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



Day 1: Observing and Describing a Person

At each student's place are three descriptions of people, drawn from fiction and nonfiction. As I read each one aloud, I ask the students to note the techniques the writer uses not only to make us see the person but also to give us a sense of his or her personality or character. Many underline concrete details as I read.

When I have finished reading a description, I ask students to name aspects the writer emphasizes—e.g., overall size (height, build, shape), facial features (eye color, facial shape, distinctive features), dress and what it reveals, and body language and what it reveals. When I finish the third description, we discuss the way clothing reveals a person, the way body language reveals the person's attitude or personality, and what his or her manner of moving or speaking reveals. In short, we assemble a list of aspects that writers use to make characters or people so real we feel we know them or could recognize them if we met them on a trip or in the grocery store.

We also examine the rhetorical strategies used by the writers—e.g., did the writer describe the over-all build of the person first, then move to the smaller details? Did he begin with an action or a detail that would captivate our attention immediately and make us want to understand it better? Did the writer begin with a generalization which was then developed? Did he or she open with a scene? We discuss the merits of each approach. I endeavor to make discussion fast-paced and to assure general participation. I often move about the classroom, standing before the person I'm addressing. The purpose of this activity is to heighten students' sensitivity both to the means of describing a person but also to the rhetorical choices available to them.

Usually, I have about 15 minutes left. I use this time to ask for volunteers for a 5-person interview team. I explain that everyone on the team is responsible for generating good questions and that in addition, one person will be responsible for photography, one for recording, three for asking and following up on questions. I explain that an older member of the community is coming to our class the next day and that we must quickly plan the interview.

The class decides where the interview will take place in the room. They consider such things as making the guest comfortable and at ease, placement of tape recorder, and group access. Then we discuss the kinds of questions the team will need to consider: where the person lived as a child and adult, the kind of house in which the person grew up, the way the family made its living, its leisure activities, typical and special foods—all these are mentioned. I remind the students of a creative writing activity we have used to jog our own memories of childhood—drawing a floor plan of the house in which we grew up or had our first memories, identifying major pieces of furniture and places in the house where special things (bad or good, happy or sad) occurred. I suggest they might use that technique if the visitor seems to have a problem recalling his or her youth.

Finally, I designate a two-person welcome team who will meet the contact at the office and escort him or her to our classroom—exactly 5 minutes after the opening of class.

The assignment for the evening is to study the Folklife & Fieldwork manual section on "What to Ask" and to study class notes about how to describe a person. I tell students to come prepared to take notes on the guest, and I suggest they might note on their papers the main points discussed in this day's discussion. We will, I tell them, write an essay describing the person.

Day 2: The First Interview

The class bounds into the room the next day, everyone eager to arrange the room for the interview. The students in charge of taping and photography have come before school to check their equipment. They make a final check. Just as we are settling into our places, the guest arrives. For a guest, I try to find someone who enjoys talking, whose roots run deep in our region, and who has lived in the region most of his or her long life. In the South, where talking is an art form and many people remain in the same region much of their lives, this is seldom hard to do.

I introduce the guest to the class, and then have class members introduce themselves. The guest settles into place, and the interview begins. Some nervousness is to be expected the first time students conduct an interview, but because they have written their questions down and arranged them in basically the same logical order, they have a starting point. Some members of the team will be concerned with covering every question on the lists and will fidget when the guest goes beyond the immediate question. Others will get caught up with the guest's enthusiasms. These extremes always seem to balance one another.

Later I will encourage them to let the guest depart from the basic questions, particularly on a first interview. These departures reveal enthusiasms and special knowledge we might wish to explore. The photographer is likely to be a little self-conscious at first, and the student in charge of taping lives in mortal fear the tape is bad. But generally, the group acquits itself honorably.

If the interview ends before the 55-minute class period ends, I sometimes call for questions from the class at large. And there are always many questions.

The assignment for the night has already been given: Write a short thank-you letter to our guest. I emphasize the need for including at least one specific detail that appealed to them and for writing legibly in ink. I refer them to their handbook for examples of such notes, which we write routinely in our class.

This experience really motivates students and puts flesh-and-blood on the generalizations we have made about the use of the camera and tape recorder, the kinds of questions that are most productive, and the culture of our region. As many folklorists note, it also changes the class's relationship with the guest and its attitude toward older people. Folks who were "old people" the day before become valuable sources of information for a way of life these youngsters intend to document.

Day 3: Writing: Describing a Person

Students spend the class period writing an essay in which they describe the guest from the previous day. I remind them of the main rhetorical strategies we discussed previously and stress the importance of both concrete and specific details. Then, using the notes they made the day before, they spend the class period writing. At the end of the period, they staple their essays to their notes and turn their compositions in.

I mark the essays and from them, prepare a Composition Correction Sheet for the next day's class.

Day 4: Revision and Editing

I return the papers, stapling my rubric on top.

We work through the Composition Correction Sheet, followed with an appropriate mini-lesson in usage or punctuation.

Finally, I review the strategies for descriptions and ask for examples from the class papers.

The assignment for the night is for students to revise their descriptions. I tell everyone to get at least one other person to read his or her paper and suggest a way it might be improved. I encourage everyone to employ the rhetorical strategies we have discussed and to edit carefully, using the editing sheet we use in our class as a guide.

Day 5: Analysis of Interview

Today we analyze the interview with the guest. Using the Folklife and Fieldwork manual and our own notes, the class critiques the interview.

I encourage them to begin with technical issues.

  • Did the team secure written permission to record the interview?
  • Did the team label the tapes with the name of the guest, interviewers, date and address of place, and occasion?
  • Did they use high quality tape? Did they assure the recorder was placed in a position that captured clearly both their questions and the guest's answers? (We listen to part of the interview to determine answers to the latter questions.)
  • Do the photographs capture the personality of the person?
  • Do they show the context or environment of the interview?
  • What is the quality of the composition in the photographs?
  • Are there several photographs which could be used as illustrations if we published the interview?
  • Are the photographs properly labeled?

Then we analyze the questions asked.

  • Did the team follow a logical order or did their questions seem scattered, jumping from one subject to an unrelated subject?
  • Did the questions move chronologically?
  • Did the team allow the guest to expatiate on subjects about which he or she seemed particularly enthusiastic?
  • Were there enough open-ended questions to permit the guest to introduce his or her enthusiasms?
  • Did students look at the guest when asking questions?

Finally, I direct their attention to subjects on which the guest contact seemed especially expert or enthusiastic. I ask them which of these might be developed into an article for publication or placement in an archive? Taking one of their answers, I ask them to generate questions about that subject. If there are a number of questions, then we can feel reasonably sure that subject could be developed into an article.

I explain that this interview is really what we term a pre-interview, an interview in which we discover subjects for development. It is important in itself because it documents the life of a member of the community, but for a professional writer and researcher, it would be more important for the topics it suggests for writing.

I encourage students to return to the interviews they conducted before we had studied the process and see if they can locate subjects that might be developed.

By now, students are aware that conducting an interview in not a simple process, and the complexity of what they are doing gives them pride. They begin to bring in photographs from news magazines and newspapers as examples of good and bad photography. Some will call special attention to good descriptions of places and people in books they are reading. I encourage this sharing and create a bulletin board where they might post their examples. I also encourage them to list possible subjects that might be researched.

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