“Our Immigration Stories”: An Oral History Video Project with 5th Graders

Oral history is a valuable tool for learning and has many applications in educational settings. We have seen firsthand how oral history projects resonate with middle, high school, and college students, inspiring curiosity, empathy, and community engagement. Recently, Voice of Witness has been exploring the impact of oral history education with elementary schools as well.

In the fall of the 2023-24 school year, Voice of Witness collaborated on a video-based oral history project with librarian Marie Tang and 5th grade teacher Christopher Moore at Garfield Elementary School in San Francisco. 

Ms. Tang and Mr. Moore wanted to create an opportunity for their students to learn about their families’ stories as part of a larger social studies unit on immigration. 

The projects began after students had taken a field trip to the Angel Island Immigration Station, where they learned about the “push and pull” factors that brought different immigrant groups to California. Students were then asked to connect this learning to their personal experience by interviewing a family member about their journey to California.

To prepare for their interviews, students crafted open-ended questions that utilized their prior knowledge of their family’s history and practiced asking follow-up questions about the parts of their family’s story that interested them most. By the time Thanksgiving Break arrived, students were ready to independently set up and record an oral history interview with their family members.

When students returned to school with their recorded interviews, they practiced video editing using WeVideo. Students selected the most meaningful moments from their interviews and compiled their edited projects into a class slideshow. Ms. Tang, Mr. Moore, VOW staff, and students viewed the final projects together and reflected on the experience with a special celebration at the end of the semester. 

Reflecting on the unit, Mr. Moore said that incorporating oral history “absolutely lifted the level of our immigration unit, and more importantly student and family engagement.” Ms. Tang agreed, noting that the family interviews  “made the immigration unit a deep, meaningful learning experience.” She added, “I hope they utilize these [interview] skills and keep collecting stories that relate to identity.”

For VOW, this project was an exciting new collaboration with an elementary school and 5th grade class, and a deepening of our partnership with San Francisco Unified School District. The creativity, curiosity, and enthusiasm that these younger students brought to the project shined through in their work.

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