next year, it is on to the 1960s!

Five Tips for Hosting a Successful Oral History Festival at Your School:

  1. Invite three possible interviewees for everyone you hope attends
  2. Preparation is the key to good interviews. Students need to be familiar with the social, cultural, and political history of an era in order to formulate good initial questions and to ask follow ups.
  3. Make an event out of the interview day: include time for the students and interviewees to become acquainted over refreshments. Invite the media.
  4. Organize the students into pairs for conducting the interview. They will be more at ease, and one student can focus on follow up questions and on making sure the recorder is working.
  5. Invite the participants back for a second event where the students share what they learned! And allow the interviewees to comment and ask questions of their own.

And a Sixth:

  1. Make sure the students follow up with personalized thank you notes!

Written by Judith

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