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Teen, Senior Oral History Builds Writing and Uncommon Friends "We Learned from Their Pasts,"

Says Douglass Center Mini-Grantees

by Jane Califf

“I was going to drop out of school, but Mr. Brown convinced me not to,” said Sha-von.  I was astounded.  Mr. Brown was a nursing home resident whom Sha-von had interviewed for an oral history project that had been funded by a minigrant from the Literacy Assistance Center. All year I had been giving this student what I considered to be inspiring pep talks to stay in school and to do his best, but in the end, it was Mr. brown, a former boxer and police officer with a short-term memory loss who was the decisive influence on Sha-von.  As a matter of fact, while some other students drifted away during the last weeks of school, Sha-von came every day and strove harder in his classwork than he had all year.


The three-month oral history project, which culminated in the publication of a booklet entitled, “The Lives of Five Residents of the Concord Nursing Home,” convinced me of the importance of teachers and their classes going out into the community to search for inspiration and support.


As my class began the difficult task of interviewing the five residents and the piecing together of their lives, I had no idea whether or not this project would be a success.  As the months passed, I was amazed that students’ efforts at writing, rewriting, typing and retyping rarely flagged.  They accepted the fact that to produce a booklet for ourselves, our school and the public, their writing had to be as accurate as possible.


The Process


I explained that no one from our school had ever done this;  they would improve their writing ability and learn more history; this was a great challenge I knew they could undertake; a publication would result; we would have a celebration at the nursing home; copies of the publication would be given to students and staff in our school and to the nursing home; the local public library would carry copies for circulation; and we would send out press releases to the media.  I pointed out that since many students had expressed frustration with the prevalent view that black teenagers are potential criminals, here was a chance to help dispel this stereotype.


Their interest perked, students drew up questions for the interviews which were organized into different categories: childhood, adulthood/job/marriage, political or community involvement, nursing home experience, and advice to young people.  Five teams were formed with four students in each one; each had a specific task—to tape record, take notes, lead the questioning or to ask follow-up questions.  After interviewing the residents, teams listened to their tapes, checked their notes and began to transcribe the most important points about each person’s life.


Several teams needed to do research to put their residents’ lives in historical perspective; topics included Martin Luther King Jr., the sharecropping system and the Negro Leagues.  Others had difficulty organizing the information they had gathered.  To shore up their confidence, I invited our director, a guidance counselor, and four members of the New Life Fellowship, a group of retirees at the Concord Baptist Church of Christ (the church across the street from our school, site of the nursing home) to work with whichever teams needed help. This interest showed my students the project’s importance to the world outside our classroom and helped them become more steadfast in their work.


This project did not proceed without problems, including the loss of several student participants.  Students who stayed with the project, however, improved their writing skills, strengthened their ability to work cooperatively and to listen, developed more respect for the elderly, and learned how to polish their speaking skills for the ceremony in which each team introduced its resident and gave a short summary of his/her life.




Since the nursing home could only accommodate one additional class from our school for the ceremony, we developed a way to spread the benefit of our work.  We invited classes, one at a time, to meet a resident and to read together the chapter in the booklet about that person.  A team was in charge of each session and encouraged the audience to ask questions of the resident or the team members.  Invited students were respectful, genuinely interested in the project and grateful to receive a copy of the booklet.


We received many letters of congratulation which were duplicated, stapled together, and presented to each student as an end-of-the-year gift.  We were all proud of our finished product.  Residents felt appreciated by young people who in turn were inspired by the lives and counsel of the residents.  Bonds were forged between you and old which will continue into the future.


The following comments on this experience are from students:

Kevin Turner: “It felt good because I never did something like that.  We all gave a speech and warmed up the hearts of the elderly.”

Vanessa Adams, Shatoya Carmichael, Tiffany Chapman and Tanya Spence: “We learned how the residents…contributed to society.  We believe they were not given enough recognition for their hard work and achievements, so this was a way to let people know about their contributions and to give something to these five wonderful people.  To do this project was a great challenge and experience because we learned a lot from the residents’ past to the present.  We took their message very…seriously.  They taught us not to give up on our dreams and achievements…not to let anything get in our way.”


—Jane Califf is a teacher at the Frederick Douglass Center, an alternative high school/reading program for 17-to 21-years-olds who test below 6.0 on a standardized test.  It is part of the New York City public school system.

This project was funded through a Literacy Assistance Center/New York City Professional Development Consortium minigrant.



By Jane Califf, as Published in: Literacy Update, The Literacy Assistance Center, NY, October 1997, Vol 7, No. 2

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