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Folklife Research: A Real-life Method of Teaching Research and Writing Skills in the Content Areas



The American Folklife Center defines folklife as "the traditional cultural expression of ethnic, regional, occupational, and other groups that share a common body of traditional knowledge, skills, and behaviors." What distinguishes a folklife study is its special breadth and approach. The Center notes that "while a folklife study of a multicultural community might begin with immigration history, [it] also [looks] at traditional music, foods, religious festivals, dance, and home life as well as the ways ethnic groups adapt, adjust, and change their cultures in relation to the broader community. A folklife study of another community might focus on local storytellers, artisans, oral histories of events in the community's past, reunions, hunting and trapping techniques, and the work and lives of fishermen, boat builders, or farmers." In other words, folklife is not restricted to rural areas. It is equally accessible to students who live in cities and to those who live in suburbia or small communities.

Folklife research has a number of values for the writing teacher and for the student.

  • It involves active, discovery learning.
  • It gives traditional research resources a natural context by which students may use personal experience to test and interpret new material gained from texts.
  • By making the student writer a historian with a serious responsibility to posterity, not merely to a teacher, it establishes an authentic, valued audience.
  • It leads naturally to vital, interesting expository writing.
  • It involves critical thinking skills, encouraging the interpretation, synthesis, and evaluation of various kinds of cultural information.
  • It teaches and/or reinforces fundamental composition techniques such as the formation of theses and topic sentences, the development and support of these through the use of specific and concrete details, and methods through which a writer might achieve unity and coherence in his or her composition.
  • It encourages skills in interdisciplinary learning, team participation, and presentation.
  • It is easily broken down into manageable, sequenced units of work.
  • It lends itself to a variety of public presentation formats.
  • It enlarges student experience naturally, encouraging an active and continued engagement with the community and its various cultures.
  • It provides learning opportunities that value each student's life and experiences.
  • It engenders pride in one's heritage and appreciation for the heritage of others.
  • It can be used with students from elementary school through high school.
  • It provides an opportunity for students to contribute to their community in meaningful ways.
  • It develops technological expertise and skills with documentary equipment.
  • Superior guides to the techniques of folklife and fieldwork are available free to students and teachers from The American Folklife Center and other agencies.
  • It is fun for everyone—the student, the teacher, and those whose activities become the objects of research.

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