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

by Gaye Ingram

The Plan: Teaching Students To Write Using Folklife Research
Useful Resources

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In the past 20 years, great progress has been made in teaching personal writing. As a result of the work of teachers like Donald Murray, Nancy Atwell, and Lucy Calkins, student writing has been liberated from the straightjacket of the unnatural and stiff-jointed Five-Paragraph Essay. Teachers have turned from emphasizing form to focusing on "authenticity" and "voice." By recreating in their classrooms the natural conditions under which good writing normally occurs, teachers in grades K–12 have succeeded in guiding their students to the production of personal and imaginative writing that bears the marks of its owners' distinctive voices and attitudes toward subjects.

Yet even as writing centers have proliferated and classroom writing workshops multiplied, student writing in the subject areas has declined in quality. Stale prose, unsupported generalizations, and weak or incoherent development of ideas too often characterize the work students produce when writing about issues in history, literature, art, political science, or other content subjects. "Some of the worst student writing is in the expository mode, both in classroom assignments and on state writing tests," claimed Dr. V. Pauline Hodges in the January, 2002 eTeach Literature article, "Teaching Students to Write Expository Text for the Content Areas."

This decline poses a critical problem, for most of the writing students will be required to do in their lives will include exposition. Whether it be college research papers, work reports, grant proposals, or civic or political responses, expository writing will occupy a large part of students' writing time once they have left our classrooms. It is while working in the expository mode, moreover, that students acquire many of the critical thinking skills most valued in the adult workplace and required for a democratic society to flourish.

The trick in teaching expository writing is to create engagement with a subject that requires exposition. Not many people, young or old, are highly motivated to write a serious research paper when only one person, a teacher, will read it. The act becomes even less inviting when the writer has no real interest or personal investment in the topic As teachers, then, we must create a process by which we lead students to topics that will motivate them to seek and communicate meaning to an audience wider and more valued than their teachers.

One area that lends itself particularly well to such purposes is folklife or cultural research. Often included in the curricula of university English departments, the documentation and reporting of traditional culture involves all the aspects of sound research and exposition, with many other aspects of writing as well. Its immediacy and personal relevance inspires young writers to seek truth and to share their discoveries with others through a variety of formats, including expository writing.

And since culture involves all the ways of doing things in a group, the materials for writing lie everywhere about the students. The games played on the school playground, foods prepared in students' homes, courtship patterns within a group, ways of commemorating events or celebrating holidays, useful work skills that are passed informally from one generation to another, special ways of dressing and special hair styling techniques—all these come under the umbrella of folklife or culture. Moreover, all have meaning and relevance for students, thereby engendering interest and motivating students to use more conventional printed resources to interpret and confirm findings and to report their discoveries in writing.

Documenting folklife involves authentic writing and research, the kind students will encounter in their lives beyond the classroom. It guarantees students' active, personal engagement with a subject that usually requires both primary and secondary research and that involves a variety of writing strategies and opportunities. Students carry the skills acquired naturally in the study of folklife over into their writing about history, art, science, and other subjects.

See Definition of Folklife and Values of Folklife Research.

I have chosen simply to present the day-by-day steps and specific methods which I first employed in teaching folklife research and which I have continued to refine for 20 years. These have never failed to elicit excitement and lively expository writing from students in grades 5–12. By enlarging the life experience of my students, they have also led to richer, more vital imaginative and personal writing. Included too are samples of student work and a guide to resources I have found valuable in my own instruction. I hope thereby to encourage the wider use of a teaching strategy that has served my students so well.

See Meanings: How I Came to Use Folklife Research in My Teaching.


The basic procedures used here may easily be condensed or expanded. Teachers might choose to end the procedure with the transcription of interviews, for instance, or they might choose to extend it by interviewing new immigrants and researching the ways they have impacted local culture.

