Project Dividends

In the early 1980s I am interviewing a sophomore who has applied for admission to the teacher education program at the small college where I teach. His answer to the question “Why did you choose history as your teaching area?” intrigues me. He relates a story about several retired miners coming to his sixth grade class eight years ago to share their experiences working the now-closed coal mine in his community. Some of the men brought tools, hard hats, lanterns, and other artifacts to show the students, but what captured this student’s interest was the former commissary manager’s collection of substitute money in the form of clacker, script and googaloos. When the student tells his parents that evening about the mine’s “funny” money, his mother reveals that his grandfather owns such a collection. Without hesitation, the young man rushes out the door and up the street to his grandfather’s house to see this treasure trove for himself.

“For the first time, I saw my grandfather in a different light. He has actually lived the history I am trying to learn from books,” he goes on. “I would sit for hours listening to him tell the stories behind his clacker collection and viewing the photographs taken when our community was buzzing with coal mining activity.”

This prospective history teacher’s story had a familiar ring. The program he described was an oral history project funded by a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation. A colleague in the history department and I collaborated to invite retired miners to the middle school for an hour once a month to speak with the students and engage them in discussions about the history of their community. History came alive for those sixth graders as a result of the project and motivated at least one student to pursue a career teaching the humanities—an investment that returned maximum dividends.