Magazine Feature

Everyday People

Folklore invites students to explore the curriculum of "real life."

"What does folklore mean to you?" I recently asked a group of colleagues. "What images does the word bring to mind?"

"Fairy tales," someone said.

"An old man playing the banjo on the porch of a mountain cabin," offered another.

"A quilt passed down from mother to daughter."

No one mentioned rural youths spray-painting graffiti on a railroad trestle. Or makeshift memorials to those who died in the World Trade Center attack. Is a family's customary Sunday dinner too ordinary to consider?

While folklore includes the banjo player's repertoire and the quilter's pattern, it encompasses so much more. We are all products of folklore, and we are all producers, too. By recognizing and examining our own and others' folkways, we develop a sense of the context of our lives. In the process, we begin to understand the cultural underpinnings of the assumptions and beliefs we hold. The methodology and content of folklore offer an engaging way to teach tolerance.

Each circle of peers that we belong to -- by virtue of age, gender, neighborhood, ethnic group, occupation, social class, special interest or formative experience -- is a folk group with its own collection of lore and material. Women's folklore, for example, might include modern folk remedies exchanged among mothers in a pediatrician's waiting room, or urban legends that deal with rape or male dominance. Regional folklore expresses itself in our dress, the foods we eat, the homes we live in and our observances of the seasons. Our conversations are punctuated with folk speech -- idioms, dialect words, slang expressions and other clues that let others know we belong or we don't.

Over the years, occupational folklore has produced such staples of Americana as sea chanteys, union songs and lawyer jokes. Today, this field encompasses cartoons and lists that circulate from colleague to colleague, celebrating the unique intricacies of academia, journalism, the computer industry or just "the office." Priests, prisoners, athletes and morticians are all sources of esoteric (insider) material as well as objects of exoteric (outsider) lore. As a school librarian, I've seen the "xeroxlore" and heard the jokes that attest to the prudishness of my occupational group, but I am also privy to a language and lore non-librarians wouldn't understand.

Students are members of myriad folk groups, each of which prescribes a set of behavioral norms. Club members share secret handshakes and initiation rites; teammates strengthen their bonds through shared experience on a court or field; and stories of victory and defeat become part of the legends on every school campus. Children's folklore is perhaps the richest collection of age-related material -- think of the songs, poems and games you learned as a child, all before you were able to read!


Seeing Ourselves

A closer look at the "insider/outsider" patterns around us can reveal how we and other people construct our identities, as well as how we negotiate the boundaries of identity to create community. Examining our lives in the context of folklore -- how our worldviews and belief systems are shaped -- invites us to see ourselves as cultural beings.

This awareness is especially important for educators. As teachers, we need to be mindful of how we dominate in terms of what we emphasize, de-emphasize or ignore in the classroom. We must also be aware of the ways in which we evaluate educational materials, as well as student performance and participation, on the basis of our own cultural criteria.

Everyday classroom instruction offers numerous opportunities for incorporating folklore into the curriculum. As an elementary school media specialist, I developed an interdisciplinary thematic unit on tradition. The study of fractions was the impetus for a lesson that began with quilting but soon branched to other examples of material culture.

We learned about symmetry from various cultural perspectives and explored its presence or absence in such traditional forms as quilts, architecture, dance, gardens and graveyards. A yearly poetry unit became an examination of folk poetry, such as haiku, rap, Native American chants and children's playground games. Students researched the ways these traditional forms of poetry expressed the worldviews of the groups from which they originated and served as agents of enculturation for their members.

Exploring folklore invites each of us to reexamine our own lives, to search for meaning in the seemingly trivial and extraneous details and patterns that make up our existence.

Local connections -- including students' own folkways -- can underscore the relevance of folklore studies. Many community colleges and other agencies sponsor programs that bring young people into meaningful contact with traditional artists. Local museums may offer "traveling trunks" full of artifacts and activities or may even conduct classroom workshops. The Brooklyn Historical Society provides traveling exhibition workshops, including one on the area's Chinese American community that invites students to explore Chinese games, languages and celebrations. The Mountain Heritage Center in western North Carolina sends out a "Reading a Quilt" packet that includes slides, books and materials for producing a class quilt. Local or state arts councils are good sources of information about such programs (see Resources, top right).

The study of local cultural expression fosters appreciation for the skills and competence of everyday people in our community.

North Carolina's "Curriculum, Music and Community" project may become a model for other states. This innovative program is the result of a partnership between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Education Department and Curriculum in Folklore, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Fourth-grade classes in 10 schools around the state are learning about the state's traditional music and are integrating reading, writing, math, social studies and science into the study.

"Music helps kids learn about their community," says Dwight Rogers, one of the project's designers, "and brings the community back to the schools."


Community Wisdom

Proponents of relational education emphasize that students' real lives are an essential component of the curriculum. As an introduction to the concept of oral history, having students interview one another can be an especially meaningful experience. We are often unaware of life-changing experiences our students or classmates have had. All around us there are young people who have experienced the death of a family member, seen the President, saved an animal's life or fled a war-ravaged homeland. Even if the narratives are less extraordinary, they bring home the fact that each of our lives is made up of stories and other forms of traditional expression. On a practical level, oral history projects help students develop the "reporter" skills of research, questioning, interpretation, transcription and presentation.

More deeply, learning about history from a personal narrative challenges the notion that history is something that happens to others and offers a cultural perspective on events that is often missing in textbooks. Oral history projects can result in something as simple as a family member's biography or in a product that is quite complex -- for example, a collection of "testimonies" about a significant historical event, such as a community bicentennial or a record-breaking flood.

The Montana Heritage Project, now in its seventh year, links schools around the state in studying and documenting the everyday life of their communities. According to project leader Michael Umphrey, schools are semi-political institutions, reflecting the attitudes and expectations of the communities of which they are a part.

Umphrey has a vision: an archive in every school, with material contributed by students and accessible to all community members. Students who participate in the project gather information from the community through oral history and primary document research and then go about the work of interpreting and preserving this material.

"As [students] become more aware of local crises and dilemmas," Umphrey has written, "their investigations can furnish them with ideas about what choices are possible. They find evidence of the consequences of various ways of thinking and acting. They become more likely to make intelligent choices."

Umphrey and his colleagues have seen amazing transformations among some of the students who have worked on the project. Their work is meaningful, the products they create are vital and appreciated, and the knowledge they gain is permanent.

"Personal experience is the soul of a town," writes Desarae Baker, who researched the influence of the railroad on her small community. "The train wove its presence into the memories of all the citizens of the valley. These memories are foundations upon which lives are built. Although an old bridge won't much affect the future, it has touched many pasts."

The study of folklore is the study of human culture, with universal themes of celebration, tradition, creation, aesthetic appreciation, wisdom and community. Exploring folklore invites each of us to reexamine our own lives, to search for meaning in the seemingly trivial and extraneous details and patterns that make up our existence. Such reflection can help dispel stereotypes and help us to discover our commonalities and shared experience. Bringing folklore into the classroom can strengthen the connection between the educational experience within school walls and the one outside.