Telling Their Stories:

Student Production and Delivery of Digital Video Interviews via the Internet


As presented at the International Oral History Association

July 12-15, 2006

Sydney, Australia



Howard LEVIN


Director of Technology

The Urban School of San Francisco

1563 Page Street

San Francisco, California 94117








IOHA member



Project Website:




Sub-Themes: Memory and Trauma, Archiving Memory, and Teaching and Learning.

Telling Their Stories:

Student Production and Delivery of Digital Video Interviews via the Internet



Modern digital production and editing tools now make it possible for students to contribute with meaningful and immediately useful research previously reserved to professionals. This is a case study of one American high school—The Urban School of San Francisco[1]—where students conduct professional-style interviews in the homes of elders who suffered trauma as youngsters in the course of key 20th  century historical events. Working in teams of three, students in “Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archives Project”—an elective history class—prepare background research and interview questions. They travel to each subject's home, set up a professional-style mobile digital video studio, and complete a two-hour interview. Students then transcribe each interview into a full-text transcript using the digital video files transferred to their personal laptops. Students edit the digital files into hundreds of mini-movies directly corresponding to the text. The result of their work is a public Internet site containing the interviews, complete with full-text, video and audio. Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archives Project <> currently contains over 50 hours of interviews with 18 subjects.[2] Current topics include: survivors and refugees of the European Holocaust, American soldiers who helped liberate Nazi concentration camps, and Americans of Japanese descent who were interned during World War II. This paper explores the Telling Their Stories (TTS) model by examining the process and efficacy of publishing student conducted oral histories using digital video and web-based technologies. The author's hope is that this information will inspire teachers and oral historians to copy and adapt these practices leading to additional oral histories published on the Internet by students.


Author’s Note – The project, “Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archives Project,” was chosen for the 2004 Leading Edge Award for outstanding use of technology by the National Association of Independent Schools.[3]


Project Background

The original inspiration for the project came from the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (VHF), a Steven Spielberg–funded project through which more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors throughout the world have been interviewed.[4] Of particular interest is the VHF's groundbreaking use of digital technologies that provides keyword search and access to specific sections of over 120,000 hours of interviews. Telling Their Stories (TTS) opens opportunities for new applications of the VHF concept. Whereas the VHF project involves a sophisticated keyword coding system, TTS involves full-text transcription. Whereas VHF is only viewable at a handful of museums and research centers, TTS interviews are available via the Internet. And finally, whereas VHF is a massive multi-continent professional undertaking, TTS is a model for local schools and universities.


The author first conceived of the course in 1992 while teaching high school history at the Overlake School in Redmond, WA. Using more traditional methods and tools of oral history, students conducted interviews of Holocaust survivors and transcribed interviews using a basic word processor. The process did not reach potential due in great part to the cumbersome nature of the tools used: the time devoted to working with analog tapes did not provide the educational benefit for students and the resulting products lacked the sophistication necessary for wider distribution.


Nearly 10 years later, using the phenomenal advances in Internet, digital video and editing technologies, the current TTS course began in the spring of 2002. The author teamed with veteran history teacher, Deborah Dent-Samake, who received oral history training from the Charles Morrissey Oral History Workshop.[5] Dent-Samake leads the daily course and the author facilitates the more technical aspects of the project. During the first year, students interviewed five Holocaust survivors. One year later a new group of students conducted follow-up interviews with the same five survivors, as well as adding a sixth subject. This pattern of a two-year cycle of interview and re-interview of the same subjects has worked well to enhance the depth of interviews. The first year students conduct essential research including a pre-interview, and develop a chronological overview with their subject. The second year students study the previous year’s interviews to construct cumulative questions that often delve further into the subjects’ story. The course continues to explore 20th century history topics best studied using primary source, live oral history using this two-stage interview cycle.


Efficacy of Student Interviews

The key to this and similar projects is the real-world contribution of student work to an audience that transcends the school community. Student work can provide valuable primary source material for students and researchers throughout the world. They are crossing the boundary of "learner" to "contributor." Their work has real meaning beyond the classroom. Students are not merely modeling and practicing techniques used by professionals; they are completing purposeful and meaningful work to be used by others throughout the world. The author refers to this concept as “Authentic Doing.”


Authentic Doing tasks can take multiple directions such as providing new research, data-collection, and community service. Authentic Doing is NOT simulating the work of professionals; Authentic Doing involves completing and distributing the work of professionals. The results provide service and contribution far beyond the classroom. A class mock-debate may be a great way to engage student thinking and generate higher levels of motivation, however, this is not an Authentic Doing task. Interviewing candidates and posting these unique sets of questions and answers on a public website prior to an election is Authentic Doing.


