This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to Episode 105 of the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast. In this episode, we’re going to explore an incredible series of books and classroom materials that amplifies the stories of people impacted by injustice all over the world. The series is called Voice of Witness.
Teaching history and English has gotten complicated. For many, many years, educational publishers produced texts that only represented a narrow viewpoint— whether fiction or nonfiction, the stories produced for and adopted by schools centered an overwhelmingly white, European experience. But in recent decades, there’s been a push to change that, to widen the lens, to hear the voices of those who are so often under- or misrepresented.
Many teachers have done an admirable job of addressing this need by expanding the menu of texts they offer students. These include primary source documents, literature from more diverse perspectives, and other forms of media that tell stories with words, music, and images. But these resources aren’t always easy to find, and so the more we can share the great things we find, the more complex and accurate our curriculum will be. Today I want to share with you another incredible resource that can widen our lens even further, a series produced by an organization called Voice of Witness.
The core product of Voice of Witness is a series of books, currently seventeen titles strong, that curate oral histories, stories told by people whose voices are rarely heard, people who are impacted by injustice all over the world: Migrant workers. Refugees. Factory workers in developing countries. Prisoners. Undocumented Americans. These books tell their stories, in their voices. Voice of Witness has also created free lesson plans to accompany each book, plus other materials to help teachers and students learn the skills of capturing oral histories of their own.
In this episode, I’m going to be talking with Cliff Mayotte, the education program director for Voice of Witness, about the range of materials they offer and how they can not only expose our students to stories they won’t hear anywhere else, but also help them see themselves as participants in history, people who can tell their own stories and help the people in their own communities get their voices heard.
Although this series has been around since 2004, I can’t think of a time in history when stories like these need to be told more than they do right now. This goes beyond curriculum: We need our students to read these stories because it will make them better humans.
It is my hope that teachers of English, history, and those who teach new English learners will explore this series and consider adding some of these materials to your course or at least your classroom library.
Before we get started, I’d like to thank today’s sponsor, Peergrade. Peergrade is a platform that makes it easy to facilitate peer review in your classroom. Students review each other’s work, while Peergrade takes care of anonymously assigning reviewers and delivering all the relevant insights to teachers. With Peergrade, students learn to think critically and take ownership of their learning. They also learn to write kind and useful feedback for their peers. Peergrade is free to use for teachers and students. To learn more visit cultofpedagogy.com/peergrade.
Support for this episode also comes from 3Doodler. The 3Doodler is a really neat tool—it works just like a 3D printer, except the “printing” comes out of a pen. With the 3Doodler, students can create, design, and build, transforming abstract concepts into physical models, making those concepts easier to understand. 3Doodler EDU learning packs were designed with teachers, so they truly encompass the needs of classrooms at any grade level. With 3D pens, accessories, lesson plans and more all packed into one kit, you’re ready to start learning as soon as you open the box. As a Cult of Pedagogy listener, you can try your first 3Doodler Learning Pack with a special 10% discount by visiting cultofpedagogy.com/3doodler.
The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast is part of the Education Podcast Network. The EPN family now includes 25 different podcasts, and each one is focused on education. One show you should definitely check out is called Pushing the Edge. On this podcast, host Greg Curran tackles the intersection of education and social justice. Greg and his guests dig deep on issues that are critical to making school a place where all students thrive. And as a bonus, Greg also happens to be from Australia, so you get to listen to that wonderful accent in every episode. Check out Pushing the Edge and all of the EPN podcasts at edupodcastnetwork.com.
Now here’s my conversation with Cliff Mayotte about the Voice of Witness series.
GONZALEZ: I would like to welcome Cliff Mayotte to the program. Welcome, Cliff.
MAYOTTE: Hi, thank you. It’s good to be here.
GONZALEZ: We are here to talk about the Voice of Witness series, and you guys contacted me and I was pretty much blown away by it, and I just don’t think it could be anymore timely or necessary than it is right now, although you guys have been working on this for a long time. Let’s just start with a general overview of what the series is, how it came into being, what the purpose is, and let me know how many books you have in print, just to give us a rough idea of what the series is.
