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published: March 2004
Documenting Stories: World War II and Civil Rights Oral Histories
Laura M. Bendoly and Mary Anne Smith, The Atlanta History Center, USA
In response to the national effort among museums to cultivate media literate, critically-thinking visitors, The Atlanta History Center hosted a project this fall (2002) in which teachers collected oral histories from veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and World War II. The goal of this workshop was to familiarize Atlanta educators with collecting personal histories, using primary documents and operating digital video. The result will be a series of student-researched, student-produced interviews with local historical figures a goal we anticipate achieving with students from two Atlanta schools by May 2003. Upon completion, these videos will serve to document the stories of two generations of Georgians whose histories might well disappear without our efforts to record them.
Keywords: oral history, multimedia, digital video, documentary, community, museum/school collaborative, intergenerational interview, World War II, Civil Rights Movement, Atlanta, veteran.
Teachers eligible for this multimedia project included Georgia educators whose schools had access to video cameras and editing software, and who were interested in the Civil Rights Movement or Second World War. Attendees would also take part in a 20-hour training course at the Atlanta History Center on a succession of October afternoons.
At the Atlanta History Center (AHC), teachers received training from a contracted instructor, video documentarist Gary Rowe of InSitelearning, Inc. This preparation allowed attendees to become competent technicians in script writing, camera use and film editing. Instruction emphasized gathering research, using archives, writing interviews, interacting with subjects, and editing for final output. Visiting speakers to the course included WWII veterans and Civil Rights participants, each of whom took part in a mock-interview for the benefit of our participants. On their own, pairs of teachers created mini-oral histories, including a script, recorded interview, lists of archive objects/manuscripts, a lesson plan, and project journal. Upon completion of their projects, teachers shared their films and lesson plans in a workshop critique. In the spring of 2003, each teacher will instruct his/her own class in the same methods he/she learned in October.
Along with empowering teachers to use multimedia tools and spreading awareness of underused historical resources, the intergenerational reach of this workshop is significant, and includes students, teachers, and retired persons, each of whose skills in communication, research, broadcasting and leadership will mature and evolve as a result of their participation. Ultimately, thanks to the medium of digital video, the Atlanta History Center will be able to host oral histories on its web site, in its galleries and in the community on local educational television stations. This shared access will broadcast our collaborative project throughout the Atlanta area for the benefit of the school community, as well as for WWII and Civil Rights veterans and their families.
Despite the efforts many Georgia school districts have undertaken to acquire multimedia and computer technology the classroom, and to train teachers in software applications, many fail to equip teachers with methods to adapt that technology to the classroom. What teachers are left with is a full report card of technology course credits, but the same pen and paper classroom of thirty years ago. A single, 1980s era computer lab with minimal IS support is common in Georgia schools, as it is in schools all over the United States. Why, then, when technology education is required for recertification of teacher licenses, is technology failing Georgia teachers? Why are so many young people self-taught when it comes to technology? Until there is a powerful laptop computer at the desk of every school child, affordable alternatives must be provided in order for teacher and learner to profit from technology in the classroom. To do this, alternative learning environments might be able to help bridge the technology gap between administrators, teachers and students. This alternative strategy could, indeed, reward teachers for their existing skills AND create meaningful applications of technology. At the Atlanta History Center, we may have found such a strategy. It takes the form of video production. With its combination of traditional reading, writing and research skills, and the addition of mechanical, technological and artistic tools, the process of preparing a video documentary might well prove the best marriage of the old fashioned classroom and the digital age. With a pilot study of eleven teachers and two Atlanta schools, the AHC education department set forth to examine the use of video technology in the social studies classroom, to see if, in fact, video production was the type of technology that could blend teacher and student training into a single classroom success.
