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



Day 1: The Art of Creating Productive Questions for an Interview

We begin the second week with a review of Week One. I ask students to write a 30-minute essay on the main things they had learned the preceding week. These go into their folders for me to read. They will provide practice writing in the expository mode, and they will help me understand what points need extra attention.

We use the last half of the period to talk about what constitutes a good question. I might play back part of the earlier class interview so we can identify pointless questions, dead-enders that can only elicit a "yes" or "no." I suggest we try as a group to plan some good questions for someone in the community who is noted as a good cook—or a skilled craftsman or experienced hunter or whatever the community yields. As students call out questions in rapid-fire order, I write them on the board.

Next, we create a rubric by which we can evaluate each question. Usually it will include matters of relevance; the extent to which the question encourages the person to expand on his subject, thereby helping us recognize other questions that need to be asked; and the extent to which the question is likely to prove useful in revealing fact. We review each question, evaluating each by the rubric.

Finally, I hand out copies of another interview report, made by an earlier group. They are to read it for homework. I also hand out permission slips granting the students permission to visit a site in our region the next week.

Day 2: Review of Writing Assignment, Using Composition Review Sheets

I return the folders with graded papers and marked rubrics, indicating the basis for the grade. (See example later). I collect permission slips.

I also hand out a Composition Correction sheet. We use these routinely in our class. From each paper I type one sentence that contains some error. Then, in class we analyze the sentences, one-by-one, and identify the error and note how it might be corrected. For some reason that is mysterious to me, groups seem to make common usage errors as well as individual ones, and so one Composition Correction Sheet might contain 5 examples of faulty pronoun reference or subject-verb agreement. I teach mini-lessons on such shared errors. This manner of reinforcing usage skills has proved an excellent way of teaching content as well as sharpening proofreading skills. It also makes matters of grammar, punctuation, and usage relevant, for these are real errors, taken from real papers. I prepare the class for the field trip we will take the next day.

Because we live in a land of small towns and rural areas, I usually select the oldest house in the area, which is a historical site that includes a family cemetery and that permits students free roaming space.

Teachers whose students live in cities might wish to select a site related to the city's history or development or an area where city life is highly visible. It might even be a restaurant specializing in traditional fare. I ask each student to bring a camera from home if possible and a notebook for recording information about the site.

Day 3: Field Trip: Seeing the Past Through Artifacts

A historian meets us at the site and reviews the history and formation of the culture of our region. He relates the site to the culture of the Native Americans who lived in the area in the early 19th century. He shows migration maps, pointing out to students the main paths taken by the region's earliest settlers, mainly Scots-Irish who came to America in the early 19th century through the port of Charleston, South Carolina. He explains the land-grant policies that lured settlers to our region, particularly after the Civil War, and notes the factors that affected the siting of houses. He tells about the family who built and lived in this structure.

He also discusses the architecture of the log house and traces it back to the Scandinavians who settled Pennsylvania. He explains the purpose of the long central hallway, called a dogtrot, and showing them the implement with which shingles were riven, he tells students that the tin roof now on the structure replaced the original wooden shingle roof. The museum that owns the building could not afford the higher cost of insurance on the old wood shingled roof, because these shingles often resulted in house fires in the past. As the group proceeds through the house, he points out important features and implements with which they were created.

Then the students are free to roam outside, looking at the tombstones, the site of the old well, and the creek which was the original source of water and the reason for siting the house. Most break into pairs or small groups. Some explore alone. They photograph the building and its surroundings and take more notes on what they discover. They record questions raised by their tour and investigations.

Finally, we gather for a question-and-answer session with the historian. By this time, each student is armed with questions he or she has written down. This session is usually lively, with a great deal of learning taking place. Having had time to look carefully at the house, students have important questions and are eager for answers. Because the house is filled with artifacts like split-oak baskets, handmade textiles, homemade metal cooking utensils, and such, it guides students to special areas they might like to explore about the cultural practices of our area.

On our way back to school, I encourage students to have their film developed as soon as possible. I distribute the assignment for the evening, to plan an essay about the site just visited. It emphasizes the need to describe the place, using concrete and specific details, in a way that will bring it to life for a reader. It also emphasizes the need for narrowed thesis and topic sentences to guide the reader's understanding and perception.

Day 4: Reviewing the role of the Thesis and Topic Sentences in Composition

When students enter the classroom, a blank sheet of paper is at each place. On it, each is to copy his or her thesis and one topic sentence. I collect each sheet.

We review the qualities of a good thesis or topic sentence—a narrowed subject and narrowed point of view on that subject (see later). We will examine each sentence for those qualities. Without identifying writers, I copy the first thesis on the board for the class to evaluate. If the thesis is "The Autrey House evokes life in the mid-nineteenth century," we will note that "Autrey House is sufficiently narrowed and that "evokes life in mid-nineteenth century" is a narrowed point of view. Then I ask what the writer must "prove" or demonstrate. Because of its early training in the use of topic sentences to guide writing and thought, the class usually answers, "to prove that the house makes a person experience life in the mid-nineteenth century."

If we come upon a thesis such as "The Autrey House is very old," we pause to examine the point of view, "very old." "Couldn't you prove that simply by giving the date?" I ask. We conclude the point of view is too narrow in that case. Then everyone pitches in with suggestions for a way to improve it so it will guide the writer in his or her effort to capture the spirit of the house. When we complete our review of theses, we look at selected topic sentences in the same manner.

Then we review our purpose, describing the Autrey House site so clearly that a person who has never seen it will envision the general picture as well as the details. We also review the use of specific and concrete details.

The assignment for the evening is to write a first draft of the descriptive essay. I emphasize the practical importance of the skills being developed in this essay, using the students' newly emerging sense of themselves as cultural historians to motivate good work.

Day 5: Peer Review of Descriptive Essay

Students break into composition groups assigned earlier in semester. Each group has access to a stack of rubrics that emphasize these points:


  • contains a thesis with a limited subject and a limited point of view
  • suggests the general plan of the paper


  • contains a topic sentence with a limited subject and a limited point of view that relates directly to the thesis.
  • is developed through the use of concrete and specific details
  • is developed fully enough so the reader can envision the place
  • is characterized by unity (each sentence relates directly to the topic sentence)
  • is characterized by coherence


  • does more than summarize body of paper
  • suggests some other context for the information in the body of the paper—e.g., the effect of the site on the individual, the possible future use of the site in the community or by the group, the way the site relates to contemporary life.


  • facilitates easy reading and comprehension of the material.
  • includes correct spelling, use of transitional words or phrases, pronoun case and agreement, verb tense, use of commas to set off introductory adverbial clauses, etc.

Groups choose whether they will have the writer read his or her work or whether they will pass each paper around, marking rubrics as they read. Each member of the group, however, must discuss the merits and weaknesses of each paper in a positive way. It is the group's responsibility to see that each paper is improved in some way.

The assignment for the weekend is a revision of the first draft, typed on a word processor or written neatly in ink, observing proper manuscript form.

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