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



I have always cared about practical meanings of things, the way what I learn from books and formal study relates to my own life. As a fourth-grader studying geography for the first time, I was enthralled by a world filled with places and people strikingly different from my own. Looking at the pictures of Norwegian fjords, Swiss mountains, and Sahara oases, I wondered how people who lived in such places felt. I had grown up in rural Central Louisiana, a mixture of flat pine forests and endless open fields of cotton, interrupted only by winding little bayous or willow-lined streams. Where I lived, one could see from horizon to horizon. Days were long and sunny, and open ribbons of roadways made travel easy. What would it be like, I wondered, to live in high mountains where one saw the sun for only a few hours a day and where even a walk to a neighbor's house was an arduous climb? How would that kind of world affect a person? What did those children our books pictured in the midst of endless desert do with their time? Did they, like me, a country child, get lonely for friends? Why, I asked my first history teacher, would Alexander sit down and weep when he had conquered the known world?

Sadly, my questions were treated as frivolous by all but three or four of my teachers in grades 1–12. Most were of Horatio's mind: "'Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so." In one way or another, most advised me to answer the questions at the end of the chapter, to memorize the dates or definitions, to work the problems using the formula without fretting over how it might be applied in the life of a sixteen-year-old.

Eventually, I learned not to put such questions to my teachers. Yet I did not learn to stop the questions. And so, by early adolescence, I had begun to learn the lesson that has most influenced my teaching: that real learning—the kind that stays and becomes useful in understanding the world—is directly related to the learner's active personal engagement. Living in the Deep South, with a language rich in metaphor, no doubt helped guide me, but by the time I entered middle school, I already had begun consistently to comprehend and test what I read or was taught by consciously relating it to my own daily experience.

When I walked into my own first English classroom, a British literature class in a state university, I felt passionately that my most important task was to lead my students to understand the relevance to their own lives of the questions John Milton raises in "Lycidas"; to locate the experience in their lives that would permit them to understand the plight of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; to relate Keats's "Ode: On A Grecian Urn" to their own methods of learning. Teaching became a tactical effort to create situations in which students might develop the habit of connecting their personal experiences with those depicted in the works we studied together. If the personal connection occurred, I was confident, questions of artistry and historical context would automatically acquire relevance.

My goal was to place the artistic experience solidly within the realm of students' personal experiences, thereby giving it a context by which it might be tested and applied. If I could do that, I believed, the learning I sought to motivate would be permanent and useful.

An example of what I sought in my teaching occurred after the terrorist attacks on United States cities. By 9/11/2001, my class of juniors and seniors had been studying the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne for almost a month. Their summer reading had included The Scarlet Letter, and they had begun the school year by reading many of Hawthorne's stories. We had discussed these in detail, and students had written on aspects of Hawthorne's art almost daily. In fact, several had observed they had read and written entirely too much about the psychology of evil and sin. They were ready for plain, unsymbolic daylight. The week following the attacks, we completed our study, and at the end of a test, I asked students to comment briefly on its meaning to them. One comment alone justified the time I had given to Hawthorne's fiction. A boy wrote,

I had not wanted to study Hawthorne this fall. All that Unpardonable Sin. But had we not studied his work, I could not have understood what happened last week. Before Hawthorne, I had never really thought about the existence of evil. I attend church, but evil had no real meaning for me. Hawthorne says our hearts harden a little every time we deny the sanctity of another person until we no longer can empathize with others. In those men who flew planes into the World Trade Center last week, I saw Rappacinni, Alymer, Chillingsworth, and Ethan Brand. Like Hawthorne's characters, they had lost all sense of brotherhood and compassion with their fellow human beings. They did not see themselves in the women and children with whom they boarded the planes. They saw those people as abstractions, as usable objects. Therefore, I understood what the President meant when he called the terrorists evil. A month earlier, I would have said they were insane. Important difference.

I am often described as a "demanding" teacher, and in my classes, students tackle difficult works of literature. They master the traditional canon as well as a great deal of contemporary literature. Yet my work is driven by the knowledge that if I do not lead my charges to engage those works at a deeply personal level, I have wasted their time and mine.

When I entered teaching, I also knew from my experience as a student that writing is a powerful tool by which a teacher might lead students to make connections between art and their own experiences. For it to work effectively, however, I believed the writing had to be more than a means of students communicating their understandings to their instructor. It needed a wider audience if it were to be given the attention and significance it deserved from the writer. Thus, even in those long-ago days before computers and universal access to copying machines, students in my classes exchanged papers, worked in writing partnerships, and published collections of their critical analyses and personal responses to various works of literature. Everyone served on an editing team at some time during the semester. The results of their efforts were judged by other faculty members, and modest prizes awarded to the top two or three compositions in each collection. The result was that most students developed rhetorical and usage skills at the same time they were developing critical and literary skills.

