What Did You Do in the War Grandma?

Teaching English via Oral History

(as inspired by Wilma Briggs)

Judi Scott

When I first told friends about the "What Did You Do In The War, Grandma?" project, some thought it odd that the project was placed, ensconced, or tossed into the English Department here at South Kingstown High School. Why not the History Department? Be logical!

Actually, the project was tossed my way, by our librarian Linda P. Wood. We batted the idea around a bit, huddled with administrators, students, and parents, and studied the field of English. Why not English?

English teachers have a love affair with language: the sounds of stunningly accurate action verbs, the images surrounding concrete details, which this project unearthed daily. Victory gardens, ration books, pompadours, and big bands. Guadalcanal, Malaria, V-mail, and nylons. F.D.R., radio, retreads and war bonds, Bob Hope and khaki and Quonset and short skirts. By sharing their memories of World War II, our narrators gave the students something real to write about.

Given similarly good reading material, most students can be encouraged to analyze and enjoy literature. Students in my ninth grade honors class read literature about World War II. They read Ella Leffland's Rumors of Peace, a critically acclaimed novel set in wartime California. For more background they read Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, set in a per-war slum, and then Arthur Miller's All my Sons, set in post-war upper middle class suburbia. The students read a variety of poetry including war poetry.

Finally, by studying oral history, the students developed, I think, better listening skills. After painstakingly transcribing their interviews and analyzing Studs Terkel's The Good War, they learned to write the character sketches included in this magazine.

In teaching terms, genre by genre, all bases were covered, and the project fit the curriculum like a well oiled glove.

During their training, our rookie oral historians met with pros like Dr. William Metz and Dr. Sharon Strom from the University of Rhode Island. Pam Wood, of Salt fame, traveled down from Kennebunkport, Maine to scope out the students' first interviews and give them a few pointers. I videotaped some interviews for later play-by-play analysis.

Writers from The Providence Journal and The Narragansett Times kept local crowds so well informed that before we knew it, a coterie of fans from all over Rhode Island emerged - about two ladylike tons worth!

Now that this project is almost over (10:10pm, June 28, 1989), I have learned that oral history has more to do with baseball than it does with traditional history courses. And where oral history is placed (or tossed) doesn't matter much. It's not the ball, it's the ballgame.

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Copyright 1995