Personal pasts

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Pupils' one-to-one interviews in their local community produced histories from around the world, reports Lucy Williams

When two former teachers were exploring ideas for a millennium volunteers project in Brent that would stimulate ICT learning and assist young people's integration into their communities, they came up with E Histories, an oral history project that captures the memories of people in the London borough using MiniDisc recorders and digital cameras. The information is being put on a website.

Many of Brent's millennium volunteers are aged between 16 and 18. Since 2000, the E Histories project (the "E" stands for electronic) has involved them and more than 200 other people in primary and secondary schools in the borough. Students are offered workshops at lunchtimes and after school in school ICT suites or nearby City Learning Centres. Workshops are run by teachers and writers and are based on storytelling, interviewing and multimedia software packages.

Millennium Volunteers manager Eileen Sabur, one of the project's founders, formerly taught English. The other founder, Uma Patel, formerly taught humanities. Alperton Community School is one of the schools where they have worked with teachers across subjects and year groups.

Ian Hill, head of history, who researched oral histories for his MA and PhD, says: "I want students to feel that their histories are as important as any other. Our school has a diverse cultural intake with more than 35 languages spoken, and most families have lived through major events. When teaching about partition in India, for example, listening to a poignant personal experience brings history closer to home. The E Histories project has given us access to some fascinating stories, which we have listened to and based written work around as part of key stage 3 history."

History students from all year groups interviewed more than 60 people - including the school cleaner, teachers, governors, former pupils, families and shop owners - who were invited to take part in after-school sessions.

Stories covered growing up in Brent during the Second World War blitz, communism and democracy in Albania, Catholicism in Ireland, the Biafra-Nigeria war, education in Ghana, sugar plantations and slavery in Jamaica and farming in Somalia. Reasons for migration included love, economics, lost families and escape from wars.

Rima Hallak (Year 11) interviewed her mother, Houda Malhem, in her native tongue, Arabic, then translated the results into English. Born in Lebanon, Houda was 11 when the civil war began in 1975. She said: "I used to see people getting shot; two of my brothers were killed. Life was so hard, we slept underground and hardly ate or drank." She went on to describe the jubilation of Lebanese people when the war ended.

In art and design, students from Years 8 to 11 collected photos from interviewees to create digital collages using Photoshop. In English, Year 10 students taking part included some with special needs and others learning English as an additional language.

Ailsa Katona, head of learning support and a Senco, says: "It boosted their self-esteem. These children struggle with writing, not talking, so it was great encouraging them to do something they're good at. They were fascinated by each other's backgrounds, and questioning and listening are important skills they can use in other subjects. It was a marvellous lead into the personal writing English coursework."

Eileen Sabur says: "E Histories has also helped develop the citizenship curriculum by encouraging inter-generational discussion and better understanding of different communities."

When Year 12 ICT student Kwesi Washington first arrived in the UK from Guyana in May last year he got involved in the project while waiting for a school place. "The E Histories Project was the main activity I was involved in and it opened many opportunities. Before, I had little knowledge about computers, but I am now pretty good at using the software," he says.

He interviewed Spanish cafe owner Lola Diestro about life in Barcelona. He has also become a competent peer group multimedia trainer.

The project has enabled primary and secondary schools to work together and has helped Alperton Community School to forge a partnership with the Swaminarayan School, an independent Hindu school in Neasden, and Carlton Vale Infants School in Kilburn.

Swaminarayan holds multimedia training sessions with students from the three schools using an E Histories-funded interactive whiteboard and Carlton Vale Infants' now has access to three MiniDisc recorders, which are shared between schools.

Many Carlton Vale pupils also go to the school's learning families club with their parents. Barbara Doherty, Carlton Vales's headteacher, says:

"It's a framework for sharing the experiences of families from a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Children's understanding of themselves, their origins, cultural experiences and family history is a good starting point for the development of historical thinking."

Children keen to find out what school was like for their parents and grandparents were gleeful to discover that their elders had also been naughty as children. And parents with English as a second language felt that talking with their children into a MiniDisc recorder allowed them to practise English freely. Interviews and images are to be made into a booklet, which will be used throughout the school.

The range of stories gathered and the level of interest and enjoyment far outweighed any difficulties, although it took a while to set up the project. The MiniDisc recorders and software had to be sourced, and systems for arranging interviews, loaning equipment and completing consent forms were required. However, once the older students had been taught to input sound and image files into the computer, and formatting information for the web database was put in place, they were able to run the project themselves, with guidance from teachers.

It is hoped that other schools will be able to set up their own E Histories projects with links to the original.

The E Histories project is sponsored by British Telecom and has received funding from independentstate school partnerships. It is run by Brent millennium volunteers.

Contact Eileen Sabur:


Lucy Williams is a creative project manager working with the E Histories project

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