Palaver Tree Online: A Community of Oral History
Software Overview

Jason B. Ellis and Amy S. Bruckman
Electronic Learning Communities Group
College of Computing
Georgia Institute of Technology
Phone: +1 404 894 9761

Oral history has a rich tradition of providing a view of history through the eyes of real people. Projects like Foxfire (Wigginton 1985) have shown that oral history work can make history especially tangible for students and provide opportunities for deep learning by engaging them with real people whose life stories are history. Kids engaged in oral history projects are able to explore parts of history they find personally important and, instead of reading dry text in a book (Loewen 1995), hear stories told by real people who lived through the events.

Palaver Tree Online is an online community that supports kids interviewing elders to build up a shared database of oral history. A Palaver Tree (Land 1992) is a West African tree that serves as the center of a village. It is a place where elders come to share their stories with the community. It is a place where members of the community come to share their stories and elders set the record straight. Palaver Tree Online attempts to create a similar community on the Internet.

In Palaver Tree Online, students begin by reading texts in the standard curriculum - for example, the Diary of A Young Girl for World War II history, or Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for the Civil Rights Years. Kids then brainstorm questions for elders and send them off. Elders respond with stories and photos that detail their experiences. Discussion continues until students have enough information to create projects. Palaver Tree provides tools for kids to create online projects (called PalaverStories) to show what they have learned from the elders. Elders may then provide feedback on the projects and the kids can revise them.

The software has four main features: Profiles, Discussion Space, PalaverStories, and Home Screens...

Profiles provide background information on all members of the community. Students are researching elders' life stories so, it is especially important that elders provide detail here. Special care is taken to make sure kids reveal a minimum of information, in compliance with the recent Childrens Online Privacy Protection Act (FTC 1999).
Discussion Space is where the majority of communication occurs in the community. Here, students ask questions and elders respond with stories and personal photographs. Clicking on a user's name reveals their profile.
PalaverStories are the projects that students create based on their discussions with elders. There is room for a graphic on the left and rich text on the right. Clicking on either side reveals tools for working with that type of media. Students may add as many pages as they like.
Home Screens provide an initial point of contact one enters the community. There are different screens for teachers, elders, and kids. Each provides tools for their unique roles within the community.

Getting Involved
We are currently looking for 8th and 9th grade teachers to use our software in the 2000-2001 school year. In particular, we need teachers who are comfortable with technology and interested in trying something new. In addition, we would like to study a few classes in-depth, with attitudinal surveys in order to assess the impact of the software, and pre- and post- interviews of a subset of the students.

Units involving Palaver Tree typically take between 3 and 6 weeks from beginning to end, and work best in Language Arts or Social Studies classes. However, we would be happy to work with you to design something that will work in your classroom. The Palaver Tree software runs on Windows 98 or NT and requires an Internet connection. The software is free.

If you are interested, please send e-mail to or call 404- 894-9761. We will notify you when the software becomes available (approximately December 2000).

Protecting Kids Online
All information provided in Palaver Tree Online is available only to community members. Student identities are concealed. We may write papers based on the data collected in the community, but every effort will be taken to assure the confidentiality of users. For instance, all names will be changed. Before a student may participate, a parent or guardian must sign a permission slip that explains Palaver Tree and the privacy protection measures we have taken.

Finding Out More
In addition to the project website (, there are two Palaver Tree papers that might be of interest. Each is available on the web at the indicated address.

FTC (1999). Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule. Federal Register, Federal Trade Commission. 64: 1-29.

Land, M. (1992). "Ivoirien Television, Willing Vector of Cultural Imperialism." Howard Journal of Communications 4(1&2): 10-27.

Loewen, J. W. (1995). Lies My Teacher Told Me. New York, NY, Touchstone.

Wigginton, E. (1985). Sometimes a Shining Moment: The Foxfire Experience. Garden City, NY, Anchor Books.