We believe outreach to the community makes us stronger; thus, we create projects in which students move outside the classroom to interview community members and write reflections detailing how this experience affected them.
Students Making Connections: Oral Histories
By the Humanities Department at Margolin Hebrew Academy
Dr. Whitney Kennon, Rhonda Martin, and Ashley Levanway Brown
One of the primary purposes of studying the Humanities is to make connections. We learn how we connect with the past to hopefully learn how to relate to each other in the present. One way students can make these connections is to engage in the process of creating oral history projects, which provides with the opportunity to engage with the past in a meaningful and more personal way. Students learn a myriad of skills, including the steps of researching and creating strong analytical questions. They also work on interpersonal skills, such as coming up with the appropriate questions to ask and experiencing how to engage with individuals in a one on one setting. The ability to capture someone’s story helps students understand that history is not something that only exists on the page of a textbook or in a grainy image on a video screen.
Over the past few years, our students have completed several oral history projects. Students have looked at Russian Immigrants to Memphis, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the importance of family traditions such as Thanksgiving, and this year they are engaging in conversations designed to document Jewish families who moved and planted roots in Memphis. By engaging in the process of gathering oral histories, students gain insight into the necessary steps and research involved; however, we want them to walk away with something much more meaningful, such as how the stories of many are woven together to create community, and it is from this community that history is shaped. Individual insights may not tell the entire story; however, when read collectively, students see history come to life in a relatable and tangible way. Additionally, by recording these narratives, students learn the importance of contributing to the broader community narrative–that their own experiences are also important in both the Jewish and broader Memphis community.
In 2014, we had high school students interview a person in the community who was here in Memphis when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. These interviews were then published in an online repository with the interviews from other students in schools all across Memphis. Students interviewed people both within the Jewish community and other members of the Memphis area to get more complete picture. The experiences of the individuals interviewed varied and included stories of being the first doctor, Larry Wruble, to admit an African-American patient to a white hospital. Other perspectives were much more in the context of the larger events of 1968 where our students were able to capture the moment of children coming of age during the tumultuous period, such as that of Larry & Terri Graber. Some of the other interviews that provided students with into the insight from time period include those of college students, Carol Samuels, as well as some poignant reflections from Steve Sims and Al Thomas. Overall, the project was a tremendous success: the students made inter-generational connections with family and community members, and students really seemed to have their eyes opened to the wider world. The interviews are now housed in the oral history collection at the National Civil Rights Museum.
In 2015, we had the 9th and 10th graders participate in The Great Thanksgiving Listen, which is an annual event promoted by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit dedicated to oral history. Given that many families have unique family traditions, StoryCorps’ goal is to encapsulate those by ensuring that students document the stories and traditions of their families. The students were asked to interview an older person in their families, then take a picture with that person and post it to the StoryCorps website so other people can experience it. Listen to select student interviews here and here.
After the interview, the students were asked to reflect, and nearly all of them expressed that they now see their interview subject as a much more interesting person, worthy of spending time with. Here’s a sample from a GMSG student who interviewed her grandmother: “Even though each question was answered in a brief statement or story, I still gained a lot from just looking at her when she answered each question. I see my grandmother almost every day, but we never really interact. We mainly just do all the “sweet and smiley things,” and it is always a bit uncomfortable, trying to avoid any long conversations. Sadly, I did not realize before how amazing my grandmother really is, and I have just taken her presence and existence for granted . . . Now, I feel as if my grandmother and I have more of a connection. She trusts that I will listen to her stories and that I will share mine as well.”
A ninth-grader from the CYHSB shared this insight: “My Grandma also told me our family legacy of which I didn’t know even existed. Our family has book of Torah related subjects and sermons that we are supposed to add to.This was started by my great Grandfather, since this is what he wanted his legacy to be . . . Questions I wanted to ask my grandfather were slightly uncomfortable. Was it acceptable to speak to an elderly man about his legacy or was that too much? Would my grandfather feel awkward talking about things related to death, even indirectly, or would he be happy someone was asking him about it?”
Even students who do regularly talk with their elders got a lot out of the experience. One GMSG sophomore said this: “Out of all of the questions, the two I asked that were most special to me were, ‘How would you like for people to remember you?’ and ‘What advice would you give your great-great grandchild?’ I feel that the answers my grandfather gave to these difficult but important questions really introduced me to a new side of him. Before, I had never talked to him about the future and his legacy. We had always discussed his long and interesting past. To see him face his future and the scary concept of death made me realize how brave he is to speak so openly about such a thing, no matter how old he is. I am very appreciative for this project for allowing me to see this side of my grandfather, for it has just increased the tremendous respect I already have for him.”
