EDU Spotlight: Oral History with SFUSD

A Q&A with our Education Associate Erin Vong & Teacher Sam Aguirre from O’Connell High School

This past year, we’ve been working on a consultancy project with San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) to introduce our justice-driven oral history process to their teachers and students, and support them in creating storytelling projects in the classroom. In this Q&A, Erin Vong, our Education Associate, and Sam Aguirre, a teacher at O’Connell High School, share more about these projects and how students responded to learning through oral history and storytelling.

Listen to the students’ oral history podcasts here.

VOW: How did the partnership between VOW and SFUSD begin?

ERIN: A few years ago, we began a formal relationship with SFUSD to provide professional development to San Francisco middle and high school teachers and librarians. I met Brad Williston from the SFUSD Librarians Department at a conference, and then connected with Esther Honda, who works with the middle and high schools in the district, and we started brainstorming about how teacher-librarians could use oral histories and our methodology by partnering with teachers in their schools. 

We began conducting what is now an ongoing series of trainings with SFUSD teachers, offering oral history and personal narrative workshops that centered around increasing student visibility and voice, and connecting it to district standards for writing and communication skills. We started with professional development days to introduce VOW’s work to staff at various sites, and these slowly grew into larger scale projects that were supported by a year-long consultancy.

VOW: What were some of the challenges you were working to address?

ERIN: Oral history has already been used throughout the district, particularly in Ethnic Studies courses, but we hoped that the VOW content and methodology could help deepen relationships between teacher-librarians and classroom teachers as they worked together to create projects that were culturally responsive and engaging for students. SFUSD is lucky to have a school librarian at each site that provides much more than books: the teacher-librarians develop programs that enrich the culture at their site, make new technology available (such as audio editing, 3D printing), and collaborate with teachers and organizations to provide more for their students.

SAM: Within the SFUSD Ethnic Studies curriculum, they have an oral history unit, but it’s all written narratives. I’ve done this project before as a written narrative, but with the help of the library and Voice of Witness, we’re able to take it to the next level and create an audio project.

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VOW: What were the projects you worked on during the consultancy?

SAM: Elaine Moskowitz and I worked with students on an oral history project comprised of two main components: a written narrative and, with the help of Voice of Witness, an audio podcast where students edited the interviews they conducted with family members, staff members, and community members. They also recorded introductions and conclusions. 

Students developed interview skills, as many of them had never done this before. They had never even tried recording on their phones, and they had to learn how to pace interviews, build the trajectory of the story, and edit to find the best highlights that can be shared in podcast form. They used Audacity and all the students had to learn to use that technology.

ERIN: I also supported Callen Taylor at Visitacion Valley Middle School over the spring semester. Her students read Surviving Justice and interviewed relatives, teachers, and community members around the theme of justice and turned those stories into a photo essay.

VOW: What was the outcome, and how did the students respond to the project? 

SAM: Voice of Witness has been extremely helpful and supportive in every step of this project. It’s a really big undertaking with four classes, and the project has been ambitious for my students, and Voice of Witness has been so generous with their time and patience, especially working with students one-on-one to create questions, conduct interviews, and edit the final product.

It has definitely been a successful project and the students have been excited to do something different. It’s been fun to see them working on the computers, even when they were hesitant or reluctant at first, and now they’re really getting into crafting the perfect story from their interview.

ERIN: There was a lot of learning on the spot around technology and timing, but both sites completed brilliant projects, and we could see the impact as the students were working. I watched high schoolers become absorbed with audio editing and representing their narrator’s voice as accurately as possible, and middle schoolers debate over the best quotes to highlight. At Visitacion Valley, Callen displayed the students’ photo essays at their annual Sports and Arts night, and teachers who were interviewed came by to see their own stories presented by the students. It was a moving moment for everyone.

What are the plans for the future of the partnership?

ERIN: We’re hoping to expand to a couple new sites in the coming school year, as well as continue our work at O’Connell and Visitacion Valley, where the foundation has already been established. I would love to see oral history used in some capacity at as many schools as possible in the city, and it has personally been such an honor to work with such dedicated and creative teacher-librarians and classroom teachers.

Listen to the oral history podcasts from O’Connell High School here

Work with VOW!

If you are interested in our education services, oral history trainings and workshops, or curricular support, email or visit the services page of our website.

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