All this is standard operating procedure in good English classrooms now, of course, but in the late sixties, it was novel, particularly in university classrooms. My older, more seasoned colleagues assured me such instruction would never permit me to "cover the curriculum." And sometimes they were right about that. Yet, the more I developed and used these strategies, the prouder and more serious my students became about their work. So I labored on. Their learning and passion motivated mine for nearly a decade of college teaching.

After a six-year hiatus at home, I returned to teaching, but this time not to a university classroom. A regional preparatory school invited me to develop and coordinate a subject-based program for gifted learners in grades 5–12. Thus, in the late fall of 1983, I found myself teaching a history and English humanities block to a group of seventh and eighth graders. My students were reading the fabulous accounts of the Greek historian Herodotus. Seeking to demonstrate the problems inherent in hearsay evidence, I devised a simple, topical project that would help them translate Herodotus' problems into their own vernacular. I asked students to interview area natives about the way Christmas had been celebrated during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Each student was to record on tape two interviews and to write summaries of each. From the accumulated summaries and tapes, students working in teams would then write articles on the issues or themes that emerged as most important.

I hoped this project would give students the opportunity to learn for themselves about the vagaries of memory and would afford firsthand experience evaluating and substantiating evidence. They would have to turn to journals, archival resources, and secondary histories of the era in order to reconcile contradictory data, clarify evidence, and confirm their conclusions. Working as historians whose primary data were recollections, they would encounter some of the problems Herodotus had encountered. I hoped they would thus read the historian's accounts more critically and develop more critical attitudes toward recorded history in general.

The results of this assignment shocked me. What shocked me was what had shocked those youngsters. No one in the class, for example, had imagined a Christmas without a pile of commercially purchased gifts, with only an orange and some nuts as gifts. No one had considered what red clay roads meant for travel and daily life. Most had failed to understand that people once grew vegetables and killed hogs and made syrup not as hobbies, but because without them, there would have been no food in the house. These grandchildren of the Great Depression had never suspected that many of their ancestors had gone barefoot to school because they had no shoes to wear.

In fact, my students seemed to know more about fifth-century Greece than they knew about their own region fifty or sixty years earlier. They were members of a television and computer-game generation and had never sat and listened to the conversations of their elders, absorbing a sense of the family's history or its successes and failures. They had no memories of valor to live up to or recollected shames to overcome. For all practical purposes, these young people lacked a personal past.

I distrust a bloodless, impersonal history, peopled by forces and not by living men and women with free will and the capacities for good and evil, success and failure. Yet it seemed to me that such a version was all that a person who himself had no vital, living past might possess. I wanted more for my students, and I believed my students wanted more for themselves.

So we made some changes. We continued to study the culture of Greece, but we added the culture of our own region, that of the hill country of North-Central Louisiana. Students in grades 5–8 spent nine weeks learning what constitutes culture and folklife and learning how to document and record the folklife of their region. They learned how to interview bearers of tradition, how to use tape recorders and cameras to record the interviews, how to transcribe and summarize their interviews, and how to write reports of the interviews.

Thereafter, they worked in small collaborative groups to produce articles on issues that their accumulated research had shown to be relevant. It often became necessary to revisit an informant or to search through print sources from the period to confirm the accuracy of information or to supply context for the information gained through interviews. Many times, new and important discoveries occurred.

When their work was completed, the students believed it to be so important that they determined to publish their articles and interview reports in a book, an act they felt would honor the people whom they had interviewed and preserve the information they had gleaned. They themselves developed an economic plan to cover printing costs. They entitled the book The Pine Cone, after the cone of the pine tree that holds the mast or seed by which the tree perpetuates itself. "So," they wrote, "we hope this publication not only will record passing customs for historical purposes but also will help to perpetuate those parts of our traditional culture that have sustained the people of our area." These youngsters had gone from being isolated individuals to people who saw themselves as part of their community, with a duty to that community. They had a new respect for themselves and their region.

Succeeding generations of students have visited basketmakers and fiddlers, storytellers and quilters, politicians and neighborhood gossips. They have located their family's stories and shared them with others. They have documented cooking traditions and farming techniques, and they have curated museum exhibits. We have invited various members of our regional community to our classrooms to share their experiences and skills, almost always individuals the students themselves have suggested. Occasionally, we go as a class to see syrup made or shingles riven, but we keep such visits to a minimum, for in a group of four or five, each member makes a personal connection and has a vital role, and part of the effectiveness of the project depends on these elements.