Our current juniors and seniors participated in both of these projects and now say they were a valuable part of their education here at the MHA. Listen to them reflect in their own words in these recent interviews here, here and here.
In 2016 we did a project that focused on Russian immigration to Memphis and how hard it was to adapt and adjust to a brand new life. Students were given background about Russian life and were trained in interview techniques before they met their interviewees. Through this project, students were forced to deal with the complex issue of immigration and the understanding of America as a “melting pot.” They learned of the rich cultural tradition the immigrants brought with them and of the challenges faced by these families. Many students had known their interviewees all their lives and yet still discovered a totally different side to that person and uncovered rich family histories. One student interviewed his father and was proud to share his story with the class. Another interviewed her grandmother and finally was able to fill in some of the gaps in her knowledge of her family. The last connected with a neighbor she’d known for years but had never really sat down and talked to. All students had an opportunity to connect to someone in the community on a new level and learn how to share that information with a broader audience. Students took away real world skills and built relationships with their interviewee. Each was proud of their work and developed a bond they didn’t expect. When asked to reflect, they expressed their sentiments at the end of the project. One said, “The issue of immigration is very prevalent nowadays. However, it still manages to seem like it’s far-away and it doesn’t feel quite real. This project has helped me realize that it isn’t as far off as one thinks. There are people in my community, people that I know who have gone through this process. Somehow, this project makes all of this seem more like a reality.” Another wrote, “For this project I interviewed my grandmother, and I had never known anything before the interview. By interviewing her it allowed me to learn about her, my father, and I. Thanks to her I now know more about my family and I now know just how unique they are. This project taught us the importance of immigration and the importance of others.” All of the student’s work was contributed to Temple Israel Archives and was displayed as part of an exhibit “They Came to Memphis: From the Iron Curtain to the Bible Belt,” hosted by the Memphis Jewish Community Center.
This year the theme for our Oral History Project is Made in Memphis. Students are interviewing family members about their connection to Memphis. We want to focus on what caused their family to move to Memphis and how they set down roots. Emphasis will be placed on families that started businesses that still exist today. All ninth and tenth grade students will participate in the project. Students will work on their interview in both History and English classes. Each student will pick a family member or a member of the larger Jewish community to interview and carry out interviews over the winter break. When we return we collate the projects onto an online repository. Our topic this year is inspired by the Move to Memphis initiative, that promotes Jewish relocation to the Memphis community. Through telling the stories of generations of Jewish Memphians, we hope to not only document their experiences, but to provide others with some of the benefits of working and living in Memphis.
Once we had done the first of these projects, we, as a department, knew we should try to do one every year because the student reflections showed real personal growth. Though the students were intimidated the first time, their confidence grew with repetition. We knew over time, this activity would only strengthen them as students and individuals. By having oral histories as a regular feature of education here at our school, we were forging essential bonds with the Memphis community and the families of our students. It allowed students to take their learning out of a classroom setting and out into their homes and the world around them.
As teachers of high school students, it is easy to become wrapped up in curriculum and standardized test preparation, losing sight of the overall goal which is to create strong critical thinkers who have the interpersonal skills to become articulate and well-rounded citizens. Through the various oral history projects that we have implemented, we as teachers have also been reminded of the importance of each person’s story. Our students, faculty, staff, families, and community members all have an important place and perspective. These projects have provided those of us in the Humanities with the ability to foster independence and critical thinking in our students, while also making a significant contribution to our community. We sincerely hope that our continued work in this area will not only set our school apart from your average high school, but it will also demonstrate the larger impact of Jewish values and contributions to our Memphis area.
Dr. Whitney Kennon is the current General Studies Principal at Margolin Hebrew Academy. She has a Ph. D. in Medieval and Renaissance History and specializes in political theory and women’s spirituality. She also teaches graduate courses online at The University of Memphis.
Rhonda Martin is a history instructor at Margolin Hebrew Academy. She is a lifelong learner with an M.Ed, and an MA in History, and is ABD with a speciality in the Early Modern European era. Rhonda has seventeen years experience teaching students from kindergarten to the collegiate level and is passionate about creating experiences that connect students to learning in the real world.
Ashley Brown is a former journalist who has been teaching high school Language Arts since 1998. She is a native of Mississippi but calls Memphis home. She has a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction and became a National Board Certified Teacher in 2004.