Golden Oldies: Using Digital Recording to Capture History

Digital recording tools help students engage the oral tradition and connect with the past

I hit play and the sound of his voice washes over me like a warm summer breeze. I am 10 years old again, listening to my grandfather, Henry C. Langhorst, tell me stories. In a heavy German accent, he’s recalling his youth, how he and his brother crossed the American heartland by train in 1923. Neither spoke a word of English, and possessing only the clothes on their backs, the two set out for a Nebraska farm and the promise of work. My father and I were at his bedside when Grandpa passed away in 1994 at age 97. But I can still hear him tell his stories, thanks to a recording. My dad and Uncle Dave—both high school history teachers—had the foresight to have my grandfather recount his experiences before an old reel-to-reel tape recorder one Christmas years ago. They logged six hours of stories—of Grandpa’s youth in Germany, how he survived the muddy trenches of World War I as a German marine, his decision to leave his family behind and immigrate to America, and how the sight of the Statue of Liberty brought him to tears. This family treasure has been transferred to digital format, ensuring that the chronicle of his life will be passed on to future generations. Everyone has a story, and story is essentially at its core history. My grandfather led an incredible life, but it will never be the focus of a History Channel documentary or grab the attention of Ken Burns. This matters little to my family. His story is our personal history and, in many regards, more significant than the cold facts we learn from a textbook. Henry C. Langhorst’s life journey is one of millions that make up the collective history of our nation. As an eighth-grade American history teacher, I want my students to understand the value of personal history by recording and collecting their own. Analog audio recording has been around for a long time, but today’s digital technology makes the process even easier, thanks to inexpensive equipment and free editing software. This year, my students at South Valley Junior High in Liberty, MO, will embark on an oral history project in which they will record their own family stories, then share them with the community through local libraries and museums. Liberty itself has a colorful past. It was the site of a Civil War battle and the first daylight bank robbery in American history involving none other than the Jesse James gang. Through various projects, including a book blog, my students have discovered our local past. The challenge now is to help them understand history as something more than a series of well-known events and famous—or infamous—individuals; that it can be much more personal. Such a connection, I have found, often creates a spark that drives an individual to learn more about history in general. Our oral history project is designed to help students learn more about their own heritage. Then, hopefully, they will make connections to broader historical events that they generally encounter in the classroom.

Ready, set, record

To begin, students will check out small MP3 recorders from school to take home and interview family members. We have applied for a grant to help purchase several small iRiver MP3 players, which have an excellent internal microphone. Students also have the option of checking out a school laptop and USB microphone to do their recording. Simple to use and inexpensive, today’s digital recording equipment has made such a project highly doable in the average classroom. A portable MP3 device with an internal mic, for example, can be purchased for around $50 and a USB mic costs around $15. Audio editing software is readily available; we use Audacity, an open-source program that you can download for free online. To help maximize their success, it’s important to guide your students in developing the skills required to conduct an effective interview. Discussing various techniques with your students and allowing them to practice on their peers helps build confidence and will pay dividends in the form of better interviews. Encourage kids to ask open-ended questions, which give the subject an opportunity to elaborate. Another acquired skill is forming effective follow-up questions. Interviewers often find that their best material doesn’t derive from their original preparatory notes. So what do you talk about? Provide your students with some direction for the topics they will cover in the interview. In our project, I’m asking the kids to consider two threads—family history and historic events. A family topic, for instance, could involve describing a family business. An interview around a historic event might include a personal account of the 9/11 attacks, the day President Kennedy was assassinated, or a local catastrophe such as a hurricane or tornado. And then there’s the location of the interview. The majority of our recording will take place off campus—in the homes of the students or their family members. Another option is conducting the interviews at a central location. A Veteran’s Day program at school could be such an opportunity. Students might also visit a local nursing home or retirement village and in so doing build a meaningful bridge to the community. Rare is the interviewer who hits play at the start and stop at the completion with a satisfactory finished product. So many of your students will likely want to edit their recordings, at the very least to eliminate errors and long pauses. I would recommend the free program Audacity, which is easy to use and allows students to edit the audio in a variety of formats. Audacity is also a popular choice because it can be used on a Mac, PC, or Linux operating system. The final product can then be saved as an MP3, the most commonly accepted audio format used today. Saving and storing completed interviews is an important consideration, given the time and effort invested in the project. One recommendation is saving the interviews on an external hard drive. This storage option has multiple advantages, being relatively inexpensive, portable, and easy to use (just plug in via USB). It will also conserve the quality of the file longer than that of a CD.

Options for sharing and distribution

Students will want to share the completed interview with their families and, possibly, a larger audience. Multiple copies can be inexpensively burned to CDs for distribution. If the interviewee grants permission, providing a signed consent form, the recording can be stored in a general collection, such as a regional historical society, library, or museum. Collecting these stories in audio format has its advantages; it’s easy, for one, and requires only simple equipment, while providing hours of content with minimal memory requirements. Students, however, may want to take it a step further and include images and video to create a digital storytelling piece. Free video editing software is available and easy for students to use in creating their own mini-documentaries. One way that students can create a visual oral history project is through VoiceThread. A free, Web-based application, VoiceThread allows visitors to comment on a slideshow through a microphone connected to their computer. Imagine, for example, a series of images of a community devastated by a tornado and while viewing the slideshow, you hear the voices or video of different students describing their personal survival stories. Finally, I would encourage you to participate in an oral history project alongside your students. This past holiday season, I sat down with my own parents and asked them about their lives, how they met and planned their wedding, what they did before we came along. Many of the details of their story, which I recorded, I was hearing for the first time. I can never repay my uncle and dad for the gift of Grandpa’s recording, but I am doing my part to preserve our family history for future generations. I expect that such a project will be as much a journey of discovery for you as for your students.
Eric Langhorst is an eighth-grade American history teacher at South Valley Junior High in Liberty, MO, and author of the blog Speaking of History.

Additional Resources

The Oral History Project: Connecting Students to their Community, Grades 4–8 by Dick Heyler, et al. (Heinemann, 2006) A practical guide uniquely suited for use with younger kids. An accompanying CD includes audio, video, and print samples of oral history projects. The Power of Story Here you’ll find classroom guidance and a short video by Ken Burns on the drama of personal experience. Veterans History Project This national initiative to collect stories of wartime service includes Web and print resources for educators and samples of student-led interviews.

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