How the oral history pilot program began
In March of 2002, the Goizueta Foundation in Atlanta, GA agreed to fund the position of Distance Learning at the AHC. Among the services administered by this position was the creation and dissemination of history curricula and technology tools that would help Georgia educators meet the state social studies standards. To initiate the activity of the Distance Learning Manager, a panel of distance learning teacher advisors was formed. They would serve to guide the AHC education staff in developing meaningful materials for Georgia's social studies classrooms. From this group of teachers we learned that of the required social studies curriculum standards, the eras of modern and contemporary history were in particular need of innovative teaching materials. To help fill this void and to fulfill the Goizueta mission of disseminating instruction via modern technology, the AHC decided to host a video documentary workshop in October, 2002, and to focus its content on the period of the 1940s through 1960s. This era, which covered both US entry into WWII, and the Civil Rights Movement, responded to the deficit mentioned by our panel and also represented a provocative period in our culture, in which transformations occurred in the military, US-International relations, economics, industry, civil rights, women's rights, and social activism. We realized, too, that veterans of the early years of this period would not be with us much longer. It became our mission, therefore, to host the oral history workshop to instruct Georgia teachers on the period of recent American history, in the skills of recording interviews, and in an effort to preserve and archive these accounts before they were lost to us, forever.
The course began in mid October 2002, in the form of a three-week workshop. The investment we requested of each teacher was: course attendance (totaling 22 evening hours); in-class camera-work and interview practice; a practice video of an Atlanta veteran, which they recorded in teams of 2-4; and, in the spring, a finished oral history video from each of their classrooms. This last requirement would be taught with the same methods we used in the AHC classroom. To showcase the student-created videos, teachers were invited by an Atlanta public access TV station, People TV, to broadcast their oral history interviews. This premiere will be featured on the May 13 live "town hall meeting." At this event, student-documentarists will premier their videos, host a directors' panel, and take viewer calls. This, we hope, will provoke discussion on the research, interview and production techniques used in each of the student projects, as well as encourage the use of multimedia technology among Georgia students and educators.
Having conducted similar research in their British Journal of Educational Technology article, Aldrich, Rogers and Scaife (1998) point out some of the opportunities available in multi-media education. Though speaking on their observations of classroom CD-Rom use, the article by Aldrich et al. makes a good argument for the student video production, as well. Just as their case study identified the importance of hands-on, multi-cognitive involvement (as opposed to passive observation) while using a CD-Rom, so does the student-made video allow, or, indeed, require, full mental and mechanical involvement of its student user. "The key," Aldrich et al. explain "is knowing how to put the interactivity potentially provided by the technology to good use. Essentially this involves designing effective activities that are engaging but also enable the learner to understand concepts and to reflect on and integrate different kinds of knowledge" (p. 321-332). Few technologies merge as many skills and learning styles as video production. Not only are the skills of teamwork, leadership, organization, and time-management necessary, so are the specialties of researching a period of history, locating vintage images and music, conducting an interview, editing film, and recording sound. The integration of so many skills sets across so many disciplines (history, language arts, sociology, anthropology, fine arts, music, public service) will doubtless create meaningful classroom relationships, ambitious goal setting, creative decision-making, and detailed project development.
Before fully describing the steps students will take with their videos, however, it is worth mentioning the content of the teacher workshop that piloted the oral history project. Course attendees consisted of Atlanta teachers, school administrators, and one theater professional. For seven evenings, attendees watched and critiqued video clips, learned the techniques of shooting video, lighting a set, and capturing audio. They also studied a variety of ways to research content, script a storyboard, edit video, and prepare B-roll (still images). Throughout the entire course, Gary Rowe shot video of the sessions. This he will turn into a CD-Rom that will document our efforts and offer instruction to future students of documentary making.
On the syllabus were a number of visits from area TV professionals, oral historians, veterans, and curators. As we had chosen two themes for the oral history videos Civil Rights and World War II we invited veterans of both eras. During each visit, teacher/attendees practiced micing the speaker, loading and operating digital cam-corders, and recording presentations. This practice, in combination with the information imparted by the guests, assisted teachers in preparing to make their own videos, which they did in teams during the second week of the course.
Among the visiting presenters was a veteran of the WWII cruiser, the USS Atlanta, a former member of the Civil Rights Movement group SNCC, the Atlanta History Center's chief curator and Civil War historian, a World War II documentarist, and an experienced ethnographer who serves on the AHC curatorial staff. Each spoke on their participation in a particular moment in history or on their experience conducting personal interviews. Each presented an array of story-telling skills along with documents of the type teachers would later research. Several even gave demonstrations of specific interview, lighting, and audio-recording techniques.
