Today students pitched over 150 potential documentary topics to us. They sourced them from grandparents, older family members or family friends. They asked about brushes with history or fame, about important inventions or events from their youth and about family stories that have been passed down through the generations. Students collected stories ranging from the 1800s to 2016. They collected stories that happened down the road and across the globe. (See our digital map of stories below.)
Students go through the process of pitching three topic ideas to show us their passion for a particular topic. Sometimes, students don’t know that one of the topics that may seem least interesting is actually a gold mine waiting to be uncovered. In years past, a student was reluctant to dive into a topic relating to his grandmother’s friendship with the family of Jesse Curry. Once he discovered that Curry was the Dallas Chief of Police during the assassination of JFK, he changed his topic choice.
Timeline of Ideas
By looking at the topics on a timeline and on a map, we can help students to see the diversity of stories available to them. By listening to their passions and guiding their choices, each student ends up with a topic that interests them with which to work for the remainder of the year. Soon we will post the final story choices and share how we begin teaching students to conduct preliminary research so that they can begin to craft effective interview questions before “interview season” begins in November.
Beginning with the end in mind, we kick off the year helping students to discover the stories of the past in their own families. Students are asked to speak with their families to identify possible interview candidates. These individuals may be grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors or other family friends. We ask that students find at least two candidates from among these choices. Students may also investigate the stories their parents have to tell after coming up with at least two other names. Within the first few days of school, students are asked to complete the Contact Information Assignment.
Next, Mr. Parr and I introduce the project by showing them sample projects from years past. This year we connected that process to the summer reading selection, The Wednesday Wars. We showed three archived videos produced by former students that reveal different aspects of the Vietnam War. Students see that the experiences of these characters relate to the historical events that directly affected St. John’s families. These connections were serendipitous. However, as we collect more and more stories, we find that the individual story threads weave together to tell a larger tale.
Showing these films also helps students to generate questions about what they know about the project, what they don’t and what they might need to learn by asking new questions. This helps to develop students meta-cognitive abilities and historical thinking skills.
Mr. Parr and I model conducting a pre-interview in order to teach students to ask open ended questions and to follow up with new ones based on what they learn during the pre-interview. Students have three weeks and two weekends to complete a Pre-Interview Form for each of their contacts. This year it is due on September 14.
We encourage students to be open to new stories they may not have heard instead of honing in on one idea they may already have. The idea is to generate options so that the student has a choice about the story they want to work with that is most interesting to her.
Once students complete the Pre-Interview Forms, we will coach them on how to pitch their three best story ideas in order to hone in on the story they will spend the year telling. That will involve preliminary research in order to develop research questions before interview season begins in November.
Welcome to 7th Grade History and the Oral History Documentary Film Project!
The process of learning to think historically and to practice becoming historians is a large component of 7th Grade history at St. John’s. By the end of the year, students will become published historians themselves.
Each year, St. John’s 7th Graders embark on a yearlong research project that will serve as their final exam grade in Trimester 3. The project culminates in the production of a 3-5 minute historical documentary film to be published in the Weaving Our Story archive. Students will use an interview with a grandparent as the main primary source for their film. We will work in a steady, organized fashion throughout the year in order to achieve this end. Students will receive grades along the way for different tasks or assignments as part of the regular classroom routine. These assignments are recorded in the Oral History Progress Category each trimester.
Today I assigned the Oral History Contact Information Form. Please help your child to identify at least two family members who might be able serve as interview subjects. While interview subjects are not required to be a grandparent, I would like for this project to involve an older family member if at all possible. Students have successfully interviewed grandparents who live as close as down the street or as far away as India. Ideally, the interview will ultimately be conducted in person, but students have conducted interviews by letter, phone or FaceTime as well. If you are unsure about whom to interview, please email me, and we can work together to find the right match for the project.
On Monday, we will take the first steps on this academic journey that will continue through the end of the year. Mr. Parr and I will work with your students on narrowing down potential interview candidates and giving them the tools to conduct preliminary informational interviews in advance of the formal interview that will take place mid-year.
This blog will help keep you informed about the project’s progress throughout the year. We are looking forward to a great year ahead!!
As we enter into the final phases of production on this year’s documentaries, I am so grateful for all I have learned this year.
- I am always amazed by the stories that my students bring to school and the ways in which they bring to light the wonderful history hidden in drawers, in attics and in memory.
- I am grateful for the ways in which I have learned about how to do digital history though the classes I have taken in Digital Public Humanities at George Mason University.
- I am excited to use both the things that my students have brought to light and the things I have learned to create this site that will help others learn from students’ own published histories and teach others to do this type of project for their own classrooms.
Stay tuned to this page to follow along in the process as this year comes to a close, and we begin again in the fall to tell a new group of stories.