by Claire Dyer (2002)
Oral traditions and oral histories provide another way to learn about the past from people with:
Recently, spoken words that make up oral histories have gained importance as primary sources. Historians and others find out about the lives of ordinary people through spoken stories and tales. Oral histories provide important historical evidence about people, especially minority groups, who were excluded from mainstream histories, or about societies that did not leave behind written sources. A good local example of this is the 'praise poem' from indigenous
African culture, which predates European contact, and tells us about leaders and events in the time before and during the history writing of white settlers in South Africa.
Oral histories are as old as human beings. Before the invention of writing, information passed from generation to generation through the spoken word. Many people around the world continue to use oral traditions to pass along knowledge and wisdom. Interviews and recordings of community elders and witnesses to historical events provide exciting stories, anecdotes and other information about the past.
"Your memories live longer than your dreams. Memories never fade, if you got a good memory. Those years will never come back again. But if you have your memories like me, you can't be lonely, because you have your memories"-Mrs G.J.
Centre for Popular Memory, University of Cape Town
Oral history deals with the life experiences of ordinary people. Apart from being interesting, oral histories accomplish the following:
Because of this it can be argued that Oral History is People's History or 'history from below' rather than the history of one group, usually wealthy, that often sponsor the writing of their own history. For example many of our elders can remember the Great Depression and its effect on families in South Africa or the Second World War and the participation of South Africans in that war. There are many important events during the struggle for freedom in South Africa including the Defiance Campaign of the 1950's, the participation in bus boycotts, or the march of women to the Union Buildings in 1956. People remember the Rivonia Trial, the Sharpeville Massacre and the assassination of Verwoed and the shootings of the children in Soweto in 1976. People remember the death of Steve Biko in 1977, the necklace murders of the turbulent 1980's, the forced removals of the 1960's and 1970's, the student uprisings in the 1980's, the negotiations and marches for peace in the late 1980's, the release of Nelson Mandela and the elections of 1994.
Many were there themselves! Even as teachers, we have stories to tell and share. So oral history is alive and waiting for us to access it as an invaluable source and resource.
It is important for us as learners, at whatever level, to understand that we ourselves already are building our own histories and will become invaluable sources of memory in the future. For example, what do present school learners know and what will they remember about HIV/AIDS and its effect on South Africans in the early twenty first century? What will they be able to tell their children and grandchildren about September 11, 2001 or about the recent Soweto bombings? They are already experiencing history and would have memories of these events that can one day act as sources of memory. What do you as an educator remember about the experiences of the 1960's and 1970's? Although we have lived through apartheid for much of our lives, there are also positive memories relating to music and fashion and other cultural experiences, which reflect the time in our country and a part of a bigger world. What do parents and teachers remember about the music of Miriam Makeba, Jonathon Butler, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Joan Baez, Ray Charles, Tracy Chapman, etc., to name a few? What did they sing about? How does it reflect history and memory?
We all have stories to tell as learners, teachers, parents and members of the community.
Oral history methodology can be introduced to Foundation Phase learners as they are expected to know their own lives and how their families have developed and changed over time. The NCS for Foundation Phase emphasizes story-telling and questioning skills when doing family history. Encourage learners to find out about:
Oral history research makes their experience of doing and understanding history much more interesting and relevant to context and time.
We need to view oral histories in the same way as any other kind of historical source and consider the following:
(adapted from Moher, J. (1993). Step-by- Step Guide to Oral History)
Local studies will be enriched if learners are encouraged to interview people. The students of this country could be creating invaluable resources. These interviews could also later be used in the class as oral sources. When working with oral sources learners need to be made aware that:
“Story-telling can be a powerful way of engaging learners imaginatively with the past: and of introducing a topic so that they can form a mental model of the past world. Stories give information and detail, and supplya context, a visualization of a different world.”
(Fines, J & Nichol, J. (1997). Teaching Primary History: The Nuffield Primary History Project, Oxford: Heinemann)
The telling of the story contributes to the creation of a common second record for the learners. Stories told to learners must be based on real evidence from the past - they are not fiction set in the past. A story helps learners form a context that will give more meaning to some follow-up work with sources.
Another idea might be to tell a story until a crucial point, and then ask the learners what they think happened next. They can argue the options in small groups and then record their differing perspectives on newsprint or on the chalkboard. Work with sources will then provide the 'what happened next' of the actual event. Giving learners the opportunity to argue develops their skills and is a way for them to see the validity of their suggestions. This skill also needs to be developed in writing.
It is important in the teaching of History to show learners that what they are doing has relevance to them today. History is also about now. A further consideration is how, through teaching and learning in History, we can help learners to respect themselves, to learn to think and to learn to communicate. Effective communication is worth gold in today's world. A good way to do this is through drama, role-play and verbal responses.
Drama is something that needs careful thought and preparation. It is not relevant or useful on all occasions; and it needs a great deal of concentration and effort for it to succeed. It also has limited use; dealing only with those areas where you can afford the time that drama takes.
Having said that, drama is also a valuable means of developing historical understanding in learners and complements the process of history as enquiry. Drama can help to concentrate understanding on specific moments in the past, allowing learners to 'climb inside them' in the process of understanding. It can also help learners to understand that some questions raised in the study of the past might have a range of possible answers.
Drama needs to be linked closely to the historical situation and to real evidence about the past. Often an historical resource such as a story, document, picture or artefact provides a good starting focus for a piece of drama. This will occur when the learners already have some knowledge of the topic. Drama can also be a process of building a story, being used as an entry into a topic that will be developed during further lessons.
The teacher might also take a role in the drama, taking on the role of one of the characters. This need not necessarily be the leader. It could also, for example, be that of someone who needs to solve a problem and the learners are asked to offer ideas and solutions that they will all consider.
The central point in this is that whatever the form the drama takes, it needs to be based on real people and situations from the past.
An important historical learning and understanding gained from drama is the ability to empathize – to really feel what others felt. The kinds of empathy resulting from drama include a straight personal empathy in which a learner begins to feel a little of what a character or group under study felt, and empathy for a situation in which the learners begin to understand the constraints within which people or groups in the past operated.
Simulation or role-play is closely linked to drama. Again, the aim of role-play is to try to help children to understand why people acted as they did in the past and needs to be based on real evidence about real people in the past. This can only be done successfully once the class has spent some time working with the evidence. The simulation can be as simple as giving learners a role, describing the situation, and asking them to come up with a solution or solutions.
Simulations can also come in other forms such as board games or staging class debates on historical issues.
Facts that are available as proof of events is called evidence. Historians need evidence in order to build up an accurate picture of the past, but because all the relevant evidence may not be available they can only establish part of the actual events.