Teaching Gender Issues: An Oral History and Civics Project

Cards for Democracy
Published on
September 30, 2017
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Teaching Gender Issues:
An Oral History and Civics Project

An entry from a teacher’s diary by Luisa Black.

I am a teacher educator and a historian. As many people know a  historian’s work is based on never-ending investigation, the outputs of which can significantly influence contemporary times. When misused, history is a great agent of indoctrination because historical interpretations are not neutral. History (…) is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer (Lévesque, 2008). The grasping of these notions is a laborious process: complex outcomes cannot be achieved easily. Learners usually see the past as something stable with no link to the present hence historical thinking has been considered an unnatural act. Some evidence suggests that the notion of the “timeless past,” the idea that concepts from the present can be easily transported back in time, is embraced by some university students – history majors and non-majors alike (Wineburg, 2001).

Oral history is an important means by which learners can actively participate in ‘making history’. It  allows learners to ‘do history’ just like a  historian: they explore chronology, continuity, significance and change.   They become involved in discovering similarities, differences and causation as well as  source analysis, interpretation and evaluation as they experience the specificities of the work of historians. Oral history projects  promote research, writing, thinking, and interpersonal skills. They allow learners to connect with the community, helping them to feel included. Additionally,  oral history has the potential to contribute to citizenship education in more ways than one. It also lends itself particularly well to project-based learning.

In oral history projects, an interviewee recalls an event for an interviewer who records the recollections and creates a historical record. Oral history depends upon human memory and the spoken word.  An oral history project needs a theme, topics within the theme and the possibility of research within the community where the school is located. Such projects allow for:

  1. the appreciation of little-known or rapidly vanishing ways of life;
  2. verifying the historicity of events which cannot be determined by traditional methods of historical research;
  3. correcting stereotypical images of older people;
  4. recovering and preserving important aspects of a human experience that would otherwise go undocumented.

Collecting, preserving and sharing oral histories not only transmits knowledge from one generation to the next, but it enhances our understanding of the past by illuminating personal experience. Oral history relies little on digital tools and provides an enriching opportunity for human interaction while strengthening intergenerational relations. Based on interactive dialogue, it develops communication skills, including skills of listening and observing, empathy, flexibility and adaptability. The activity is planned for group work, hence enabling the strengthening of cooperation skills and conflict resolution skills.

In this exemplar project, the theme is gender and the research focus is women in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.

I see my role as the teacher to explain the basic rules of oral history, including the time frame of the project; I help learners with resources for the preliminary research on the context of the time/decade; acting as a facilitator throughout the project, stimulating learners and monitoring the collaboration within the different groups.

I divide learners in groups by decade, and invite them to discuss and make decisions on the different topics the project should cover (work, women’s rights, family, love, fashion, childhood, education, etc.) The groups collect a variety of sources (visual and non visual) for their preliminary research on the context of the decade chosen. Groups discuss and make decisions on what their research goals should be, what questions they need to ask, and, design the questionnaire to interview women in their families and/or neighbourhoods; they also decide on the number of interviews and on how to record the answers.

After the interviews, learners organise and analyse data obtained, and produce one or more posters of their findings (creativity is welcome). The posters of the different groups are hung on the walls of the classroom for a gallery walk. All groups share their experiences. These should include the preliminary phase — what difficulties when researching for the context and writing down their goals, how the decision making processes developed, difficulties related to designing the questionnaires and organising the interviews and recording the answers; and, the implementation phase — the processes of interaction with the older generation and the analysis of the information collected.

Once we have shared our experiences, I hold a debriefing session where the focus is on how the learners constructed knowledge and meaning from their experiences. The following questions help to guide the discussion.

  • What was the situation (being a woman in the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s) like?
  • What was similar in the lifestyle of women in the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s and today?
  • What was different?
  • What were the most significant changes in the everyday life of women in 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s?
  • Why did the changes occur? What evidence was there of the changes?
  • What were the results of these changes?
  • Are the accounts different (same topic, same age group)? In what ways?
  • What other sources might you need to consult to confirm the changes?
  • Would you compare your life expectations with what you learned about the expectations from the stories of the women interviewed?
  • Did your perceptions about older women change? In what way(s)?
  • Was the interaction with the older generation difficult?
  • In what ways was oral history a useful tool for understanding the past?

I usually help my students collect potential questions to be included in the interview. The following are some examples from this particular project.

  1. What did you study?
  2. Did you enjoy studying? Would you have liked to study further?
  3. What kind of work did you do?
  4. How would you describe your working conditions?
  5. How do you think this kind of work has changed since the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s?
  6. Did you have chores to do as a child? Can you tell me about these?
  7. Are/Were you married? Where did you meet your husband?
  8. How long were you dating before you got married?
  9. Did your parents approve of your marriage?
  10. What was fashionable when you were in your 20’s?
  11. Did you buy your clothes or did you make them?
  12. How many children did you have?
  13. Who decided on education choices for your children?
  14. Did you have any free time?
  15. What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
  16. What was really modern when you were a young woman?
  17. What else would you like to tell me about women in the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s…

This gender project allows learners to find out about hopes, desires, feelings, disappointments, personal decisions and experiences of other generations. Learners will probably note  some similarities and differences with their own feelings. They will also experience how historians produce their historical accounts and the process is likely to challenge their (mis)conceptions about history as a clear and complete body of information with no connection to the present.

When teaching practices provide experiences for learners to critically understand the complexity of the construction of historical accounts, rather than fixed historical narratives, learners will be empowered with skills to correlate history with other subjects, and history becomes a tool that enables critical ‘readings’ of the world’s current issues.

References and Further Reading

Lévesque, S.. (2008). Thinking Historically: Educating Students for the 21st Century. University of Toronto Press. Kindle edition, p 6.

Wineburg, S. (2001).  Historical Thinking and other unnatural acts. PA: Temple University Press. Kindle edition, pp. 716-722.

About the Author

As a university teacher in Lisbon, Portugal, Luisa Black was responsible for the Initial Teacher Training (History), focusing mostly teaching methods and the supervising of trainees in schools.

Working as expert for the Council of Europe since 1996, Luisa Black was involved in bi-lateral, regional and intergovernmental projects in various countries (Cyprus, Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Check Republic, Moldova, Kosovo, Russia Federation, Ukraine, Hungary, Austria, Serbia, Romania, Norway and Estonia) delivering keynote speeches, leading interactive workshops, written education materials and reports.

Her collaboration with Euroclio started in 1998, and was one of the experts involved in the project Understanding a Shared Past, Learning for the Future, which included Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia.

As a consultant for the Council of Europe, Luisa Black has organized large-scale projects in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo. She wrote a Manual for History Teachers in Bosnia & Herzegovina (2008) and History Teaching Today, Approaches and Methods (2011), for Kosovo, both published by the Council of Europe. She was one of the authors and a member of the editorial and dissemination team of the interactive e-book Shared Histories for a Europe without Dividing Lines, launched in 2014, and is the author of the Evaluation Report of the project.

Currently Luisa Black is a Member of the Council of Europe’s expert group on Competences for Democratic Culture and is also involved in the Council of Europe’s intergovernmental project Educating for diversity and democracy: teaching history in contemporary Europe.


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