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Eastside High School Teacher Wins Oral History Award

David Jones sits between his grandparents Mabel and Tom Mirko in 1979. Jones’ grandparents used to tell him stories, like how his step-grandfather met Richard Nixon when he was a senator on a trip abroad and stayed drunk the entire trip, calling him a “no good S.O.B.,” according to Jones.
David Jones sits between his grandparents Mabel and Tom Mirko in 1979. Jones’ grandparents used to tell him stories, like how his step-grandfather met Richard Nixon when he was a senator on a trip abroad and stayed drunk the entire trip, calling him a “no good S.O.B.,” according to Jones.

As a boy, David Jones sat for hours listening with wonder as the old men at his local barbershop told him stories.

Many of the stories were fabricated and exaggerated into comedies. Sometimes, the men would become serious as they talked about their war experiences. Jones enjoyed them all; he was fascinated by how they could tell a story.

He would listen to his grandmother reminisce about life in rural Georgia, describing her Civil War veteran grandfather and what it was like to raise a family during the Great Depression.

His Yugoslavian step-grandfather shared what it was like to work as a chef on a ship and described the people he met, like John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Jones’ love of oral history came alive through those stories; it made history feel more real.

For the past 20 years, Jones has been incorporating the practice of oral history in his International Baccalaureate American history classroom at Eastside High School.

“It may not be accurate, it may be a little biased, but it has flesh and blood to it,” Jones said. “And it just gives me a stronger sense of what it was like to be there then, and I wanted to bring that into the classes there.”

Through the annual project, students research a historical topic and interview someone with a raw account of that event or era, he said.

In October, Jones was awarded the Oral History Association Martha Ross Teaching Award, a biennial award that honors a teacher who is a model for oral history in the classroom.

Jones was nominated by Sarah Blanc, a senior research staff member at the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida, and Paul Ortiz, program director.

“I’ve been teaching at the college level for over 20 years, and he’s one of the best teachers I have ever encountered on any level,” Ortiz said.

“He’s witty, he’s engaged, and he cares deeply about the students,” he said.

Most people assume high school history is dull and boring, but Jones’ old students said Jones made history come alive through oral history, Ortiz said.

“He taught that history isn’t just in the textbooks, it’s in neighborhoods, the community," he said. "It might even be right next door to you and you not know it."

Through Jones’ project, the students have captured a variety of perspectives, from relatives to people in the community that they haven’t met before, Ortiz said.

One project focused on the lady who opened the first Chinese restaurant in Gainesville, which gave a sense of what it was like for Asian Americans to live in Gainesville in the 1950s.

Another was from an EHS teacher who snuck into Elvis Presley’s hotel in the 1950s and tried to get into his room. The story turned into a comedy of what it was like to be a teenager in that era, Jones said.

“And that’s the main thing that I want students to get,” Jones said. “I really don’t want them to hear a lecture on Franklin Roosevelt. I want them to hear stories about what it was like to try and find a job during the Depression when the person was just in high school, or what it’s like to go hungry, or what it’s like to be afraid in a wartime situation.”

Margaret Carnes, a senior at EHS, said she did her project on the civil rights movement in Gainesville and interviewed a female officer who was on the Gainesville Police Department’s Black on Black Crime Task Force during that time.

“I think he assigns the project because a lot of kids nowadays are so focused on textbooks and what the material is, and we don’t actually apply it to real life,” Carnes said. “And I’m guilty of that in a major way.”

The project opened her eyes to how desegregation impacted the people in her community, and she realized textbooks can’t tell the stories of small cities, like Gainesville, as well as real people can, she said.

“He is just so eccentric, and he’s so fun,” Carnes said. “A lot of teachers just try to shove all the information down your throat, but he really makes sure you understand what you’re learning and why it’s historically significant.”

Sarah Blanc, senior research staff member, said visiting Jones’ class as a guest lecturer was one of the most exciting points in her career. She said she hopes to find more teachers to facilitate oral history projects like Jones.

In 2013, Blanc led a video editing workshop for Jones’ class to help the students evolve their interviews to be more professional.

“His students were so into not only being participatory and being interested, but also you could tell they wanted to impress him,” she said. “They would do things that were funny, but only to him, that would be totally over my head. You could tell they loved him so much.”

When she was nominating him for the award, Blanc said she told Jones she was interviewing him for a newsletter so she could capture the information she needed to submit. She said no one told him he was being nominated.

Jones said the award meant more to him because it came from people who thought he was worthy enough for it. He said the greatest reward was seeing the likes and comments on the Alachua County Public School’s Facebook postannouncing his award.

Since receiving the award, former students have reached out to tell him how much his project meant to them and how some still look back at the project with pride and influence, he said.

Jones has archived most of the students' projects and now displays the new projects on the high school’s IB Oral History Project page.

“Their lives now are moments of history in time,” Jones said. “And I want them to be aware of it and be able to discuss it, laugh about it, joke about it, cry about it, but remember it and take it all in.”

Kelsey is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.