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To Feel as our Ancestors Did–review

November 27, 2009
From ‘The History Teacher,’ Vol. 39, No. 2, Feb. 2006

In today’s standards-driven, accountability-heavy educational environment, it is easy to forget history’s power to transform classroom instruction and activate the imagination and enthusiasm of students. Thankfully, Daniel A. Kelin has not forgotten, and To Feel as Our Ancestors Did not only reminds educators of the value of oral history but provides clear examples of how to implement such an undertaking in an upper elementary or middle school classroom. He is director of drama education for the Honolulu Theater for Youth and outlines a project developed, refined, and put into practice over the past few years. The core of his model has students select an historical theme, the “Home Front during the Second World War” or “Life in the 1950s,” and collect oral histories from the community that relate to the theme. Then students, acting as historians, interpret the information collected and present it back to the community in the form of a dramatic performance. The entire endeavor promotes not only a deeper understanding of the content of a particular time period or event in history but also emphasizes critical writing, reading, and interpersonal skills that all students need to refine.

Limited in their time, and increasingly encumbered by numerous standardized assessments, classroom teachers will at first be leery of Kelin’s approach. To supervise the gathering of oral histories, analyze the data, and then transform this into a student-run performance is an overwhelming undertaking that could marginalize other content and skills and endanger the highly visible results from various tests. Kelin is aware of this and attacks these concerns head on when he notes, “This is a lot of time for a class or school to give over to a single project. …However, one of the many useful features of this model is its potential to expand or contract to fit the interests or needs of a particular class or school…. Students, teachers, classes, or schools can determine the necessity and size of each part of the process.” Showing that he recognizes the needs of teachers enables Kelin to overcome the initial concerns many educators have about extensive projects and to further assuage these fears by providing tangible resources to facilitate greater ease in implementing his vision.

The book is organized into thirteen chapters that disaggregate the undertaking into eleven steps and then explain how educators could implement a project in their own setting. Kelin stresses the need to develop in students the ability to select a theme, build skills in interviewing, collect the oral histories, devise a sequence to the story, select music and plan the presentation, rehearse, and evaluate the entire process. The strength of the book lies in the detailed and organized manner in which the author explains how to conduct the oral history component and coordinate the performance. Each chapter builds confidence as worksheets, questions to pose to students, instructional ideas, timelines, sample student work, and student reminiscences give flesh to the activity. Working from goals and behavioral objectives, the chapters then offer journal writing topics and brainstorming activities to initiate an exploration of the major steps in producing the oral history and the subsequent presentation. An outline of a lesson plan, organized in a manner with which teachers are familiar, allows educators to select what lessons they want to implement in their respective classrooms. When discussing the collection of oral histories, Kelin stresses the need for students to understand the context of the time period before they undertake the collection of information. Suggestions about providing context include conducting research in a library, museum, or historical site, but strangely excludes a teacher taught unit on the major personalities, ideas, and turning points of the time period. In addition, the author provides checklists of how to prepare the interviewee and things to consider before actually conducting the interview. The pragmatic suggestions provided in the book will be welcome and useful additions to any teacher’s instructional repertoire.

The model provided by Kelin is a wonderful reminder that schooling a young mind is about more than simply memorization, the reading of passages divorced from context, and testing. As one of the sixth grade students who participated in interviewing and in the performance of the model he presents put it, Kelin’s approach made her understand that “History is what we all need to learn because it tells about the world and wonderful things that have happened.” To Feel as Our Ancestors Did is a useful reference for teachers or schools interested in developing an oral history project to complement a curriculum.