Week One: Introduction To Folklife And Its Importance
Week Two: Getting Started
Week Three: The First Interview, Describing A Person
Week Four: Getting Professional
Week Five: Getting To Work
Weeks Six–Nine: Working As Groups In The Field


The following list of publications and Web sites is highly selective. A search of the Internet for resources will produce a long list of state projects, specialized projects, and similar materials. These are materials that I have found most helpful.


Bartis, Peter. Folklife & Fieldwork: A Layman's Introduction to Field Techniques. Publications of the American Folklife Center No 3, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. This invaluable little handbook is available to teachers and students for the cost of postage. It includes an introduction to folklife research, including interview forms used by most folklife agencies.

MacDowell, Marsha, ed. Folk Arts in Education: A Resource Handbook. East Lansing: Michigan State University Museum, 1987. A basic folklore education source with reports from around the country, lots of ideas and resources adaptable for any region and all grades. Order from MSU Museum, East Lansing, MI 48224, ($18.95 with binder; $14.95 without binder).

Foxfire Publications: The following publications are produced by the Foxfire Fund, Inc and grow out of the original Foxfire project developed by Eliot Wiggington. They may be obtained from the Foxfire Museum Center, Post Office Box 541,Mountain City, GA 30562-0541 Tel (706) 746-5828.

Foxfire books (see Foxfire Web site) are models in student documentation of folklife.

From Thinking To Doing: Constructing a Framework to Teach Mandates through Experience-Based Learning is a book that provides an in-depth discussion of each Core Practice: how each is interpreted by Foxfire, the research and theory that support the Core Practices, and the ways teachers most often get started and grow in their implementation of each. It is important reading for all who are interested in building learner-centered, community-focused classrooms. ($15.00)

Considering Assessment and Evaluation: A Foxfire Teacher Reader is a compilation of thoughts on assessment and evaluation. The readings were selected by practicing classroom teachers from over 14,000 articles. The book includes four sections: Critical Issues, Performance-Based Assessment, Portfolio Assessment, and Scoring and Reporting. Articles include: "Portfolio Assessment: Making It Work for the First Time"; "Grading: The Issue Is Not How but Why"; "What's the Difference Between Authentic and Performance Assessment?"; "Understanding Rubrics; What Research Tells Us about Good Assessment." ($12.50)

Considering Imagination and Creativity: A Foxfire Teacher Reader brings together discussions on the significance of imagination, creativity, and the aesthetic experience in learning. Through these readings, strong arguments are made that creativity and imagination have implications far beyond the arts and that, in fact, all learners need these traits in order to make meaning of their school and other learning experiences. ($12.50)

Simons, Elizabeth Radin. Student Worlds, Student Words: Teaching Writing Through Folklore. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1990. A teacher and a folklorist, Simons offers good background on contemporary folklore and detailed lesson plans for high school writing and folklore studies Heinemann, 361 Hanover St., Portsmouth, NH 03801- 3959, 800/541-2086, ($18.95)

Wiggington, Eliot. Sometimes a Shining Moment: The Foxfire Experience. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1985. This is a superior guide for a beginning teacher of folklife. It contains day-by-day lesson plans in addition to a stimulating section on writing instruction. Worth the effort required to locate it.

Internet Sites

American Folklife Center, at the Library of Congress, hosts this premier site for materials on the study and teaching of folklife. It is content rich and is invaluable to anyone interested in folklife study. The Batis guide is located online at this site, along with both primary and secondary materials which may be downloaded.

Collections and Special Presentations Available Online, a part of the the American Folklife Center site, gives online access to sounds and live performances of folklife artists.

The Foxfire Fund, Inc. contains a wealth of information and materials generated by the most famous of all high school student folklife projects.

The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage sponsors a national folklife festival each year and sponsors a Web site.

America Quilts: Quilts in the Classroom from PBS Online provides a good example of a folklife project and suggests a model for students who might wish to create such a site.


I. Definition Of Folklife And Values Of Folklife Research
II. Meanings: How I Came To Use Folklife Research In My Teaching
III. Sample Interviews