MAYOTTE: Oh yeah, definitely. Voice of Witness is an oral history book series. There are 17 books total, and I’ll talk a little bit more about that in a moment. But basically we create books of oral history that focus on contemporary social justice issues and human rights crises. Our book series really focuses on amplifying voices of people who are impacted by injustice. And what we do is we seek out narrators — we call them narrators, the folks that we interview for our book series, instead of interviewees or interview subjects, because we want to make sure that people get to know our narrators and people narrating their own experience as opposed to an interviewee, which is kind of clinical, and that kind of runs counter to what we’re trying to do with the book series; it was just to put a human face on contemporary social justice issues. For example, everybody is talking about immigration, but nobody’s talking to immigrants, or everybody’s talking about inequality in education but nobody’s talking to teachers. I think our book series really seeks to address contemporary social justice issues and human rights issues that are underrepresented and underreported. Our mission is to amplify voices of people impacted by injustice. The goal or the mission of Voice of Witness through oral history, through first-person narrative, we aim to propel the conversation around human rights issues and ensure the voices of those impacted become an integral part of mainstream discourse and meaningful reform. The book series was founded in 2005 by the author Dave Eggers, writer and educator Mimi Lok, and human rights physician Lola Vollen. The first book in the series was “Surviving Justice,” which was focused on oral histories of men and women who had been wrongfully convicted and only through DNA testing exonerated after sometimes spending 15, 20, 25 years in prison. And here we are in 2018 and we are now 17 books into the series, including our latest book “Six by Ten,” which are oral histories and stories from solitary confinement.
GONZALEZ: The range of topics is really incredible, because I think when I first was introduced to it, the first set that I saw had to do more with the immigrants and undocumented Americans. But then when I started to look at all of the titles, I realized how really broad your coverage is of people in different situations. To give listeners a sense of the range of stories that you cover, can you maybe give us an example of three collections?
MAYOTTE: Yeah, definitely. The book series, over time, has touched on a broad range of issues, and over the years we’ve kind of organically developed a couple of core areas of expertise or themes and issues that we constantly return to, and those are in the areas of criminal justice, immigration, migration, and displacement. And three books in the series that I think speak to that, the one that you had referenced earlier is called “Underground America,” which is looking at, is a collection of oral histories that are focusing on undocumented Americans, and really giving people a real sort of grounds-eye view of what people who are undocumented in this country, what they go through on a daily basis, and I think it really complicates our thinking about immigration. And I did want to mention in that particular collection, a lot of the conversation around immigration and people who are undocumented and DACA really focuses on, tends to focus a lot on Mexico and Central America, but in this particular collection there are individuals who are not only from Mexico and Central America, but Africa and China and other countries, so it has a real sort of global approach. Another title in this series is called “Patriot Acts,” and that’s looking at sort of post-9/11, here we are just a day or two past the anniversary of 9/11, really looking at post-9/11 backlash for Muslims and the American Arab community and American Muslims. One of the themes of the book, it really explicitly links some of that backlash and some of the, whether it’s referencing current issues like the travel ban and the Muslim ban and things like that, but also connecting it to Japanese American incarceration in World War II and kind of looking at, wow, these themes, these things tend to happen over and over and over again, and we like to call them “recurrent events.” So that’s another title in the series that we’ve used, certainly used a lot in the education program and teaching and learning. And another one that I wanted to highlight is our book that’s focusing on public housing in Chicago called “High Rise Stories.” And it’s really an oral history collection about displacement, because a number of years ago, the City of Chicago and the Chicago Housing Authority wanted to tear down these “infamous” Chicago high rises, and the book, through oral history, really explores well, where are all of those people going to go? And really looking at issues of displacement within the city of Chicago. And people tend to really focus on displacement, thinking international displacement or refugees, and sometimes we often forget that there are, there’s displacement happening in our own communities and our own neighborhoods, and I think “High Rise Stories” is a perfect example of that.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. How is that you’re able to get, find people and — because I’ve looked through the website quite a bit in terms of you have this huge volunteer group of people who are taking these stories now from people and recording them and editing them. So I can see where your staffing is coming from, but how are you actually reaching out within these communities? Because you’ve got some people who, I would imagine, don’t even want to be found. What’s the process?
