Allison and I met back in the winter to determine how to start my oral history project, and I expressed to her that I was unsure how to begin instructing my students in the process. Students would need to know how to write open ended questions, how to gather historical research on the event or trend on which they were interviewing, how to behave during an interview which could be emotional, and, of course, I was still in the midst of preparing my students for the AP US History exam.
Allison suggested to me that I begin with the question, “What makes a good interviewer?” She and I brainstormed interviews that had different styles and mediums, along with information from Donald Ritchie’s Doing Oral History and an interview with Charlie Rose on what he considers essential for an interviewer.
Allison then asked: what if this assignment became a document based essay question (DBQ)? The DBQ is one of the most challenging and essential exercises in AP US History; students must combine their historical knowledge with evidence gathered from primary source documents to craft a cohesive argument in response to a prompt. Going back to the College Board issued rubric for the DBQ, which I had been using with my students all year, I found that many of the skills listed transferred perfectly into this oral history assignment. For example, students must “provide an example or additional piece of specific evidence beyond those found in the documents to support or qualify the argument.” My students might connect to interviews they have seen on their own, or examples of oral history that we have studied throughout our course.
The students’ responses to this DBQ prompt were impressive – I had a big time “teacher nerd” moment, the ones where you squeal with joy at the connections your students are making! Students wrote articulately, and many were able to satisfy elements of the DBQ rubric with which they had struggled all year. Students also took intellectual risks, making connections that made meaning for them. For example, one student began his essay by writing about the meme-ified and auto-tuned YouTube video “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That” in which the resident of a building that had caught on fire describes her experience to a reporter. I had my doubts as I began to read. However, he wrote about this video as an example of what can go wrong when an interviewer does not take his or her subject seriously, does not ask questions to deepen understanding, and does not have a strong intellectual context for his interviewee. No matter the connections made, I felt that every student understood what makes a good interviewer in a way that was accurate and personal to them.
I am impressed with my students, and so proud of their work and learning. And I am proud of Allison and myself for creating an assignment which demonstrates that a class can personalize learning AND teach AP standards and skills.