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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Jennifer Watts
Have you ever heard someone say, “When I was a kid things were different?” I know I have. One of my dad’s favorite things to do was telling me what it was like when he was my age. At the time, it was something I had to listen to. Now I know those stories were important. Life was different for him as a child. Historians use stories, or records, like his to learn about life in the past. You can too!
The stories my father told me are called oral histories. Historians use stories like his to learn about the past from the people that were there. They do it by interviewing them. The interviews are called primary sources. A primary source comes from the person that lived through or during an event. If you would like to do this yourself then here are some steps to get you started:
Decide who you are going to interview.
Decide the topic you want to learn more about.
Write a list of questions you want to ask.
Decide how you are going to record the interview. Will it be written, an audio recording, or video recording?
After the interview, what have you learned from it? (Leave space to write your answers.)
I decided to do this myself. I found an old, school photo of my grandparents and I wanted to learn more about it. I wanted to know what school was like back then, so I asked my grandmother. Her name is Nina Mae Cope Griffin. She was born in 1936 She lives in White County, Tennessee and has lived there her entire life. Here is what she said about going to Peeled Chestnut School in the 1940s.
Nina Mae Cope Griffin, author's personal collection.
Grandma’s Peeled Chestnut School photo, author’s personal collection and www.tn4me.org.
ME: When did you go to Peeled Chestnut School?
NINA: I believe I went to that school from 1942 to 1945, during World War II. It was a very hard time because we were at war. My mother made my dresses from flour sacks because we had so little.
ME: What did the school look like?
NINA: The school was small. It had four classrooms and a small auditorium with a stage. There were two outhouses in the back, one for girls and one for boys. There were no inside bathrooms. On hot days, it got really stinky.
ME: Who went to your school?
NINA: We had students from White and DeKalb counties. I think there were 15 or maybe 20 students in each class. Each class was a different grade, you know. There were not a lot of kids around for more than that.
ME: How did you get to school?
NINA: There was a bus that came around and picked us up. It was not as big as the school buses today. It was yellow; I remember that.
ME: What did you do at school?
NINA: There was a big chalkboard in the front of the room. The teacher wrote our lessons on the board. Each of us had our own desk. We only had one book. I think it was called a Premier in grades 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. It wasn’t till 4th grade that you got a book for each subject: a reader, speller, English, arithmetic, and history. We used tablet paper and a pencil to do our lessons. Not a lot back then.
Example of textbook, TSM Collection
Interviewing my grandmother was fun. She enjoyed it too and said it was nice thinking about her childhood. I learned a lot from our talk. I learned how different her school was from when I went to school in the 1990s. We both got to school on a yellow school bus, but everything else was different. Her school was SO much smaller than mine. I can’t imagine having an outhouse for a bathroom! Yucky! My school was a big brick building with lots of classrooms and indoor bathrooms. There were several classes for each grade with a lot more kids. What she told me shows how much things can change over time. Oral histories are a great resource for learning more about the past from the people who lived it. Now go find your own oral histories.
Historian – a person who studies history.
Record – something written or saved as proof of something or to tell about the past.
Oral History – information about historic events collected by talking with someone.
Interview – asking someone questions to find out more information.
Primary source – a source from people who lived through an event or time period.
Outhouse – a small building separate from a main building that is used as a toilet.
What is an oral history?
What is the first step to doing an oral history?
Compare and contrast my grandmother’s story of her school day to yours. What is different and what is the same?
What are some problems you could have collecting oral histories?
Now that you have learned how to take an oral history, look to your family (great-grandparents, grandparents, or parents) and interview them on what life was like when they were your age. Use the example questions to get started or create your own. Compare and contrast your life to theirs and see how things have changed and what has stayed the same. Share your findings with your family when you are finished.
Tennessee State Social Studies Standard(s)
SSP.01 Gather information from a variety of sources, including printed materials, graphic representations, artifacts, media, and technology sources.
SSP.02 Critically examine a primary or secondary source in order to summarize significant ideas and relevant information, distinguish between fact and opinion, draw conclusions and recognize the author’s purpose and point of view.
SSP.03 Organize data from a variety of sources in order to compare and contrast multiple sources, recognize differences between multiple accounts and frame appropriate questions for further investigation.
SSP.05 Develop historical awareness: recognizing how and why historical accounts change over time, recognizing how past events and issues might have been experienced by the people of that time, with historical context and empathy rather than present-mindedness and identifying patterns of continuity and change over time, making connections to the present.
Jennifer Watts is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.