Oral History in the Classroom: Voice of Witness at Stagg High School

Stagg High School – Oral History Class

The “VOW class” is a year-long elective course offered at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Palos Hills, Illinois. Students in the VOW class develop vital skills through the use of oral history to collect and share stories from the school and broader community. Teachers Lisa Thyer and Chris Wendelin created the course in collaboration with the Voice of Witness education team in 2015, and it has been running ever since.

Students study the craft of oral history with readings from the VOW book series and other key texts like Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and Studs Terkel’s Working. Putting their oral history learning into practice, students then begin conducting their own interviews and honing their deep listening, empathy, critical thinking, and editing skills.

This class furthered my sense of empathy by teaching me to truly listen.

Samantha Sarli, Student in the first Stagg VOW Class

I think it was the first time our community really looked at our diverse experiences with a more true and deep sense of pride. VOW participants were so proud of what they created and it was the most genuine pride and accomplishment I had seen come from a classroom or activity. In the long term, the course had lasting, positive effects.

Principal Eric Olsen
oral history class report cover

After the seventh year of the class, Voice of Witness wanted to study the long-term effects that this unique oral history-based course had on student learning. A survey and in-depth interviews were conducted with former students in an effort to measure the impact of the class. The resulting report, Benefits of an Oral History-Based Course: A Case Study on Building Empathy, Community, and Student Skills shares the findings of this evaluation. Download it here.


The need for classes like this has never been more urgent. As schools consider developing courses geared towards building social-emotional skills and teaching inclusive history and civic engagement, we hope they will look to the VOW class model for creating immediate and long-term impacts on students’ lives and the greater school community.

An accompanying Stagg VOW Class Toolkit was created in hopes that other schools and programs across the country will implement similar courses. The toolkit shares a collection of high-impact projects and assignments for educators interested in creating their own oral history units or classes. It is intended to provide a starting point for designing a yearlong course around oral history; however, individual lessons and projects can be taught separately.

Interested in working with Voice of Witness?

Through our consulting services, VOW offers expert oral history and education support to teachers, schools, organizations, and more. These collaborations emphasize the power of sharing stories and build empathy and key student skills. We work with clients to develop customized, interactive projects, workshops, and/or curricular support using VOW’s award-winning methodology.

Please contact Erin Vong for more information.