It seemed, after each workshop and presentation, that we had inspired the teachers a little bit more. And each day, we had to strong-arm them from the classroom, so eager were they to discuss their project plans.
Ultimately, the goal of the course was twofold -- to teach, through modeling and presentation, a variety of oral history techniques, and to prepare teachers with the interviewing skills necessary to conduct a successful, intergenerational exchange. This background, along with some basic multi-media production knowledge, were the tools we felt the teachers needed to prepare their already media-savvy students for a similar assignment in the spring semester. We did not give them intense history lectures, nor hours of editing practice. Instead, we gave them efficient practice with affordable cameras and editing tools, and asked for them to let their own experience guide them to prepare the same information for their classrooms. This flexibility, according to Aldrich et al. (1998), is the very kind necessary to ensure student absorption of technology-driven content. According to their study, the protocol for a successful technology interface will allow the user "to learn through doing, by building new examples,...[thus] having a better understanding of how to create content..." (Aldrich et al., 1998, p. 330).
This notion of the student creating his/her own content through the vehicle of technology is not new. Street Level Media (http://street-level.org) has taught urban Chicago youth to document their communities on video tape since 1995. Similarly, a fine, student-created WWII project titled War and Remembrance, a series of veteran interviews overseen by staff and supporters of the Kansas City Symphony, has been in development since 2001 (http://22.214.171.124/kcs/index.html). And just this year, Camille Cosby (wife of Bill Cosby) has led the National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP web site not available) "to help preserve the voice of a generation of legendary and pioneering blacks now in their 70s and older" ("Elders' Stories," 2002). Numerous such cases throughout the United States demonstrate the success teachers are having with inexpensive cameras and camcorders. The excitement stirred by access to these tools provide students with a voice a narrative from which they can discover their own opinions on American history, Civil Rights, urban blight, modern art, social activism, and many other issues that, otherwise, might never engage them.
To motivate Atlanta teachers to see the potential in this project, we did need to familiarize them with the "bells and whistles" of performing an interview and operating a video camera. So, after practicing the basic techniques, we grouped teachers so that they could share equipment and become comfortable with it on their own. Five groups emerged out of the eleven attendees, each choosing a single subject to interview. We had prepared for the class a list of WWII and Civil Rights veterans available for interview, but most chose their own subjects. This effort of personalizing the project assisted greatly in their interviews, since, as a result of a close acquaintance with the subject, teachers were more comfortable approaching the interview, and better inspired to craft good questions.
After six days, the groups reunited for a final two days of class time. We screened two videos on Monday, and the rest on Tuesday. Though the teams had a variety of technical issues to resolve, each proved successful in recording an interview. They each made a conscious effort to prepare their subject for the questions they would ask, and each incorporated B-roll imagery to complement the "talking head." Some shot on-location, others, in the home of their subject, and others, on school property. All incorporated two-dimensional visuals photographs, vintage posters, military awards, and books to diversify the content
On those last evenings of class, we met as a critics' circle in the auditorium of the AHC a highly productive format to culminate the course. When asked to comment on each other's work, the group was supportive, offering thoughtful, critical advice. They gave suggestions on a range of themes, from lighting, to B-roll, to interviewing strategies, to volume control. By the last day, the instructors hardly needed to be in the room. The only matter the teachers seemed unable to resolve on their own was the question of budget and equipment. Some schools owned cameras and editing software, some didn't. And few had any firm ideas on which schools might gain multi-media equipment in the future. In our own situation, where there weren't enough cameras to go around, we paired teachers who had no equipment with those who did, and gave each a turn in the classroom with Mr. Rowe's cameras and headsets, for practice.
