By Shaun Ryan
PALM COAST — Future historians seeking firsthand accounts of the women’s rights movement may one day be indebted to students in a world history class at i3 Academy.
To date, the students — all sophomores in teacher Robert Sprouse’s class — have interviewed 30 Florida women, and the audio from those interviews will be preserved at the State Library and Archives in Tallahassee.
“It’s humbling, because it’s like we were just going to school in our little i3 from Palm Coast, and we did this project that could impact the country,” said student Kiersten Demers.
“To me, it’s kind of exciting to know that our work would be in there,” added classmate Andrew Dobbins.
Sprouse contacted the state repository’s staff last year as the three-year oral history project was getting underway.
“They were really excited about the project,” he said. “They were like, ‘We haven’t heard of anyone doing this. We want it.’”
There is also a chance that the Museum of Florida History will include some of the students’ interviews in an exhibit in 2020. That year will mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which recognized women’s right to vote.
“I don’t know if it will happen, but it would be cool if it did,” said Sprouse.
Whatever the project’s historic value, its primary aim is education. i3 Academy, which opened in 2013, is associated with Flagler Palm Coast High School. Part of the New Tech Network, it places emphasis on collaboration and project-based learning.
Toward that end, the project gives students an opportunity to compare post-Enlightenment political and social revolutions with modern movements studied through the interviewing process.
“We want to show them that revolutions are still happening in the world today,” said Sprouse.
At the start of the 2017-18 school year, Sprouse was looking for a way to make history more relevant to his class. Movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter seemed to offer opportunities to conduct an oral history project. Before long, Sprouse realized he needed input from his would-be interviewers.
“The students were just really, really passionate about the idea of women’s rights,” he said. “When we put it to a vote, that was the one that won overwhelmingly.”
With the help of Women’s March Florida communications chair Lakeisha Black, Sprouse was able to line up women from across the state who were willing to tell their stories.
Last year, the students conducted 14 interviews. This year, they spoke with 16 women, with a particular focus on the Women’s March and its solidarity events. The inaugural marches were staged in 2017, but the movement they spawned continues today.
The students were given instructions on how to conduct thorough and unbiased interviews they rehearsed and then spoke with their sources via Google Hangouts. They asked the women about their involvement in the movement and what they would like to see grow out of their efforts.
And they struggled to maintain their objectivity when confronted with the women’s accounts.
“You don’t want to just be interviewing them,” said student Tiyana Jones. “Like, you want them to feel like you understand them instead of just — like a computer — just asking them questions.”
“I learned to kind of just sit back and let them talk and hear their story and to kind of put your opinions aside and just listen to what they have to say,” said Kiersten.
She said she also learned how to circle back to points brought up during the course of the interview.
Learning to speak with strangers about issues important to them appears to have given some of Sprouse’s students a new level of confidence.
“I’ve seen some quieter students that usually aren’t willing to speak out in class talking more with this project,” he said. “I’d like to see that with all my students, but it’s nice to see my quiet ones kind of lift their heads up and go, ‘Oh, wait a minute; I have a voice, too.’”
Student Nick Snedeker said he learned a lot from the women’s stories.
“They didn’t just wake up one day and decide ‘I’m going to fight for women’s rights,’” he said. He pointed out that many joined the movement after suffering abuse or having come from a family that held sexist views.
“It makes me kind of sad to see that this happens to a lot of people,” he added.
Andrew said the project “inspired me to want to help people when they’re in need.”
Now that the interviews are finished, Sprouse said he will go through the recordings to make sure they are listenable, download them to an external hard drive and then send them off to the State Archives.
He said the project will continue next year if he can locate more women willing to be interviewed.