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Storytelling in a Pandemic

This year has been tough for so many reasons. I don't have answers and instead seem to have a lot more questions. My little ones are distance learning from home, and my spouse and I work from home. Life is busy... all the time.

Still, as I sat and read student oral history projects from my current English courses, I am deeply inspired by their attention to listening and to storytelling. Many students shared how the act of oral history storytelling was a chance to bond--with friends and with family. Others shared how they realized they hadn't "practiced" meaningful listening, and somehow this was reassuring to do (perhaps, healing?) during a pandemic, where so many of us are in pain and feeling alone. Some of these oral histories will be posted in the next few weeks.

Last week, I attended a one hour workshop "Oral History in the Virtual Classroom," hosted by Voice of Witness and a high school teacher who were doing oral history work during the pandemic. I appreciated something that one of the hosts, Erin Vong, said. I am paraphrasing here, but she said to do what you can and recognize the challenges we're all facing. I completely agree--so much of what we're doing right now is even more difficult right now.

How might we still engage in oral history projects in our classroom--even during a pandemic?

Have students read oral histories. Of course, you're welcome to share/assign the oral histories on this site. Voice of Witness has created Unheard Voices of the Pandemic. There are so many other collections, too.

Emphasize reflection. Once students read oral histories, ask them to write about or post (on a discussion board, for example) what they learned about the genre of oral history. If they are doing their own oral history project, ask them to consider who they might interview and why. Ask them to develop their plan (and offer suggestions for what they should do by when, while being flexible).

Focus on the process, not just the finished oral history. What does this mean? Ask students to share out frequently about their process. Often, students learn a lot about asking follow-up questions, planning the interview, prepping for the interview, scheduling additional time for interview, and making editorial choices when they transcribe and format the interview.

Also, over the next few weeks, we will be sharing several more student projects from the 2019-2020 academic year. Check out student projects from Angela LeBlanc's dual enrollment English class, Dr. Ed Rice's Journalism class (Moreno Valley College), and Angelena Tavares' middle school English class.


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