For course completion, teachers were asked to provide the History Center with finished practice videos, lesson plans, and consent forms signed by the subject (allowing the AHC rights to air the video on the AHC web site, in its galleries and on People TV). Our next step, once teachers submit their students' videos to us, will be to stream clips on the AHC Curriculum Resource Internet page. The best student videos will form part of the AHC archive, and will be accessible on-line as an instructional tool for teachers and visitors, and as narrative to include in our upcoming World War II exhibition (spring 2004). Videos focusing on the Civil Rights theme are to be considered for placement at the Atlanta's APEX Museum of African-American history, as well as on the National Parks' Service web site. Within that national site, numerous NPS pages are dedicated to the achievements of under-served communities, such as that of Atlanta's historic Auburn Avenue neighborhood, home of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Atlanta's first AfricanAmerican high school, Booker T. Washington (BTW).
Under the guidance of the Atlanta branch of the national women's service group, the Links, Incorporated, this very high school, Booker T. Washington (BTW), will soon begin its first ever oral history workshop. Pioneered by media studies teacher Robert Bonner and social studies chair, Kim Moore, twenty-five students of BTW High School have been selected to study the same techniques the AHC taught this fall. Led by two AHC workshop attendees, Links members Marilyn Arrington and Nancy Cooke, BTW students will learn the skills of interviewing, conducting research, uncovering archival images, shooting and editing film, and hosting a live broadcast. In teams of five, these students will practice the skills of performing an interview and learn the techniques of the production studio. Though their equipment is limited to a single digital camcorder and one laptop computer, they will, over the course of a semester, endeavor to create five short interviews of a local Civil Rights or World War II veteran.
In cooperation with this project, the National Parks Service's Martin Luther King Historic Site has offered to serve as a venue for student work. Those students who choose to film a Civil Rights veteran as their assignment will have the opportunity to offer the MLK Site a permanent contribution to its collection their own-recorded commentary on the history of American Civil Rights. Not only will this give students the opportunity to provide content to one of the most important American heritage sites, it will enable them to perform their own kind of activism a role in unveiling the stories of some of the undecorated heroes who campaigned for Civil Rights some forty years ago.
A second venue where we anticipate application of the AHC's fall workshop is at Atlanta's Riverwood High School. There, Mary Anne Smith, one of our Fulton County course participants, teaches a Gifted/Talented (TAG) seminar. Sessions of this seminar will meet in the spring semester, 2003, and will use the Atlanta Civil Rights Movement as its focus. Specifically, Ms. Smith's students will collect Civil Rights stories not yet published in major media. I will follow Ms. Smith's class closely, as a pilot study, and observe how her students learn the same techniques she did, in Civil Rights research, interview preparation, critical thinking, team-building, camera work, and editing. Hopefully, some of their videos will be available by March, and will demonstrate the reach of our oral history efforts.
Initially, in January, Ms. Smith will recruit participants from Riverwood's ninth grade TAG students. After introducing the project to the students, she will interview and select a final eight to take part. Because TAG seminars are not part of the traditional curriculum, participating students are excused from their regular classes for fourteen hours of special instruction. The hours she and her students spend together will take place in a variety of locations in the school's broadcasting studio, at the editing station, off site, at research venues, and generally in the variety of settings necessary to document a Civil Rights story.
Along with the research and preparation Riverwood students will do, guest speakers will be invited to give guidance to Riverwood's young video journalists. Some of these include curators, historians, documentarists, and Atlanta Civil Rights Movement participants. Along with their exposure to these specialists, students will travel to several centers of Civil Rights history, including the APEX museum and the Auburn Avenue Research Center, both located in Atlanta's historic Auburn Avenue neighborhood. They will attend the Black History Month Civil Rights panel discussion at the Atlanta History Center, and they will visit with the Southern Regional Council creators of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a Civil Rights audio series. This exposure to a variety of Civil Rights centers and histories will provide Ms. Smith's students with examples from which they will form their own research. It will also provide them with access to people whose personal and professional lives are deeply inspired by the Civil Rights Movement. This, we hope, will assist them in discovering the enthusiasm to transmit the message of the Movement through to their own documentaries.
After five workshop sessions of research and interaction with experts, Riverwood students will separate into two teams, and spend the sixth and seventh session recording an interview with the Civil Rights participant they have selected. The interview subjects are likely to be figures less known to the public than many we hear about in the media. This has been done deliberately. As so many of the stories of the Civil Rights belong to those who lead public and/or political lives, we have had few opportunities to document those whose contribution was more subtle, quiet and personal. Most of our attention has been focused on marches, sit-ins and boycotts. But in between those public events were years of quiet, heroic organizing, and it is just this type of activity Riverwood students hope to commemorate in their videos.
