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



Day 1: Practicing Discovery

I pass out copies of a rough map I have drawn. It is of an area between the 20th and 29th latitudes, with a 700-mile river that flows from south to north. Wind currents are from north to south. In the southern section are mountains, and in the northern section the river broadens into a delta and flows into a wide sea. Along the northern part of the river on either side is an area of flat land that stretches about a mile and that has topsoil almost 30 feet deep. To the west of this land are steep limestone cliffs; to the east, deserts stretch to the edge of the map. The legend to the map includes some basic information: a list of natural products found in the mountain area and the fact that the river overflows annually.

I give the class two or three minutes to study the map carefully. Then I ask them to determine whether a culture or civilization is likely to emerge in the mapped area. I encourage any guess supported by evidence.

Writing fast, I record the responses on the board. Almost inevitably, someone asks me how far 700 miles is, in terms of our location. I say it is about the distance from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Atlanta, Georgia. Then the ideas begin to flow. Someone will note that agriculture is likely to develop along the section of the river with the deep layer of topsoil. Someone else will announce that trade would certainly be desirable, since the southern area seems to have no land for cultivation of crops and the northern area has none of the minerals useful in creating tools, like tin. Another will build on that thought by noting that trade would also be possible, since the natives could use the wind to sail south and the currents to travel north. By this point, someone will have decided that the deserts and cliffs would provide isolation and possibly protection from other groups of people and that the river itself would encourage travel along its banks. The group decides peoples all along the river would be drawn together by the need to exchange goods. What follows usually are ideas about where cities or communities would arise, whether a common culture would arise, what specific needs that religion would be likely to address. Students generally decide that the culture of the northern and southern ends of the river would likely differ but that the needs of both groups would lead them to overcome those differences and unite politically.

Finally, I tell the group they have just predicted the way the Egyptian civilization arose. I briefly recapitulate how two kingdoms arose and eventually were united into a civilization. I congratulate them on their discoveries, ask them to turn the maps face down on their tables and answer some questions for me. In rapid-fire order, I ask the length of the river, the direction of wind currents in the area, the direction of the river's flow, the names of the minerals found in the south, other geographical or geological features of the area. Without fail, everyone joins in shouting out the answers.

Then I ask them to reflect on what has just occurred. Why, I ask, were they able to master all that new, specific material so quickly? My goals are twofold: first, to remind them how using information creates understanding and second, to build their confidence in their ability to learn independently. The exercise also subtly implants some ideas about what constitutes a civilization and culture and the way that culture is affected by geography.

I follow this exercise by laying out on a table three quilts. I ask the group what they can tell from these quilts about the quilts' maker or makers and the culture in which the maker(s) lived. In the array, I include one in which the quilter planned her design carefully and purchased matching materials, one that is made from a variety of fabric scraps that are put together without much concern for aesthetics, and one that is made of a similar variety of scraps but with obvious concern for establishing a harmonious pattern and rhythm. Again, the group makes hypotheses to establish the characters and circumstances of the quilt makers and their cultures. Then, I tell them these were made by women in my family. I tell them a little about the makers of the quilts and explain why I have saved them, what those quilts mean to me. Since many younger students have never seen a quilt, we discuss the original purposes of the quilt, what quilts reveal about the people who made them, and whether they retain their original function in my home. Any object from another era, preferably one that was made by an individual, can be used in this way. I myself have brought tinware, scrapbooks from the 1940s, articles of clothing, farm implements, tools, paintings, and other items which I use.

The first night, I assign students to ask their parents or neighbors to show them something they have saved from ancestors and to ask them about its original purpose, whether it is still used for that purpose, and why the owners saved it. I tell students we call such articles artifacts and explain why. They are to record this encounter in their writing journals, making a rough sketch of the object and trying to capture the personality of the owner in a descriptive paragraph.

Day 2: Recording Experience: Why and How

When students walk into class the next day, they are abuzz with their discoveries. Everyone wants to tell the class about his or her experience. Quickly I call on a student who is asking to read her account. Then I call on to others, until all who wish to share have read from their journals. Usually that means every single member of the class reads. I then return to several students whose accounts were particularly enthusiastic and ask questions about the owner of their object. How old? Was he tall or short? How did she feel when she told you that? Are you sure that is the word she used? I want them to start thinking about how inadequate a summary is in establishing the fullness of experience.