MAYOTTE: Yeah, well thankfully we, the individuals that we end up interviewing for our book series are people that really, really, really want to share their stories. And so thankfully that’s been the case with us. But the process really begins with a particular project editor that they make a proposal and we have a system that we’ve put in place called the Story Lab, and we put out proposals for new books in the series, and in looking at the proposals, we’re looking at project leads and project editors that have a background or history or are somehow connected or a part of the communities that they’re proposing to create a book around. And so really what we’re able to do is kind of establish what we call a chain of trust, and so we’re working with individuals who are already connected to those communities who are working with advocacy organizations and nonprofits and schools that are supporting those communities, and we call them our narrator communities. These are the stories where our books are coming from, the communities where our books are coming from. And so it always is, the relationships develop over time. And so there’s a chain of trust, and so people feel naturally, they may not necessarily know Voice of Witness off the bat, but they know several of the people that are involved with a nonprofit they work for or an advocacy organization that they’ve been, that they’re aware of or have worked with or know of. So we always feel like we’re working with people who are already connected to these communities because our oral history process is anything but extractive. We don’t want to parachute in and just take some stories and publish them and say, “See you later.” Our work is really based on a lot of these ethical considerations around representation and examining power dynamics and looking at insider/outsider dynamics. So all of that goes into the choices around which books go forward and which projects go forward, and then usually the project editors are the project leads, because they’re the one developing the relationships, do the majority of the interviewing themselves, and they do occasionally have other people that step in and help them kind of spread out a little bit to get some more interviews, but all the interviews are based on building relationships and building trust with the narrators and the narrator communities.
GONZALEZ: Okay. And that is going to tie into some of your other materials on actually teaching people how to not do oral story telling, but, well we’ll get into, because the idea with kids and with schools is that we’re actually now taking this process of gathering and recording oral histories and teaching kids how to do that. So let’s transition into the materials that you offer for educators that can help them make the most of these stories. I mean first off, the fact that the books exist at all, I know that most, not most, many people who teach social studies and history are working out of textbooks and are pretty hungry for other texts, basically, that tell other stories. This is such a wealth of stories, I’m so excited for anybody who is teaching on any kind of social studies or history. I feel like these would be such a great addition. But also to anybody who’s got a classroom library, because the stories are just fascinating, and they just don’t get told anywhere. Talk about the supplementary materials that you have that go on top of the books.
MAYOTTE: Yeah, well thank you for mentioning that there are so many teachers around the country that are yearning for what I would consider more contemporary, culturally relevant classroom materials instead of looking at the same old themes that are emerging in textbooks and don’t really allow space for students to kind of construct their own version of history and their own version of events and issues and their relationship to it. And I think oral history and the books in the Voice of Witness series are an incredible resource for teachers and students, because it’s really an opportunity to take history personally, and to create your own relationship to history and to look at history through somebody’s narrative, through somebody’s oral history, and look at a particular issue through an individual’s story and get to unpack the social, cultural, and historical forces that shape that story. And I think for a lot of students, they really respond to personal narrative. It feels like somebody telling them a story, and it allows them to enter into these issues in a very personal way, and it doesn’t feel like somebody’s lecturing to them or somebody’s giving them a story that has only one side or one perspective. Each individual narrative contains people’s identities and multiple perspectives.
MAYOTTE: So I think it really allows teachers and students to grapple with the issues that are contained in the book series and to have their thinking complicated in ways that I think are very, very useful.
MAYOTTE: And I think with that, I mean we have a broad range of things that we’re making available to teachers and students. One of them is that we provide free Common Core-aligned lesson plans for every single book in this series. And also with the Common Core, I mean our resources have always been very directly aligned with Common Core without us having to do a lot of extra work around it.