Elements of Authentic Doing

1.              Work provides a service to a community beyond the classroom (other classes within the school, the school, the district, the local community, city, county, region, state, country, world).

2.              Product is unique and provides real utility to the broader community, i.e., the product is not a repeat of previously existing projects, but rather provides something new.

3.              The project is age appropriate. Given the goal to publish work relevant and usable to a wider audience, the tasks required should not over-reach their capability.

4.              The product is age independent. The benefactor groups (readers, viewers, recipients) transcend the specific age of the student producers.


The TTS model of conducting and publishing oral histories is a prime example of an Authentic Doing project that helps educators achieve a goal that previously was deemed unreachable, i.e., engaging students in real-world tasks that authentically contribute to the research knowledge pool. This is due in part to new opportunities afforded by breakthroughs in digital media and Internet technology. Modern technology provides the tools to finally enable students to be both learners and meaningful contributors through what is arguably a paradigm shift in the processes of oral history collection, processing and distribution to a global audience. The previous constraints afforded by physical tools, financial supports, and access to regional, national and international publishing apparatus have all but evaporated given today’s access to inexpensive sophisticated tools and ubiquitous access to the Internet. The cost and complexity of past publishing systems served to prevent even the conception of worldwide publishing of student interviews. Today, those constraints are gone.


The question remains, however, about the efficacy and appropriateness of engaging students in Authentic Doing tasks leading to worldwide publication. A complete answer is beyond the scope of this paper; however, consider the comments of former students in a TTS course when asked to respond to the following question: “As someone who experienced the project, what would you say to historians and high school history teachers who would argue that high school students are not sophisticated enough to conduct interviews for world-wide publishing?”[6]


High school students are perfect for oral history…they are figuring out who they are. In a culture where their appearances are evaluated but their true voices aren't heard, learning how to really listen to another person's story provides not only a sense of connection, but has the potential to foster a feeling of being worth it, of mattering enough to be told. Interviewing gave me a sense of responsibility—that's how oral storytelling works throughout history—a passing on of an important story. We were the ones to receive it, and we're the ones to keep it. It teaches us that individuals' stories do matter, that each person matters.[7]


They have made a colossal error in judgment. If students are interested in the topic and are willing to take the time to find answers to worthy questions, they are qualified to connect with survivors.[8]


All 18 responding students commented in a similar manner, all expressing confidence in their preparation and subsequent contributions. Several comments urged skeptics to  simply look at the work on the website.


Unlike traditional oral history projects which focus almost solely on extracting and documenting personal stories for the benefit of others, the TTS model adds an equally important layer of importance, that being the impact on the interviewers, in this case high school students. Says Kenneth Kann, a TTS volunteer and experienced oral historian:

It is remarkable that something like this could emerge out of a high school history class. This is the best conceived oral history class I have seen. I cannot imagine a more valuable educational experience for students.[9]


The author does not argue that high school students, regardless of their preparation, can conduct interviews with equal sophistication of professionally trained oral historians. However, given the variety of unique factors about oral history, engaging students in a TTS project is an ideal opportunity to both enhance the learning process and the body of work. First, unlike the presumption of publishing analytical work of students, the TTS model focuses solely on the collection and distribution of data, i.e., oral testimonies. The work of analysis is reserved for professionals and remains a private—though appropriate—function within the classroom. Thus the work is age appropriate, but the content is age independent. Second, the TTS model centers on the urgency of collecting stories of elders who witnessed key historic events. Given the enormous numbers of aging witnesses to events such as the Holocaust, students can play a vital role in capturing stories that soon will be lost. The project provides meaningful work and the collected stories provide new material for use by others.


The TTS Course

The TTS course is divided into relatively equal sections: 1/4 background history, 1/4 research and preparation, 1/4 interview skills, and 1/4 post production.


Topic Choice and Interview Subjects

The primary desire of the TTS project is to enhance the existing body of work to support a wide range of users from school-age children to history researchers.  Among the first tasks is choosing an appropriate topic that balances compelling subject matter, availability of interviewees in the geographic region, and contribution to the broader curriculum. The TTS model centers on capturing the stories of elders who experienced trauma during mid-20th century historical events. Although this can obviously be adapted to the widest range of topics spanning from the arts to sciences by interviewing significant contributors to various professions, there is a powerful impact of engaging students in interviews with subjects who experienced trauma in their youth. For example, most of the Holocaust survivors and Japanese internees were of similar age to the interviewing students at the time of their ordeals and often this emotional connection appears within the interview. Note this segment from Max Garcia, an Auschwitz survivor, as he turns to address the interviewers:

The Jewish edicts come into play, and I go into hiding after my sister has been picked up in December of 1942. She had just turned sixteen. Who is sixteen here? (Several students raise their hands). She had just turned sixteen on the 24th of November, and she was gassed in Auschwitz on the 10th of December. I just want you to think about that for a minute—all of you who are sixteen.[10]


Both the student and the subject share this impact when they discuss experiences during a relatively similar age.  Consider this comment from a former student:

It is sometimes even beneficial to be young because it enables you to compare your current life-style with theirs at a similar age and find differences that make their experience unique.[11]


The elders themselves feel quite comfortable telling their stories to teenagers and all have been open to second interviews.