If I have 15 or 20 minutes left (and I usually do), I read aloud a short section of an interview done by previous groups or one found in one of the Foxfire books (see Useful Resources, below). Then, I ask them to write down what I said as closely as they can. When most have finished writing, I ask two or three students to read their accounts aloud. Others in the class will note details that are missing in each account.

Then, I will suggest that perhaps they might be more accurate if they took notes, like news reporters. Reading very slowly, I will read the same passage again. No matter how slowly I read, however, students cannot keep up. They call out, "Slow down! I'm not through with the last sentence yet!" By that time, someone will have spotted the small tape recorder on my desk and suggest we might record the words and then play them back in a way that makes it possible to write exactly what I've said. Someone else will observe that since his artwork is poor, he might have photographed the object he documented the night before through drawing.

Then I stop the tape that has been running throughout the class period and play back sections of our class's discussion that day. "Should I erase this now?" I ask. So far, I've never encountered a group that did not insist that I keep it. Some students note it will show later classes how sharp this group is, some note it will document our progress, and most offer some variant of this: "It will help you remember our group." In other words, it will preserve us.

I pass out copies of one of the articles written by Foxfire students or by previous groups in our program. I ask students to read it for homework and underline or note all the concrete and specific details as well as anything else which they believe helps the reader get to know the person being interviewed. I review briefly the difference between concrete and specific details (see below), information students will have acquired in grade 5 but which they will review throughout middle school.

Day 3: Use of Specific and Concrete Details in Writing

For most of the students I teach, this is a review.

I open this class with a discussion of the previous night's assignment. We review the definition of concrete details (a detail that appeals to the senses) and specific detail (a detail that gives precise information about a thing, such as length, brand name, dates, numbers). And we review when each is appropriate. Concrete details, students usually observe, appeal to our senses and give us a three-dimensional awareness. They appeal to our imagination (or image-making faculty). Specific details are facts that are indisputable, often involving numbers, names, and proper nouns. They appeal to our reason. To be interesting and accurate, most reports require both, they agree.

We make lists of each kind of detail on the board at the front of the room, noting to what sense each appeals. Then I ask them to imagine a pepperoni pizza. First, I ask them to help me write a description of the pizza using only specific details. I remind them they can use no concrete words, only specific details. I record their descriptions on the board. Usually details like diameter of the whole pizza and the pepperoni, the number of pepperoni slices, and the name of the cheese are mentioned. Sometimes a brand name will be offered for the sauce. Next, I ask them to write a description of the pizza using only concrete details. This time we get sentences that arouse hunger:

Islands of rough, blotchy red pepperoni float in a sea of golden mozzarella cheese. Here and there on its surface, volcanoes of bright red tomato sauce bubble up through the sea, sending the scent of oregano and thyme into the atmosphere. The sea is bounded by a brown-flecked ridge of crust.

When I am certain students can distinguish between concrete and specific details, I ask them again to tell me why we need both in a report like the one they read the night before. One gives vitality and life, the other brings accuracy, we conclude.

Then we review the articles they read the night before, noting both kinds of details and calling attention to their purpose.

Next, I ask them to compare their own reports with the one they had read the night before. By this time, most students are highly sensitive to the value of details, and many will express dissatisfaction with their own report's lack of information or vitality. In general, I hope students will become aware that the difference between their second-hand summaries and the story they read lies in the use of the contact's own words. Everyone speaks differently, I tell them, and how they tell the story is as important as the story itself. We need to give our readers a sense of the person so they will be able to evaluate what that person says—i.e., we need to provide a context which will let him judge the validity of the contact's information. A person suffering from Alzheimer's Disease might not be reliable, for instance. A person who has spent his entire life in a city might be sensitive to the small details that give the city its special character. A woman who moved away from home in her late teens and has little contact with her family and birthplace for many years might prove less reliable about its culture than one who has remained close to home.