MAYOTTE: But one of the things around Common Core that’s been particularly interesting is that there’s been a new emphasis on primary sourced material and primary sourced documents, and a lot of teachers are incorporating oral history more and more or are wanting to and are looking for the tools and resources in order to do that. And so they’re finding the books in our series, our lesson plans, and being able to use some of the books in our series to sort of pair them with other books, like a teacher might assign “Enrique’s Journey,” that novel, and also have students read stories from “Underground America.”
MAYOTTE: So there’s been some really interesting book pairings. So we have free Common Core-aligned curriculum for every single book in the series, and the curriculum is created primarily for older middle school students through high school and college undergraduates, and it’s very accessible, very adaptable, and what we feel is very culturally relevant in addition to a lot of strategies and resources for English language learners, because as you know, ELL students are the largest, the most rapidly growing demographic in public schools around the country, especially here on the West Coast. So we really want to make sure we’re creating resources that are supporting that kind of teaching and learning. And so yeah, with our narrator communities, we’re looking at our resources, our lesson plans, for ELL students, migrant students, refugees, newcomers, and more. And so in addition to our lesson plans that go along with the content of the book series, we also have, as I mentioned a few minutes ago, an oral history resource guide for English language learners. We also have a book that we publish that’s now free and downloadable from our website called “The Power of the Story,” which is the Voice of Witness teacher’s guide to oral history. And so that book not only contains some lesson plans that go with the book series, but also contains a field guide for classrooms and communities to conduct their own oral history projects and for communities and classrooms to amplify their own unheard voices. Because ultimately what we want to do is we want to share our methodology, share our best practices, share our work so that oral history can become an integral part of any classroom, and maybe not even just a humanities classroom, but incorporating it not just in terms of content, but as a way to teach, to really make space for, to force space for more stories to be listened to and to be shared.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, that piece I think is my favorite of all the things you have, I think it is this idea of teaching schools how to actually do oral history. It feels like the potential for that, in terms of like a force multiplier, is just tremendous, you know, not just these students sort of reading these other stories, but realizing that they can be capturing things from their own communities and their own families and how powerful it is to have those stories then get out there.
MAYOTTE: Definitely. And I think it creates, for students, a participatory vision of history, because so often students and all of us feel like bystanders in history. And I think through oral history, as you say, students are able to interview family members, people in their community, and to participate in sort of an ongoing historical narrative that they can be a part of, that they can insert themselves into, as well as being able to use their lives, their direct experience, their identity as a central part of the curriculum. And particularly for students who have been marginalized for various reasons, whether it’s language or other things, oral history gives them an opportunity to have their lives and their experiences validated and represented in a curriculum because so often so many students, for a variety of reasons, don’t see themselves reflected in the curriculum or the things that they read or do or the assignments that they do at school. And so I think oral history is a wonderful way to address that.
GONZALEZ: I agree. So then you’ve also got on top of these guides that teachers and students can sort of use on their own, you’ve got the webinars and consultancies and trainings. Talk a little bit about that.
MAYOTTE: Yeah. Also in addition to all of our resources that are free and available and downloadable from our website, there are webinars that we’ve done that have accompanying resource guides. The tailored consultancies we do really have to do with us, in a way they’re sort of, you could describe them as very, very specific and tailored residencies where we will work with a school, a school district, a nonprofit organization, a journalistic organization, an advocacy organization, and to really think about how our methodology and how the power of this kind of storytelling can impact their work and further their missions and further their goals. And we’ve worked with a really, an incredibly broad range of organizations, artists, journalists, the legal profession, medical doctors, who really see this kind of ethics-driven and empathic methodology in terms of oral history and storytelling as something that’s very, very valuable in furthering their work. So we’re constantly doing consultancies and oral history trainings and workshops with schools, classrooms, nonprofits, just a variety of organizations that have a real commitment to social justice and really putting storytelling, really placing a high value on that, in that advocacy process. We also have a wonderful initiative called the sharing history initiative, and it’s a funded book program that enables us to place free class sets of Voice of Witness books in public schools and nonprofits around the country. And in this past year we’re kind of just ramping up for this year’s initiative, and we’re able to place 1,300 copies of “Underground America” in close to 50 schools and nonprofits around the country. And of these schools, about 98 percent of them are serving English language learners, and close to 70 percent are primarily serving students of color. And really thinking about this particular topic and this particular point in time, we’ve found it very, very crucial for people to be really exploring these issues and stories in a very different way, other than the dominant narrative that’s getting pushed around right now.
