A High-Tech History Lesson

Caitlin Johnson
March 10, 2003


Archive photo of guitarist Darnell Miller"You never know what's going to happen when a kid sits down and does an interview," says John Dodson, a history teacher at Rocky Gap High School in southwestern Virginia.

That was the case for 10th grader Mark Gregory, who interviewed his grandparents during the 2002-2003 winter break. They live in rural Bland County, like Gregory, near the sleepy town of Bastian. There's not much to Bastian these days, so Gregory was surprised to learn that it was once a bustling town with a railroad, a lumber mill, and a Civilian Conservation Corps camp filled with young men working on government projects during the Great Depression.

"I learned about how things used to be in the county, the culture back then. I found out that they had things back then that I didn't know they had," he says. "It used to be a lot more community-oriented, aside from now, where we don't really focus that much on the local communities, we focus more on [nearby towns] where there's a mall or movie theater." His grandmother described community picnics and Friday movie nights, where the entire community would gather at the local high school to watch a movie.

Gregory's interview was part of an assignment for Dodson's Local History and Technology class. An audio recording and transcript of the conversation will be included on an interactive Web site run by Dodson and his students, called the Bland County History Archives.

Harnessing the Power of Technology
It's this oral history project that makes Dodson's American History and Local History and Technology classes a little unorthodox. There are textbooks, tests and papers, and students study the milestones: Washington, Jefferson, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement. But every six weeks, they turn in the results of a more unusual assignment—interviewing relatives or neighbors, transcribing the stories and putting the material on the Web site.

Two students practicing interviewing.Each year, Dodson begins his classes with a discussion of the basics of good interviewing. After a workshop in which they practice interviewing each other, students can check out a "Young Historian Kit," a shoulder bag with a tape recorder and tapes, microphone, extension cord, batteries and a how-to guide.

Dodson started the oral history project at Rocky Gap High School in 1992. A year later, Dodson's classroom became the first in Rocky Gap High School to have a telephone dial-up connection to the Internet.

"I was intrigued and realized the easiest, cheapest way to publish the histories was over the Web," he says. "I then started seeing connections between technology and content, and using technology to organize, publish and present the content."

Archive photo: Ladies eating watermelonAs the project grew, technological advances made it possible to do more with the material, such as including photos and audio on the Web site (and in the near future, video). Soon, Dodson and his students had created a full-fledged online archive of histories, photos and links about their small mountain community. Hundreds of students have contributed more than 400 interviews and 1,000 photos to the interactive, searchable database.

Strengthening Community Ties
Life in Bland County doesn't look much like what kids see on MTV or network sitcoms. There are no fancy coffee shops or glitzy clubs. Home to about 6,000 residents, Bland County is a small, rural Appalachian community nestled in the mountains on the border of Virginia and West Virginia. About 120 students attend Rocky Gap High School. Jobs are scarce.

The cohesion and sense of community is flagging, Dodson says. "More and more, people are going home, plugging into TV and the Internet and not participating in civic organizations and school and community events," he says. "When I first came up here [over 25 years ago], the old people would visit each other on Sundays, just pop in. They don't do that anymore."

Tenth-grader Mark Gregory agrees: "Five years ago, you pretty much knew everybody in this valley, and now we don't hardly know anyone. Down the road that I live on, there used to be maybe under ten houses and rest was just farmland, and now they've taken a lot of pasture fields and grazing fields and turned them into yards and lots and stuff. It's kind of depressing."

To counter this growing isolation, Dodson structured the Oral History Archive around an educational philosophy that was just beginning to take hold in the early 1990s: "place-based" learning. It means using students' community as the basis of lessons, integrating students' real-life experiences into their academic learning, and strengthening ties to their neighborhoods.

Archive photo: Men working in a tunnel.Students have collected fascinating bits of history, much of it with national impact—from tales of farming, moonshining, and a local claim to invention of the turbine (later patented by another) to the arrival of the railroad, Depression-era life and the construction of interstate tunnels through the mountains linking Virginia and West Virginia.

"The whole purpose is to tie the technology to more than just technology," Dodson says. "There's a generational connection ... Kids also get a sense of doing something that has value—You talk about someone's life and experience and when they die, it's gone, but here you're taking a small slice of life experience and preserving it."

The process teaches students to listen and to trust their own reactions to what they learn. "You don't want to follow the questions [in the interview guide] verbatim," Dodson cautions. "You'll have some kids, one question is, 'What are your memories of your grandfather?' And the [interviewee] will say, 'He went to prison for robbing a bank,' and the kid goes on and asks, 'Okay, what was your favorite food?' We talk a lot about listening and following up with questions."

Seventeen-year-old Blake Stowers, an 11th grader in Dodson's American History and Local History and Technology classes, interviewed his grandfather, Hub Stowers. A quiet man, he opened up during the interview, telling Stowers stories of World War II. "He had a lot of pictures that he showed me, and I'd never seen pictures of Germany and Europe and stuff. He talked about coming over on the ships and how he didn't think he was going to get back, and about stealing a turkey for a bunch of the guys one time.

"We've learned a lot of old stories from some of the older generation that helped us learn more about the county and the people. It's made me appreciate it more, realizing how lucky we are to live around here," Stowers says.

Student working on a laptop computer.Encouraging Learning
In addition to collecting stories relevant to their own lives, the project's innovative use of technology can tap the interest of students who are otherwise hard to reach. Dodson likens some of his best students, girls and boys alike, to the "hot-rodders of yore" those likely to spend hours in the auto shop, souping up their cars to look better and run faster. Today, they work the same magic using the keyboards in his classroom, deciphering software and learning programming languages to improve the Web site.

"For any kind of student, there's something in this they can do well and learn and contribute. There are kids who are terrible students but love technology or interviewing and are really good at it," he says.

Most of the training in new software comes from trial and error. This past summer, Dodson was able to take some students to a weeklong video technology workshop at Virginia Tech's New Media Center in Blacksburg, Va.

Dodson hasn't had the time or the resources to do a formal evaluation of the project's impact on his students. Some have gone on to work with technology or history—but the successes are generally much smaller in scale. Among them, he says, are kids who become confident enough to stand up and talk about their work in front of people at conferences he and students have attended, and in class.

An Evolving Idea
Rocky Gap isn't the only school to use student-led oral history projects in its curriculum. The Smithsonian Institution and the National Foundation for the Humanities, as well as organizations like the Rural School and Community Trust, offer kits, lesson plans and other ideas to help integrate place-based learning into education.

It's not always easy to convince school administrators—who are under pressure to improve students' scores on standardized tests—that projects like the Bland County History Archives can reach students. Dodson says he has been lucky; his principal is not opposed to place-based learning. "We have support, although not necessarily advocacy, on the part of the administration," he says.

Securing funding and resources is a constant struggle. For the first five years, most of the project's funding came from Dodson's own pocket. The roughly $10,000 a year that it costs to run the archive now comes from a combination of grants and school district money—including Annenburg Rural Challenge funding and grants from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Appalachian Rural Educational Network. Students sell holiday gift wrap each year to bring in about $1,000 more.

Dodson is in the process of writing applications for grants to give him the resources to put more of the material online. He also hopes to connect the project to a community organization that can add to the collection of artifacts that make up the actual archive: documents, photos and historical materials now housed in an old church building. He envisions a community center run in partnership with the Bland County Historical Society, where students and adults could gather to view the archive materials, learn about the area's history, and get access to computers and technology training.

"People still leave these areas for jobs," Dodson says, "but something like this, something place-based and using technology, could generate some real opportunities" to enhance and celebrate the local community.



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Caitlin Johnson is a writer at Connect for Kids.