• A Tale of Two Everyday Heroes

      Editor’s Note: The bi-weekly blog series “I, Witness,” seeks to explore the ethics, challenges, and possibilities of teaching and conducting oral history.

      By Lisa Thyer

      Like any good English teachers, my colleague Mary and I were always looking for new ways to engage our students. Oral history seemed like a powerful tool: it would bolster our curriculums with non-fiction writing, allow students to engage with texts on a primary source level, and push them to practice listening, speaking, writing, and editing skills. More than anything, we were drawn to the social justice emphasis of oral history. At the very least, we reasoned, oral history would show our students that the skills we teach in our classrooms are only as valuable as the tasks to which they are applied.

      What we didn’t bargain for was just how far outside the classroom this lesson would extend.


      (English teachers Lisa, Mary, Amy, and the district Superintendent celebrate the grant that enabled them to invite Voice of Witness to their school) 

      After Voice of Witness Education Program staff conducted a workshop at our school, Mary and I asked our students to apply the empathetic interviewing skills they had learned. They conducted interviews and wrote an oral history essay about an Everyday Hero; those people whom Langston Hughes defined as, “The living heroes who are your neighbors—but who may not look or talk like heroes when they are sitting quietly in a chair in front of you.”

      Although the students enjoyed the project, it seemed like any other assignment until we received an email from a student after the passing of his grandfather: “When the class was assigned the interview project at the beginning of the semester, I interviewed my Grandfather. I am glad I did too, because I now have his whole life story because of it. My Grandfather really enjoyed reading that essay. Also, a good friend of the family read it at his funeral for me. Everyone loved it. I am glad I had the opportunity to do that project. So thank you for it.” 

      Our student’s simple thank you underscored the genuine impact of oral history in the classroom: personal connections to people and their stories can change us. Sadly, this realization took on a new meaning for me personally when Mary was hospitalized in the spring. After being diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that required a liver transplant, Mary contracted an aggressive infection while awaiting her transplant and at the age of only 33, she lost her fight with her disease. Mary’s loss was devastating. Our students lost a beloved teacher, our school lost one of its most dedicated and passionate faculty members, and I lost one of my closest friends. In dealing with her loss, the students and staff turned to stories for comfort. We shared stories about Mary, her influence, her wisdom, and her love for education and life. 


      (Mary and Lisa)

      In memory of Mary, and in response to the outpouring of stories that helped to bring us together to heal, our school is in the midst of creating our own unique oral history project. What started as an isolated idea among a small group of students and teachers in the English and History departments has become a school-wide initiative. Thanks to the support of our principal and administration, we have begun to plan an oral history collection that seeks to foster empathy by building a connection between our history and our future as a diverse school and community. Ideas include interviewing staff, former students, and community members about their experiences of September 11th (when our school gained national attention for protecting our Middle Eastern students in the face of hate crimes), or the overwhelming student and staff response when Hurricane Katrina displaced a Stagg teacher’s family.

      And, of course, we plan to include the stories of those touched by amazing teachers like Mary. Perhaps, as we remember the legacies of those who came before us, we can also support one another as we build a stronger future. 

      Lisa Thyer is an English Teacher at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Palos Hills, Illinois.

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    • Cliff's Notes: A Holiday Hello from Our Education Program Director

      Dear Colleagues,

      2014 has been an invigorating and productive year for the Voice of Witness Education Program! Before we look ahead to 2015, I’d like to reflect on the previous year’s accomplishments, and express my gratitude for all that you do for your classrooms and communities. Through your commitment to teaching and learning, we’ve been able to:
      • Engage directly with over 3,000 students and 115 teachers nationwide
      • Conduct 45 in-school visits and facilitate 15 oral history trainings and workshops
      • Share our socially-relevant curriculum with teachers around the U.S. through our free downloads and our book, The Power of the Story
      Thank you again for being such inspiring colleagues. I hope you have a restorative winter break, and I look forward to our work together in 2015.
       With respect,
      Cliff Mayotte
      Education Program Director


      P.S.  If you haven’t given yet to our “Fund it Forward” end-of-year fundraising campaign, now is the perfect time. Thanks to the generosity of the The Germanacos Foundation, every donation made from now until December 31st will be TRIPLED! That means your gift will go three times as far in keeping our acclaimed oral history book series and innovative education program going strong in 2015. Gifts of every size are appreciated and make a difference.

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    • Lesson Plans Now Available for Palestine Speaks

      Educators, be sure to download our new curriculum for Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life under Occupation. The lesson plans we’ve created explore the day-to-day realities of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank through the skills of oral history. These Common Core-aligned lessons address themes of identity, art as political resistance, media bias, borders and boundaries, and more. Over 200 educators have downloaded our free curriculum so far - you can join them and download your copy here.

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    • Education Program Seeks Intern: Could It Be You?

      Do you love oral history and education and want to commit 10 hours a week to Voice of Witness? The Education Program is seeking a part-time intern from January—June 2015. Internship duties include but are not limited to: curricular research, social media support, assistance with and participation in oral history workshops, school site visits, and proofreading. We are committed to providing a fulfilling and educational experience for our interns. Email Claire Kiefer for more information.

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    • 30 Years On: The Anniversary of The Bhopal Disaster


      This week marks the 30th anniversary of Bhopal disaster, one of the worst industrial accidents in history. Toxic gas leaked from a pesticide factory in the middle of the night, exposing upwards of half a million people and killing as many as 25,000. 

      Sanjay Verma was orphaned by the gas leak and lives with the nightmare of Bhopal’s second disaster: The failure to fully clean up the leak and the ongoing neglect of its victims.  Read Verma’s story from our book Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy excerpted in Mother Jones, here.

      For more info and to order Invisible Hands, click here

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