MAYOTTE: And then also, and I think too, I also wanted to mention that we, as part of our process for creating curriculum for the book series, for oral history trainings and workshops, is that our process is highly collaborative, and we’re constantly collaborating with advocacy organizations and educators from within our narrator communities themselves. So we want to make sure that what we’re creating is relevant and supportive and inclusive of our narrator communities and the educational needs of our narrator communities. A perfect example of that is our latest book, “Six by Ten,” which is just about to come out in a couple of weeks, and it’s really focusing on solitary confinement and issues around cruel and unusual punishment within the criminal justice system. And as we were creating the curriculum for the book, we were partnering with the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison here in California, and we’re able to teach oral history courses as part of their college program. And as a result of those classes, really that had a major impact on the curriculum and how it was created and several lesson plans would not have come into fruition or been created had we not had those opportunities to work with students in that program, and looking at some of the issues that they’ve faced, being incarcerated but also some of the educational opportunities. For example, it’s like how do you conduct oral histories with students who don’t have access to recording devices or who have very, very limited access to media?
MAYOTTE: And so we were able to create some lesson plans for “Six by Ten” that kind of make space for that and sort of incorporate the needs of some of those students, in the hopes that they will, other students who are in a similar situation can still access the curriculum and the stories in the book.
GONZALEZ: That’s fantastic. It just sounds like you all have thought through a lot of this, and the thing that you said earlier about not being extractive, I mean everything you’re saying is really, it’s just showing a really careful, thoughtful way of approaching this. Before we wrap up, can you tell me what kind of feedback you’ve gotten from the schools that have been using your materials?
MAYOTTE: Yeah, yeah. Definitely. As I mentioned before, a lot of teachers and a lot of students have really reported back to us that as a breath of fresh air in engaging oral history and in practicing the skills of oral history in the classroom, that there tends to be an immediacy and a cultural relevance to what they’re doing, because the subject matter for students tends to be very, very close to them and very accessible and very much relatable to them. That’s a lot of the feedback that we’ve gotten that has to do with cultural responsiveness and cultural relevance. And even the stories in the book series, feeling like, “Wow. This is very relatable to me. I might not know somebody that’s gone through exactly what this narrator has gone through in this particular book, but perhaps I know somebody who has or there’s something about it that feels very relatable and personal.”
MAYOTTE: A lot of times, a lot of teachers are reluctant to incorporate somebody’s feelings or emotion into the learning process, and I think through oral history, there’s been opportunities for social and emotional learning that teachers have been very grateful for. So we’ve gotten a lot of feedback around that. We’ve gotten a ton of feedback around students improving their communications skills, really being able to develop their listening skills, their active listening skills, their nurturing empathy in a classroom. So the communication skills is something that we’ve gotten a lot of feedback about. And I think a lot of feedback we get too is related to really opening up the world and making the world a little bit bigger for students through the process of creating a larger circle of stories. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about that. We also get a lot of feedback around critical thinking. As I was saying earlier, that students are reading and grappling with the stories in our book series and engaging in their own oral histories, and they become self-critical as well as critical of the world, and have an opportunity to interrogate history a little bit more through oral history and to — they stop seeing history or issues as being monolithic, but they see them as a lot more nuanced and complex. And I think teachers and students have really appreciated the opportunity to develop those skills. And finally I just wanted to mention that a lot of students and teachers have reported back to us that the oral history process, whether or not a class is using a Voice of Witness book or doing a sort of Voice of Witness-sponsored oral history project, they’re seeing that the approach to oral history — speaking and listening, seeing and being seen, listening in a nonjudgemental way, really to analyze and be critical and to see your own place in history — but it tends to have a positive impact on the culture of the classroom, where everybody’s created more opportunities to see and be seen and to know each other a little bit better. And those are skills that a lot of schools and a lot of teachers and a lot of educational environments don’t teach. It’s so solely focused on content —
MAYOTTE: — that that kind of social, emotional learning is not, space isn’t made for that in this world of standardized testing.