Background History

The background history phase focuses on developing quick breadth and depth of historical content. The corresponding curriculum focuses on developing familiarity with key events leading up to the primary topic. Students construct timelines, complete a series of background readings, and explore previous oral histories. Inherent in the process is a pedagogical struggle of breadth over depth of understanding of content. The entire set of activities—from background research to the interview to the final editing of tape and transcripts—supports student learning. In fact, the interview method employed, adapted from the Shoah Foundation’s training models,[12] emphasizes a more subtle questioning style designed to help pull stories of personal experience without the need for extensive historical training.


Interview Research

Following the background history stage, students are assigned an interview subject. They work in production teams of three throughout the remainder of the process. Students first conduct a non-taped pre-interview questionnaire using a common form developed for each year’s topic. In most cases the pre-interview is a live, face-to-face opportunity to gather important background information as well as to develop rapport between the subject and the student team. The pre-interview takes approximately one hour. In some cases this occurs via phone and is often augmented with email correspondence. Beyond the obvious benefit of recording personal data in advance of the formal interview, the most important survey section is the development of the subject's personal timeline. This provides the student team with a plethora of follow-up research opportunities. In fact, the elder subjects often take this opportunity to direct students to additional material in the form of books, articles and films. In some cases the subjects provide students with their own written testimonies. Using the experiences of the pre-interview, the questionnaire, and earlier background studies, students collaborate on further research and question development leading up to the day of their scheduled interview.


The Interview

The TTS model uses a simplified mobile studio that can be set-up in approximately 15 minutes. Lighting involves the use of a single 1000 watt bulb within a 16”x22” dome box, and a white-board reflector. The subject wears a high quality lavaliere microphone connected directly to a digital video camera using standard miniDV tapes. The voice of the interviewers is picked up by the subject’s microphone. This simplifies the need for sound mixing since the audio portion of the interview questions is edited out of the final movie segments. Three tripod stands hold the light, reflector and camera. A back-up camera, microphone and light bulb are also included in the mobile studio.[13]


Following the interview, the videotapes are imported to large-capacity external hard drives using Apple iMovie.[14] Given the low cost of digital storage (approx. $5 per hour of tape), these digital files remain as permanent storage and the miniDV tape version becomes the archival back-up. The files stored on the digital drives are transferred to larger capacity drives as the cost per hour continues to drop in the years ahead, thus building a simple means of file duplicity and transfer to more advanced archival digital media as it’s developed in the future.


After compressing the captured digital video into small QuickTime files using Discreet Cleaner,[15] each 2-hour interview is transferred to student computers. Students then transcribe their assigned segments using Listen & Type,[16] one of many audio transcription programs available as shareware. Students on average spend approximately five minutes for each minute of transcription during this “rough transcription” phase, much of which can be completed as homework. Students use a style guide developed for TTS projects to maintain consistency among the many student transcribers. [17] Among the most difficult tasks students face is determining sentence and paragraph breaks within oral speech. This becomes a critical task since each paragraph will later be matched with a corresponding movie file. Students follow several additional editing steps to “clean” the transcriptions within their production teams.


Students then use Apple's QuickTime Pro to create the hundreds of approximately one-minute "movie" files. This moves rather quickly since the students have already determined where to make the paragraph breaks; the movie cuts simply mirror these same segments.[18] Students learn the subtleties of avoiding awkward movie cuts (not at closed eyes or in mid-motion). They also tend to find transcription errors in the process of reviewing the audio-visual record. Students then paste their transcribed text into blank Macromedia Dreamweaver[19] files and hyperlink each segment of text to its corresponding QuickTime movie. Individual laptops facilitate the process since many of the more time-consuming tasks are completed as homework.


Once all the text is transcribed and checked multiple times by student teams, adult volunteers are recruited for a final round of careful proof “listening and reading.” They maneuver through an entire testimony, clicking each paragraph and comparing one more time the written text to the spoken word. They make corrections and record notes of difficult passages or words for later review. These mostly parent volunteers, some with past oral history background, appreciate both the project and their ability to contribute. The school librarian, Carolyn Karis, assists Dent-Samake and the author in the final task of checking and correcting any remaining unresolved text problems.


