Picture the scene as a sprightly 80 year old leads a class of year 3 pupils shuffling spread-eagled across the floor of the school hall. Our visitor Mr Urwin was the last surviving member of the local Home Guard that had met in their school throughout the war. He was teaching them how to kitten crawl a technique used by the troops to avoid being spotted by the enemy, in response to a question about how the Home Guard prepared for a possible invasion. The episode was one of a number of magic moments for me and my class, as part of our oral history project collecting memories of the Second World War in our village. These experiences convinced me of the power of oral history in making history accessible and immediate for primary pupils and in motivating them to find out more about the past. It is also of key importance as an approach that helps to address the balance in history by enabling us to gain insight into the experiences of those sections of our community whose stories are often unrecorded by other sources. Yet despite being so powerful, free and easily accessible the latest Historical Association primary survey would suggest it is still underused.
The 2014 National Curriculum for History has great potential for introducing oral history. At Key Stage 1 the unit ‘Changes within living memory’ is an excellent area to introduce pupils to this approach. Voyagers Rising Stars unit 1 ‘What was life like when our grandparents were young?’ and Unit 8 ‘How has food changed over time?’ provide many opportunities for using oral testimony. This includes pupils conducting interviews in the classroom and also for homework. The inclusion of Local History into the curriculum for Key Stage 1 also adds to the opportunities in this field. At Key Stage 2 there are two areas where oral history can play a predominant role. The study beyond 1066 is one area, as in Rising Stars Voyagers LKS2 unit 6 ‘Looking at childhood’ and also UKS2 unit 6 ‘Communication over time’. Local history is the other area as found in Rising Stars Voyagers UKS2 unit 4 on ‘How did World War 2 impact on our local area?’ A powerful principle that is adhered to in all these units is ensuring the coverage of a diverse range of experiences. For example in KS1 unit 1 teachers are prompted to include testimony that reflects our multi-cultural society.
The power of oral history was highlighted for me when I recently witnessed year 3 pupils interviewing a former employee of the cotton mill that had previously stood on the site of their school. Through listening to engaging stories about their visitor’s time in the mill the pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the period developed. They were able to make comparisons between the evidence gained from oral history with that from other sources. They went on to reach conclusions about the value of different sources and then began to communicate their findings. The positive outcomes led me to consider what made this encounter work so well and what we can learn from it and use to introduce effective oral history into other lessons.
The interviewee was fully prepared and this added to his confidence in talking to the class. The teacher had taken the time to discuss the types of question the children may ask and had explained some of the vocabulary they could find difficult and would need explanation. He had also been guided to bring photographs and props to use in the interview. These were particularly useful in clearing up possible misconceptions of what things looked like, for example the transport used at the time. A visualiser was used to project the photographs and this was effective in holding the pupils’ attention.
The pupils had also been well prepared. They had decided to conduct an interview as they best way to gather the information they wanted. This approach works well at keeping the visitor on track and in holding pupils’ attention it also gives pupils the opportunity to further probe areas of interest. Time had been taken to teach the pupils the skills of how to conduct a good interview. They had looked at how this was done on the TV news and then practiced their skills via hot seating activities with their teacher or other pupils. They were also very clear about exactly what they wanted to know about life in the mill and had considered whether the interview with the mill worker would be the best way to gather that information. For example they wanted to know when the mill was built, but thought this could be found in a local history book. However finding out about the level of noise in the mill or what happened at lunchtime would be good questions to ask the worker.
The teacher had thought carefully about how the answers would be recorded. Pupils worked from their strengths with some acting as scribes, others using ipads to film the interview, while a group made sketches to illustrate key points. However I feel that pupils being required to write or draw detracted from them actually listening to the answers. I would suggest that it is best to film the interview and then play it back with plenty of opportunities for pauses and discussion. The pupils can then use and record any required information. This approach also means you are also beginning to create your own school oral history archive.
I also felt that the pupils here were being appropriately challenged in their use of this approach. Too often we see pupils in upper key stage 2 merely listening to oral accounts and then writing a recount of the events. Here pupils were looking critically at the oral account and beginning to appreciate it was a highly personal view of events. They were beginning compare evidence gained with that from other sources. They decided that that time had meant the interviewee only remembered certain things possibly the most exciting and unusual such as fishing at lunchtime and possibly he was only telling them he thought they wanted to hear for example that work was fun. The pupils decided that they should speak to other people working in the Mill to see if there were areas of similarity and if there were differences why these occurred. This approach is used in the Rising Stars Voyagers LKS2 Unit 6 ‘Is it better to be a child now than in the past?’ where differing experiences of boys and girls, different age groups and those living in different localities are all explored.
Take the time to look for opportunities to develop this approach within your school. It is a wonderful way of engaging with the older members of your community. Finding out about the full lives these people have led and still lead can help to combat some of the potential negative views of the elderly within society. One school I visit runs a successful pen-pal project where pupils are paired with visitors to a day centre. Letters are regularly exchanged and now some of the pen pals are coming into school to be interviewed about the locality in the past. This shows that prospective interviewees are all around you, maybe even in your classroom. So no excuses take that first step now and make a start with the pupils interviewing you.
Bev Forrest is a former primary teacher and now trains primary teachers in the North of England. She is a member of the Historical Association primary committee, a Quality Mark assessor for History and a member of the Editorial Board for Primary History.