Power of the Story: Interpreting oral histories

Kaatje Kraft, Whatcom Community College
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Initial Publication Date: July 12, 2018 | Reviewed: March 12, 2023


This activity asks students to find a narrative that depicts a geologic event (preferably from non-dominant cultural oral histories) and interpret it applying the knowledge they have gained in class. This writing assignment asks students to use their geologic knowledge to synthesize the science content into translation for a non-scientific audience.

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This was designed for an introductory physical geology class for non-majors, but could easily be adapted to a higher level course

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students must have covered the concepts in geology to which they will apply their knowledge (for example, if the oral history is around a volcanic eruption, they must be able to distinguish different types of volcanoes, their properties, and the tectonic settings where they occur).
This is a writing assignment in which they must do external research, so having assistance from a librarian and/or experience in how to find these types of resources can be a big help if they do not already possess these skills.

How the activity is situated in the course

I use this as a culminating writing assignment at the end of the quarter, but it could easily be used at the end of a particular unit.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

My ultimate goal is for non-majors to be able to see how geology is infused throughout the arts in oral histories, music, art, and storytelling. Stories are powerful ways to convey information including scientific information. Non-dominant cultures have the benefit of long-term oral histories that can tell geologic processes over time that we lack in our dominant cultural short term ways of viewing the world. This assignment affords the opportunity for students to connect their geology content to a larger world around them.

Application of geologic content to seemingly non-scientific narratives by accurately identifying geologic concepts by non-experts (this varies based on the narrative selected: e.g., a volcano narrative would detail the type of eruption, the style/properties of the eruption, the tectonic location of the volcano, and the time frame in which it occurred).

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students will extract geologic content from these mediums and apply them to the content they have learned in class

Other skills goals for this activity

Students will need to research and find narratives that are about scientific events recorded through oral or written or visual mediums.

Description and Teaching Materials

Below is the assignment I provide to my students (also available as a word document (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 138kB Jul12 18)):


This project will ask you to apply what you have learned about geology to other ways of knowing about the natural world. By reading narratives about geologic events, you will be able to link the story to the science you've learned this quarter.


The skills developed in this assignment will allow you to use a range of resources available in the library that may be useful in other future courses. In addition, the skill of applying geology content to a seemingly non-scientific document will allow you to better communicate how geology relates outside of the classroom and will prepare you to relate how people talk about the world to the content you learned this quarter.


By doing this assignment, you will be able to learn about historical geological events and how they have been woven into cultural narratives.


Using resources available at the library including those identified from the visiting librarian during class time, find three different narratives or works of art that describe/depict a geologic event (three different events). Preference should be given to non-dominant cultural narratives. For example a non-dominant cultural narrative could be an aboriginal origin story and a dominant cultural narrative could be a recent scientific general population passage (e.g., Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything).
Briefly describe the story/depictions selected in one to two paragraphs as appropriate for the work (no more than a page) that describe the depiction and provide context for what kind of work this is and how it is relevant.
  • Describe the geologic events described/depicted:
  • Apply appropriate geologic terms and describe the what and where from a geologic lens
  • Does this description/depiction indicate something that happened during human lifetime, over generations or over a much longer geologic time scale and upon what is this assessment of time-frame based?
  • What was the likely cause of this event/depiction and why is something that is worthy of storytelling?
  • Clearly cite all your work and connect your citations to the appropriate information.

Example of a dominant culture analysis:

Everybody needs a Rock, by Byrd Baylor (1974) is a book about how each person needs a rock and that there are steps to going through finding your personal rock that will connect to you. The book is a children's book in an attempt to help kids connect with nature, part of Ms. Baylor's life's goal (AZPM, 2013). Many children go through a phase of loving rocks, collecting rocks and connecting with them (some never grow out of this phase). This book helps to make that connection more meaningful.

To me, the rocks that have resonated the most with me are ones that have been well weathered, fit smoothly in my hand and are commonly mafic in composition. The story of how the rock got to my hand speaks to why this rock speaks to me. In Baylor's book, she states, "some people touch a rock a thousand times a day. There aren't many things that feel as good as a rock – if the rock is perfect." These rocks do just this from both an emotional and an intellectual appreciation of that beauty. Mafic rocks have formed from partial melting of the mantle, so they originate deep within the crust. To find them on land means that I'm holding a piece of the ancient ocean crust that has since been uplifted due to tectonic activity or from a rare mafic volcano found on the continent. Either way, its path is a remarkable statement on the power of Earth processes. In addition, to be smooth in my hand indicates that this rock travelled a very long distance over millennia of weathering and erosion. Rocks that are exposed at the surface, regardless if from tectonic forces or volcanic processes, weather and erode. Rocks that are smooth and rounded indicate that they were weathered through abrasion after beginning its erosional journey from its source location. It now has lost parts of it along the way through its journey to my hand. When Baylor states, "...or from a mountain where wind and sun touched it every day for a million years," it's clear she's indicating that it takes time for this rock to become yours—which is it say, the geologic scale and scope of this story is never ending, and one that has been going on since the beginning of rock formation on Earth. This appreciation of the true vastness of geologic time is truly awe-inspiring and part of why these rocks appeal to me so.

Arizona Public Media (AZPM, 2013). "A Visit with Byrd Baylor." https://www.azpm.org/s/4872-a-visit-with-byrd-baylor/ Links to an external site.

Baylor, B. (1974). Everybody Needs a Rock. New York, Simon and Shuster.

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • This assignment was created using the "Transparency in Learning and Teaching" (TILT) Framework (see references and resources). The way it was written for students was specifically designed to target motivation and affect in which students are provided transparency in what the goals are of the assignment, provided explicit grading criteria (e.g., rubric) and a model for them to see what this might look like. Research indicates that TILT is a powerful equity tool in supporting all students to be successful.
  • This was designed as a 25 point activity with three separate narratives, but could easily be adjusted to be worth 10 points at the end of a given unit and provide two points for fully referenced, and one point for not well referenced, and zero for not referenced.
  • This activity could be modified as one in which students could share their interpretations of narratives as an in class activity


Students are provided a Grading Rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Jul12 18) assessing their ability to find an appropriate narrative, successfully describe that narrative in a way that the grader can understand what the narrative depicts, and accurately determine the geology of the narrative.

References and Resources

TILT framework: For more information: https://www.unlv.edu/provost/teachingandlearning including the research on how it increases student success and examples in multiple domains for higher education