Creating an archive for my students’ oral history documentaries has been an idea I’ve been kicking around in my head for several years. Last semester I finally was able to produce this archive as a way to publish and share the learning of St. John’s students with grandparents and our school community. However, little attention was given to the overall design, purpose and learning outcomes for the public with which it might engage. Hearing about how the initial grant request for Histories of the National Mall was rejected has served as the inspiration to retool the project. I would like to create a more nuanced design and to think more carefully about both the intended audiences and institutional goals for St. John’s School and its students.
In order to begin the process of redesign, I interviewed three people – our admission director, our curriculum development director, and our curriculum integration specialist who is a recognized expert on PBL (Project Based Learning) and grandmother of eight. Each person visited the website and answered a set of questions about the site’s design, intended audience and purpose. Some interviews were conducted live and recorded. Others gave written feedback. While the written feedback was concise and helpful in that regard, the oral interview proved more valuable than I imagined. The ability to let the conversation flow back and forth led to some new findings and new insights that I probably wouldn’t have garnered otherwise. Clearly, this dialogical process was a large part of the readings for this module, and while I understood its value in concept, I was surprised by how different the two experiences actually were. It was a valuable exercise to be able to compare the two methods, and it taught me a valuable lesson. While personal interviews might not always be possible, identifying at least one or two individuals to really engage in a dialogue is critical to doing this kind of public history. Otherwise, the conversation becomes one-sided and self-directed by the researcher. It’s not so much about getting the answers to questions but more about discovering new questions to ask.
In totality, this initial research has given me several things to consider.
- I was surprised by how much all three liked the way the site looked and was organized. A particular strength was the title of the site and the ways that it visually connected to weaving that students do each year as part of our art program. For each of them it spoke to the community feel of St. John’s that is palpable in the halls and to outside visitors.
- I still feel like it is too wrapped up in the written word and needs more visualization. Perhaps some explorations or mini exhibits that ask questions that hook the viewer could be added to the landing page.
- The landing page needs revision to make it more dynamic. As my professor noted, “The site is less dynamic than the content.” I need to figure out a way to adjust that.
- I am considering adding a section on teaching with the site, both how to do the documentary film project (inspired by the Bracero Archive) and ways to devise lessons that center around some of the student produced videos. These were two things that I had not considered before having a dialogue with one colleague who saw this as a potential for the site.