Technology Integration Processes

The TTS course is a model of integrating technology into the curriculum—the guiding principle for computer use at The Urban School and elsewhere. The technology tools enhance collaboration among and between the students, the teams, and the instructors. Individual student laptops are used for all aspects of production. [20] Students use online directions for the various steps with very little direct instruction. The project team approach helps facilitate this; they seek each other's help when directions are confusing. Students access their work and post reflective journal entries online using FirstClass online communication software. [21] They access assignments, keep track of the complicated production schedule, submit homework, collaborate in their project teams, and access the work of previous years' students all online. They learn to set-up the mobile studio and operate the professional camera, lights and microphones. Their work—published on the Internet—is made possible by this infusion of technology. However, the most significant elements of the course remain rooted in the historical study and student contribution. In this way, technology is infused and integrated, and therefore it remains simply a tool in the process.



Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archives Project is intended to provide teachers, professors, oral historians and community oral history organizers with a model for inspiring student conducted and published oral histories. Following an “Authentic Doing” project method which directly engages students in real-world production of material with meaning far beyond the classroom, the TTS model results in capturing and publishing vitally important personal histories for use throughout the world. In addition, the TTS model promotes a “Read, Watch, Listen” approach to the presentation of oral histories using simple multimedia tools that embrace the value of stories when presented in both transcript and parallel video via the Internet.


Howard Levin serves as Director of Technology at The Urban School of San Francisco, the first high school in San Francisco to adopt an individual student laptop program. He taught high school history and served as department chair of history at the Overlake School in Redmond, WA. He is author of articles published in ISTE's "Learning and Leading With Technology." He is a frequent presenter at national and international conferences including: Ed-Media 2005 in Montreal, National Association of Independent Schools, National Association for Computers in Education, and The Laptop Institute in Memphis. He was also a volunteer interviewer for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History program, a Steven Spielberg-funded project that interviewed more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors throughout the world. More information at: <>.


[1] The Urban School of San Francisco, located in the heart of the city’s historic Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, is a progressive American independent high school that strives to instill a passion for learning among its 295 students. The school is considered a regional and national pioneer in several areas including its innovative block schedule, a renowned service learning program, narrative evaluation system, and fully integrated 1:1 student laptop program. More information at <>.


[2] Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archives Project. The Urban School of San Francisco. 21 Feb. 2006 <>.

[3] Leading Edge Program. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). 21 Feb. 2006 <>.

[4] Suvivors of the Shoah: Visual History Foundation. University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute. 21 Feb. 2006 <>.

[5] Charles Morrissey Oral History Workshops, Union Institute & University. July 2005  <>.

[6] “Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archive Project, A Survey of Impact.” Survey completed by 18 students from the past four years of TTS courses. The Urban School of San Francisco. 23 Feb. 2006.

[7] “KRB ‘03” (former student of the 2003 Telling Their Stories course), survey response, “Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archive Project, A Survey of Impact.” The Urban School of San Francisco. 23 Feb. 2006.

[8] “HL ‘07” (former student of the 2005 Telling Their Stories course). Survey response, “Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archive Project, A Survey of Impact.” The Urban School of San Francisco. 23 Feb. 2006.

[9] Kenneth Kann, oral historian and author of Comrades and Chicken Ranchers: The Story of a California Jewish Community, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993). Written TTS evaluation, 23 March 2003.


[10] Max R. Garcia, Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archives Project. The Urban School of San Francisco. 9 May 2002 <>, page 6.

[11] “HL ‘07” (former student of the 2005 Telling Their Stories course), survey response, “Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archive Project A Survey of Impact.” The Urban School of San Francisco. 23 Feb. 2006.


[12] The author attended 4 days of training hosted by the VHF. June 1996 <>.

[13] Refer to project website for more detailed descriptions of equipment used. Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archives Project. The Urban School of San Francisco. 21 Feb. 2006 <>, “Production Guides”

[14] iMovie HD 6. Apple Computer. 21 Feb. 2006 <>.

[15] Autodesk Cleaner. Autodesk. 21 Feb. 2006 <>.

[16] Listen&Type 2.1.1. Nattaworks. 21 Feb. 2006 <>

[17] Style Guide, Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archives Project. The Urban School of San Francisco. 21 Feb. 2006 <>.

[18] Quicktime Pro. Apple Computer. 21 Feb. 2006 <>.

[19] Macromedia Dreamweaver 8. Adobe. 21 Feb. 2006  <>.

[20] Apple iBook. Apple Computer. 21 Feb. 2006 <>.

[21] FirstClass 8.1. OpenText Corporation. 21 Feb. 2006