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Oral history project blends technology, tradition

SSSAS’ Oral History Project has replaced traditional midterms, exercising such 21st-century skills as communication, creativity, and digital literacy.

“To help our students succeed in a complex and changing world, we seek to inspire a passion for learning, an enthusiasm for athletic and artistic endeavor, a striving for excellence, a celebration of diversity, and a commitment to service.”

These words, part of the St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School (“SSSAS”) Mission Statement, play a fundamental role in every decision made by the SSSAS faculty, from curriculum planning to daily classroom management. But it was this particular section of the mission statement that carried the most weight in a recent planning session where the topic was how to design project-based learning opportunities that integrated technology—yet still took advantage of the what the Upper School director, Bud Garikes, calls the “quiet conversations” in which faculty can have a real impact on a student’s intellectual development.

In a world that is changing at an exponential rate, there are many scholars who might argue that the current generation, the so-called “NetGeners,” is perhaps the smartest generation the world has ever known. While that might well be the case, it is equally as reasonable to recognize that this generation is also the most reliant on outside devices for the information that will help them navigate this complex and changing world.

In spite of obvious challenges, the SSSAS History Department faculty was determined to implement project-based learning in a way that would allow students to use the technologies with which they are so comfortable, while at the same time not allowing them to retreat into the safety of their electronic devices to avoid looking into another person’s eyes and having a real, substantive conversation.

Two projects, a video-based art/architecture analysis project for underclassmen and an oral history project for upperclassmen, were created. These projects have proven to be very successful in allowing students the freedom to find their own voice amidst the incessant din of Twitter feeds, Tumblr sites, Facebook groups, and Instagram artistry.

(Next page: How these projects aptly balance traditional and modern skills)

The first project, designed for the upperclassmen, was inspired by the vision of the SSSAS Head of School, Mrs. Joan Holden, who wanted students to create a “signature” project that would highlight their personal interaction with someone of an older generation. With close support from the Instructional Technology Department, the History Department faculty provided students with the opportunity to capture on film a short interview with a family member, or a close friend of the family, who was at least one generation removed from the student’s own experiences.

Using a wide variety of technology, from small, digital video cameras and Mac laptops to green screen technology and iMovie editing software, students are challenged to create a 10- to 12-minute interview, complete with a formal introduction and appropriate still images or maps to clarify important points, in which they explore the personal, yet no less historical, experiences of an older family member. This “signature” project we have named our “Oral History Project.” It focuses heavily on the 21st-century skills of collaboration and communication not only to help students master the material presented in the course, but also to prepare them for the “complex, changing world” on which the SSSAS Mission Statement is, in part, focused.

In support of this Oral History Project, the second project, designed for the underclassmen, was conceived as a way to replace the traditional midterm and to overcome the challenge of what to do as the students return from the holiday break with the dread of those long, dark winter months still ahead of them. The project design was simple: Working in pairs, students used laptops, generally Macs, to create a short movie that analyzed the architecture and artwork of a historical religious structure. While the religious structures ran the gamut from mosques to ziggurats and polytheistic temples to Christian cathedrals, the broader concepts and essential skills with which the students engaged during the project were consistent for every group.

Each group had to work together to find research materials both in library books and in online databases such as JSTOR; they had to write collaboratively and produce a short research paper that analyzed how the building’s structure and artwork reflected the values and beliefs of the religion; and they had to communicate their findings effectively to their classmates through the medium of their movie. Using still images, appropriate music, and a succinctly worded script, each group essentially taught their small portion of the curriculum unit’s essential questions and concepts to the rest of the class.

See also:

Creating an app programming course for high schoolers

2013 Building Learning Communities conference

The faculty role in both of these projects was as expected for any project-based learning process: establishing interim deadlines to help students develop their executive functioning skills, providing resources with which students could research their topic successfully, and—perhaps most importantly—providing one of the scarcest commodities in a jam-packed curriculum: time. The reason for this is simple. Once students put away their electronic devices and quit texting for a bit in favor of having a real conversation with an older family member, they nearly always realized that the stories they heard were fascinating. What starts out as a “10- to 12-minute interview” ends up consuming 45 minutes to an hour of total video time. It then becomes the job of the student-historian to distill this conversation into the essential elements and put it in a succinct format so that others might enjoy it and learn from it.

As with the underclassmen’s project, the Oral History Project replaced the traditional midterms and exercised student’s 21st-century skills of communication, creativity, and digital literacy. Additionally, it helped students raised in this digital age to connect with what is perhaps their greatest resource: their own family. Through this project, they experienced first-hand the educational and sometimes transformative power of real conversations with someone who has experienced a world vastly different than the student’s own; when 21st-century skills are used to connect with 20th-century individuals, the results can be powerful.

In planning and executing both of these projects, it is reasonable to say that the faculty learned almost as much about themselves and their potential as the students. But through it all, there was a consistent lesson learned: Individuals in the classroom, both students and teachers, are far more interesting than any available technology. As such, the History Department faculty clearly came to the realization that no matter what technology was being used in the classroom, the important thing was that it must only enhance the experience, not become it.

Steven J. Ebner is the History Department chair at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Va. Caroline English and Gus Grissom are both Upper School history teachers at the school. At the 2013 Building Learning Communities conference, hosted by November Learning in Boston, Mass., July 21-26, they will present a session about their Oral History Project. For more information about the conference and to register, go to

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