We also have had a few dead-ends. When students decided to document the various ways earlier settlers in our region had used corn, for instance, one of the uses they discovered was in making whiskey. A girl whose father's drugstore was gathering spot for old-timers reported she had overheard older men discussing their experiences building stills and staying out of the law's way. One man had said he had the remains of an old still on his property. The class was excited at the prospect of documenting this information, so I telephoned the girl's father and asked him to help us secure interviews with these men. The next day he reported that every one of them had declined. It seemed all were now deacons in local churches which took strong stands against alcohol, and they did not consider it seemly to reveal their past—and possibly present—connections with moonshine production.

The study of folklife has made striking differences in my students. For one thing, everyone has met someone older than sixty. And a number have discovered that people who have survived two global wars and a depression have a lot to teach fourteen-year-olds. Even more have discovered that they themselves are parts of history and that even the games they play and the foods they eat will reveal important details about contemporary culture and values to future generations. These young people have acquired a greater respect for the everyday accomplishments of ordinary men and women, and they have come to see themselves as active recorders of history, rather than passive bystanders. They see themselves as parts of a history that stretches backwards and forward beyond the present day. Placing the results of their work in regional and state archives reinforces its purposefulness and motivates these young researchers to work to the highest professional standards. The pride that results from all this becomes an immeasurable element in the success of our students. In Louisiana, with its dismal literacy record, that pride is critically important.

Because they have chosen to present their work in print and to disseminate it to a large regional audience, students are motivated early to master the elements of grammar, rhetoric, and composition. When such a project is under way, it is common to hear seventh graders arguing about the placement of a comma or the use of a transitional word. While they have had thorough grounding in usage and punctuation, it is when they apply the rules that mastery occurs. This year, we have added an independent studies in humanities course to the curriculum of our program, and three high school girls are currently studying the history of quiltmaking in America and our region. They have already documented a number of regional quilts and will conduct a quilt registration day in which area residents may bring their quilts to be dated, photographed, and documented for the Louisiana Folklife archives. Already this project has given these young women a greater understanding and respect for older members of their families and communities. Their writing shows the enthusiasm that active learning inspires, and they have come to appreciate the richness of an art form their grandmothers practiced.

The study and recording of folklife has led my students to a variety of creative writing projects as well. Through folklife study, they come to understand their culture and their own lives better. They discover the relevance of their family stories and practices. Thus, they grow increasingly alert to the possibilities these present to the poet, fiction writer, or essayist. I suspect that 80 percent of my students' best creative writing originates, however indirectly, in the study of the culture of their region.

In fact, one product of this unit and of The Pinecone is a literary journal, Southern Voices (, founded in 1995, that publishes the best creative writing of students across 10 southern states ( Recognizing how publication had motivated them and conscious of the low literacy levels in many states, students suggested such a publication would benefit young people throughout our section of the nation. By providing a venue for the work of student writers, we might encourage the art of writing. This journal is run almost completely by students, and most of them had their first taste of writing for publication with The Pinecone. Once young people taste the pleasures of writing and publication, I've discovered, they find it addictive.

The plan I have outlined in this essay is rooted, then, in my assumptions that the most important learning that takes place in English classes derives from active, personal engagement and that all people write best when they write for valued audiences. In my own teaching experience, folklife research has provided such engagement and such audiences. It has made writing a natural, meaningful activity. It has enriched students' range of experience, thus enlarging the body of knowledge they bring to bear upon the study of literature as well as life. It has, in short, proved a most fruitful way to teach literature and composition.

In a nation with an increasingly diverse ethnic population, folklife also can have a uniquely positive civic effect. It can teach rising generations that the similarities of human beings are greater than their differences, and it can promote meaningful, positive contact between different cultural groups within a community, thereby breeding respect for all elements in the community.

My own first efforts in using folklife in my classroom were guided by my limited experience documenting quilts and by materials provided by the Library of Congress, notably Folklife & Fieldwork: A Layman's Introduction to Field Techniques (Peter Bartis). Later, I encountered a remarkable book that impacted my teaching in a variety of ways, Sometimes a Shining Moment, written by Eliot Wiggington, who founded and guided the Foxfire project in the North Georgia mountain community of Rabun Gap. The book includes a day-by-day plan for teaching folklife research as well as a wealth of practical information about teaching writing. From Wiggington, I learned how to blend instruction in usage and punctuation more naturally with instruction in composition. Wiggington worked in a community characterized by low literacy levels, where education had not traditionally been a priority. His students were not, like mine, homogeneously grouped and most were not intellectually gifted. The effects the study of folklife had on those young people confirmed my own experience and convinced me this study can transform youngsters of all abilities, skills, and current aspirations into serious students.

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