Photography by Danny Fulgencio

Kathy Carroll completed her first oral history project in 1982. Cassette tape recorder in hand, she interviewed her grandparents for a seventh-grade history assignment. As she grew up, she never forgot her passion for digital storytelling. Now she’s using technology to teach students at St. John’s Episcopal School how to be historians through documentary film. Students spend a year researching an older relative and exploring how those individual stories tell a larger tale about the community. The films are then shared on a digital archive. Since starting the project seven years ago, Carroll has gone on to develop curriculum for National History Day, the American Battle Monuments Commission and the Veterans Administration. Next year, she will debut a project in collaboration with the Smithsonian that can be used by high school students throughout Washington, D.C. 

Photography by Danny Fulgencio

What got you interested in this field?

I’ve always been interested in history because I came from a family of storytellers. When I started a degree in digital public humanities at George Mason University, it changed what I’m able to do for my students — drawing on resources from museums and creating training videos for parents that I put on my YouTube channel.

Why is it important to introduce digital history in the classroom? 

A lot of people say, “You love science, so you’re going to be a doctor or veterinarian.” For kids who love history, they’re like, “You can be a teacher or a professor.” I’m trying to get [the kids] to understand that you can do so many different things with history — like film. The digital world is changing the way historians do history. I want kids who love history, but are really into computer science, to see there’s an outlet for them to do interesting work.

Tell me about your work with the Smithsonian.

I’ve been interning with the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, which preserves the local history of Washington, D.C. There is a physical exhibit called “A Right to the City,” which traces how neighborhoods have changed because of immigration and urban renewal programs. I used StoryMaps to turn that physical exhibit into a digital exhibit that they’ll use on the website. Students can use it even when the physical exhibit goes away. It will go live in a couple of months. One idea I’ve been kicking around for our students is to use StoryMaps to tell the history of White Rock Lake.

Photography by Danny Fulgencio

What other history projects have you completed?

I became involved in a national program for teachers who tell stories of World War I and World War II veterans buried overseas. I was assigned to a cemetery and looked for someone who did the same job as my dad. I picked the person with the most unusual name, John Boronko. I did a Google search and found that he died in what appeared to be a plane crash. My dad had made scrapbooks from the war, and as I was looking through, John’s name was on one of the papers. Later, I was on a walk in the neighborhood, and my dad had made a bunch of tapes about his life. I was listening to one about WWII, and he started talking about a plane crash. That was my dad telling the story of John Boronko. I took what I learned and published it on a website called Understanding Sacrifice. I developed curriculum to go along with teaching WWII, not from the perspective of memorizing battles, but through the eyes of the people who experienced it. 

What are some of the most memorable films students have submitted?

Being from Dallas, we’ve had a lot of interesting JFK stories. One student’s grandpa was Jack Ruby’s jailer. Another was on the grand jury that indicted Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald. One student came up and said, “I’ve got nothing. My grandma just kept talking about how she was friends with Jesse Curry’s daughter.” I said, “You may not know who Jesse Curry is, but your grandma thought it was important. Maybe we should look that up.” We did, and Jesse Curry was the chief of police at the time of the JFK assassination. That grandmother could remember how the weight of the event affected that family.

How are these documentaries valuable to the community?

As we saw videos come in year after year, we saw how they were woven together. Take the Vietnam War. It happened from a variety of perspectives — a pilot or a teenage girl whose brother was fighting. We’ve had students whose grandparents fled Saigon or who were protesting the war. We’re presenting the history of the community by showing what diverse experiences we have. There’s a lot of diversity in Lakewood that we don’t see because we don’t ask.

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