The assignment for Day Three is to write a description of a person of their choice, using both concrete and specific details. The only stipulation for choice is that they know the person and have seen the person within the past month.

Day 4: Interviews: Using Tape Recorders and Formulating Productive Questions

This is the day we begin to prepare in earnest for the class's first interview. I ask students to place the description they wrote the previous evening in their writing folders, where I will later read and comment on it. Then we discuss the use of tape recorders. I ask a student to volunteer to be interviewed about his or her contact. Then I quickly select three students as interviewers. I set a noisy tape recorder right in front of the student being interviewed, turn it on, and immediately tell the questioners to begin the interview. It becomes clear that the student being interviewed is painfully conscious of the recorder and that the interviewers are asking either irrelevant or poorly worded questions. Almost always, even in the most sophisticated groups, awkward silences occur. I stop the interview and play the tape back for the class, and everybody gets the idea."What can we do to avoid situations like this?" I ask. Students note that planning questions ahead of time would help. They also note that having the recorder right in front of the contact's face makes the person nervous. A student once observed, "You feel like you've got to talk fast, but you can't think of anything to say. Pretty soon, all you can think of is how stupid you are." Lesson taken.

At that point, I give a lesson in the use of tape recorders. I stress these things:

  • Use a high-quality recorder so that you get all the sounds clearly.
  • Use high-quality tape so it will not jam your recorder and so it will last for future purposes.
  • Test the recorder several times before your interview—just in case.
  • Always bring extra batteries and tapes, for accidents inevitably occur.
  • Place the recorder close to the person you are interviewing, but in as inconspicuous a place as possible. And do all in your power not to call attention to it. Make small talk before you actually begin to record. Try to make the contact unaware of the recorder.

Then we practice using a good tape recorder which belongs to our classroom, focusing on locations that are less conspicuous and that produce good sound. I have three tape recorders in the room, and students practice using them, seeing where batteries are located, where the microphones are located, and so forth.

Next, I ask if anyone has ever taped another person's words without telling the person. In most classes, the answer is yes. We discuss the ethics of that behavior. I stress that when we interview a person, we must

  1. Receive his or her written permission to record the interview;
  2. Show the person the interview when we have typed it and receive his or her written permission to use it in whatever way we decide to use it, even if that is only depositing it in a library.

I explain why we can never quote even one sentence from an interview for which we do not have such explicit permission on file.

By now, the class is coming to see itself as a professional unit, with serious responsibilities to truth. Students are asking when we will interview a real person, what we can document, what formats we might use to present the information.

Day 5: Using A Camera to Record Experience and Complement Text

I begin this class by showing students copies of Foxfire and other folklife publications I have on file, such as Gifts from the Hills, an exhibit catalog from a folklife exhibit on our own regional culture. I point out good photographs and the way they both increase interest and complement text. I call particular attention to those in which the contact seems in the middle of a sentence or is in the midst of work. I note others which show, frame by frame, exactly how an activity is carried out. We talk about composition and good focus, and I show them photographs I have brought from my home albums that show poor focus and poor composition.

I pass sheets of copied photographs and ask the students, working in groups of four, to evaluate each photograph. Then we compare the conclusions of each group.

I tell the students that in our own work everyone will have to serve as a photographer on an interview team and that developing an eye for a good shot is as important as developing a good question.We use a simple 35mm camera because that is what we have and what is most easily managed, and most students are experienced in its use. Nevertheless, I review how film is loaded, how focus and shots are achieved. Everybody gets to fiddle with the camera.

Next, I distribute flat cardboard replicas of the camera to every student. I tell the class to practice looking through the viewfinder and composing photographs. I encourage them to keep moving around their subjects, trying out different views, their fingers ready to make the photograph. I sometimes have two sets of students perform some routine activity in our classroom, perhaps returning dictionaries to the shelf, while everyone else "photographs" the activity. We change groups and repeat the activity with another group. It gives students an idea of how it feels to be "on camera" as well as a little practice in looking for good light, good shots, good composition.

I tell students they may take the cardboard cameras home and practice (They have been made by Xeroxed paper pasted to cardboard). I encourage them to imagine themselves documenting some important routine in their home, such as food preparation.

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