Once the interviews have been recorded, students will spend the remaining two sessions editing their tape. This will be performed on equipment borrowed or purchased for the course, and accessible through Riverwood's TAG Program office. As there is likely to be a single computer, the two teams will have to take turns and share their resources. Then, on the thirteenth of May both teams, their classmates, teachers and parents will be invited to broadcast their interviews at People TV. Should Riverwood's and Booker T. Washington's videos be ready by this deadline, both schools' interviews will be broadcast on the same occasion, and both will be available for viewer critique via call in.
Ultimately, the goal of oral history workshops on the themes of World War II and the Civil Rights Movement is to encourage the documentation of stories in locations beyond Pearl Harbor and Atlanta. It is our ambition to disseminate the importance of history's lesser-known stories especially in locations that have gone unnoticed by historians, curators and the press. This very sentiment inspires many modern-day activists in their efforts to encourage peace, community and justice throughout the world. Hopefully, the work of Atlanta students will contribute to the continuation of grassroots movements in America. Ordinary people continue to make history let us hope their stories, along with our presidents' and generals', will be told and retold for many generations to come.
With the strides taken by Atlanta teachers to document local stories of war and social change, one might ask the question -- why house the product of their work at a museum? What's so important about including high school projects in the archives of a public institution? The answer may be hidden in the long debate about institutional power, politics, civic duty and public ownership of historic artifacts. But it might best be summarized by the authors of a recent publication on community involvement in the museum experience.
In their article A Place for the Muses? Negotiating the Role of Technology in Museums, Morrissey and Worts (1998) explain how the collaborative, multimedia experience invests more meaning in a museum visit than does the traditional, solitary one of reading labels and silently absorbing objects under glass. Morrissey and Worts' idea is for institutions to create a "forum" for visitors, "based on a process of shared dialogue that accepts and integrates the authenticity of the knowledge and experiences of all visitors, museum professionals, and communities...." (p.151). In our own efforts, the Atlanta History Center has, perhaps, created just such a forum. Our oral history project has succeeded in soliciting stories, documentation and story telling from numerous Atlanta students, professionals, and retirees. And we plan to install these interviews in our galleries for the very reason Morrissey and Worts suggest: to welcome and include the voices of our visitors, the constituents for whom the museum was created, and for whom the objects of nearly two hundred years of history have been collected. Only when an exhibition is a shared experience, between curators, historians and community members do we finally begin to "find and create meaning...and [enable] interaction between individuals and objects...spark[ing] insight and feelings of connection" (Morrissey & Worts, 1998, p.152).
With some luck, the oral history projects pioneered by Atlanta schools will lead the way in urging curator/community collaboration in future Atlanta History Center exhibitions. Without the public's interest and contribution, a history center does little beyond congratulating itself for its own collecting and exhibiting. And there is a long way to go before every Atlantan takes an interest in antebellum costumes, Civil War flags and other forms of Southeastern History. But investing our collection with modern, local history is certainly a start particularly when that history is the work of contemporary young people. We don't yet have an oral history in every gallery and display, but, eventually, we may see a day when most of our gallery space includes a student's essay, an intergenerational interview, and a collection of youth and local art.
Aldrich, F., Rogers, Y., & Scaife, M. (1998). Getting to grips with 'interactivity' helping teachers assess the educational value of CD-roms. British Journal of Educational Technology [On-line serial], 29 (4), 321-333.
Elders' stories saved for young ears: visionary project aims to record oral histories of influential black Americans. (2002, July 22). Daily News Tribune [On-line serial]. http://www.dailynewstribune.com/arts_lifestyle/arts_culture/ap_oralhistory07222002.htm
Morrissey, K., & Worts, D. (1998). A place for the muses? Negotiating the role of technology in museums. In S. Thomas & A. Mintz (Eds.), The Virtual and the Real: Media in the Museum (pp. 147-174). Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.