MAYOTTE: So that’s just some of the feedback that we’ve gotten, in addition to really one of the core skills around literacy and writing and collaborating, because if you’re conducting an oral history, you’re transcribing a story, you’re editing a story, and you’re responsible for sharing somebody else’s story in a trustful, respectful, ethical manner.
MAYOTTE: And so the students really gain a newfound respect, not only for the process of editing, but for the storyteller and the person that they were able to interview.
GONZALEZ: You had listed some quotes here. I’m not sure that, did you want those there for reference or were you wanting to read some of those? I think we probably couldn’t fit them all in, time-wise —
MAYOTTE: Yeah, I think mostly they were for frame of reference, to kind of get at some of the things that I had mentioned around cultural relevance and empathy and things like that. I would like to read one of them though, and this is from a former student that engaged in an oral history project, and kind of, I’m really interested in how students take what we’re able to do and extend that into their future, extend that into their lives, into careers, into vocations, and kind of how empathy becomes a more central part of their lives. Danielle Covington, who was a former student at Oakland Technical High School, said, “Organizations like Voice of Witness bring our attention back to the experiences of people so that justice can be restored. This work inspired me to study drama at New York University, to learn about even more methods to bring underrepresented voices to the stage.” And that’s particularly resonate with me, you know, I do have a background in theater, so I was very excited to read that quote. But also just somebody that as a result of engaging with our books and our curriculum and oral history in general, has a commitment to bringing underrepresented voices and to listening to underrepresented voices, which I think is very, very powerful.
GONZALEZ: Yes, yeah. And well that’s just, again I’m seeing more and more of this, these students seeing themselves as actual agents of change, as opposed to just passive receivers of information. They’re actually seeing themselves as being able to do something.
MAYOTTE: Yeah. We just need to listen and get out of their way.
GONZALEZ: Mhmm. Well I’m really hoping that this is going to get a lot more teachers interested in these materials. I hope you sell out quickly because people want these so much. If they want to start to explore your materials and get the books, where should they go?
MAYOTTE: I think the easiest point of access to getting some of our books and learning more about what we do is through our website, and our website will definitely direct people to independent book stores, independent booksellers, independent book distributors and not Amazon.
MAYOTTE: And that, our website address is VoiceofWitness.org, that’s VoiceofWitness.org.
GONZALEZ: And can teachers buy bulk books?
MAYOTTE: Yes. There is an option for bulk orders, and at a certain point, you know, if teachers are buying a class set, they definitely get a discount for class sets of books.
MAYOTTE: So yeah. That definitely makes it a lot more affordable for teachers. So yeah, as you say, I hope we sell them all out. I mean no, not sell out the teachers, that’s not what I mean, but sell the books. We would never want to sell teachers out.
GONZALEZ: Sell them so you have to print lots more, yeah. Thank you so much.
GONZALEZ: Thank you for the time here and to all of you. I’ve been a Dave Eggers fan forever, so when I saw that his name was attached to this, I wasn’t actually surprised, because I read “What Is the What” and I read “Zeitoun” the one about Katrina, I can’t pronounce it.
GONZALEZ: Thank you. I’ve always just read it. So this seems like an extension of that work too. It looks like now you guys have got a whole team working on this, and I just, I think you’re doing incredible, important work, so thank you so much.
MAYOTTE: Oh, thank you, Jenn. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you and really have appreciated the opportunity to spread the word about Voice of Witness.
Hey, one more thing before I go: As I was preparing for this interview, I also learned about another really promising-looking resource that has a similar mission to Voice of Witness. It’s called Doc Academy, and it’s a free online education platform that brings critically-acclaimed documentary films to high school classrooms, so teachers can deliver lessons around the most pressing social issues of our day. Film clips and multidisciplinary, standards-aligned lessons are developed by teachers for teachers, available free to any educator. Visit docacademy.org to see what they have to offer.
For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, visit cultofpedagogy.com, click podcast, and choose episode 105. To get a weekly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.