Students Worldwide Begin Collecting Oral Histories

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Civic Logo VoicesTeachers from eight countries gathered at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., on March 3 to share their early experiences with a program led by the AFT Educational Foundation that is turning students into historians. The AFT Civic Voices program gives students a way to collect firsthand accounts from their countries' champions of freedom, democracy and human rights.

The teachers heard first from John Van Oudenaren, director of the World Digital Library, who is leading efforts at the Library of Congress to digitize primary source documents from around the world. He noted that the AFT Civic Voices program is not just about passively collecting material but is also about allowing students to create their own primary sources and make them available to the world.

"The library recognizes that teachers empower students," Van Oudenaren said. "An especially rewarding aspect of Civic Voices is that students themselves want to be researchers, writers, editors and, of course, teachers."

Participants in the program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, also heard from Kevin Jennings, assistant deputy secretary of education, who observed that teachers who understand the role of history and the importance of documenting it are giving a gift to future generations. "Justice does not just happen," he said. "It is built, created."

Teachers everywhere can contribute to the Civic Voices project online, where the first oral history video—featuring an underground musician in Pakistan—has been posted. Eventually, the project will become an international memory bank for democracy.

In the project's eight partner countries, teachers are taking part in professional development aimed at helping students learn the value of civic engagement. Besides the AFT Educational Foundation and its U.S. partners, the program has seven international partners, all of them trade unions for teachers, scientists and other workers.

The Civic Voices program focuses on the civil rights movement in the United States; the Solidarity movement in Poland; the peace process in Northern Ireland; the People Power movement in the Philippines; the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa; the transition to democracy in Mongolia; the struggle for the rule of law in Colombia; and the Rose Revolution in the Republic of Georgia.

In these countries, teachers work with students to collect oral histories from actual participants in these movements, from leaders to foot soldiers. A teachers' guide helps them prepare students for interviews and provides examples of ordinary citizens who made history by standing up for human rights, from the anonymous "tank man" who blocked a tank in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989, to Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated an Arkansas high school in 1957.

March 4, 2010