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



Day 1: Transcription

The object of this lesson is to stress the importance of accuracy in transcription.

I begin by playing a portion of the class interview while the students transcribe. I start and stop the tape at short intervals, being sure everyone is keeping up. Then I ask a student to read his transcription aloud. I ask the other students to read along and call attention to anything different in their transcriptions. Inevitably differences occur. They give me the opportunity to stress the need for absolute accuracy in transcription. Transcribing is slow work, I note, but critical. I give examples of how a single word omitted or added can change the tone of the interview and often the meaning.

I use the last part of this class period to have students reflect on their experiences so far. I ask each person to do a fastwrite on the subject—again, no erasures, no stopping, keeping the pen moving constantly, writing down whatever comes to mind. I want to know how the group is feeling, whether it is proud or bored with its work, what fears have arisen, what anticipation exists. The best way to get an accurate idea of these things, I've found, is to shut down the rational faculties and open the doors for the subconscious mind's response.

Day 2: Documenting Process

The last composition skill the students will require if they are to work as cultural historians is the skill of accurately describing a process. They will be observing ways of doing and making things, whether those things be fried peach pies or children's games, and they need to be able to describe the process clearly and correctly. This is also a skill required in science labs and daily life and yet one not always given attention in the classroom.

Textbooks contain many guides to process writing, and over the years I have developed a variety of topics. My favorite, however, is one that was used by Eliot Wiggington in his Foxfire classes and that is described in his book Sometimes a Shining Moment. Wiggington has students write clear, step-by-step directions in complete sentences for making something out of paper—airplanes, hats, envelopes, puzzles, stars, anything at all. Students may include diagrams if they wish. I allow 30 minutes for this activity. Then I select those papers that begin, "Take a piece of paper"—and inevitably a class of 15–20 will yield five or six of these. I take a sheet of typing paper from my computer center and tear a corner from it. Then I attempt to move to the second step. Almost always that is impossible because the writer meant, "Take a sheet of 8.5" x 11" paper." Everyone gets the idea.

Then I return student papers and ask the writers to revise for accuracy. I tell them I will grade the papers primarily for accuracy.

The assignment for the evening is to observe some routine activity, making notes as one would make for an article. I tell them we will use the notes the next day to write an essay describing the process. I suggest they might watch their parents prepare a simple recipe, make a bed, or vacuum a rug. Or they might make notes as they watch someone brush her teeth. The point is to get exact details in exact order. Specific details, specific details, specific details! Order, order, order!

Day 3: Documenting Process

Using the notes they have made the night before, students write a description of a process. They staple their completed paper to their notes. I mark these papers and notes, using a rubric that focuses upon complete sentences and complete accuracy of detail and order.

Day 4: Composition Review

I return the papers along with the rubric I used to evaluate them. Then I hand out Composition Correction Sheets, which we review as a group. I use the remainder of this period to teach a lesson on grammatical and punctuation errors that are common in the class. Often this will be the use of faulty pronoun reference or the use of commas after introductory elements. I emphasize that these are matters of convention that simplify reading. I also emphasize that if we wish our work to be taken seriously, we must master such basic elements.

Homework for the evening is to study the small handbook Folklife and Fieldwork, seeking ideas for our group's work, which will begin the next week.

Day 5: Culture, Folklife, and Collecting Folklife

Today I use the lecture-discussion method and make certain that students take good notes. I define culture, folk culture, and then relate the terms to the regional culture that evolved in our area. Using a map that shows migration patterns and enlarged copies of census records, I once again point out the major groups that settled the area (Scots-Irish primarily), the dates they came, the paths they took, and why they stayed. I note that a small number of African Americans came with some members of this group, as slaves, thus enriching the culture that evolved. I cite examples of cross-cultural exchanges between the two groups in the preparation of food and in music (the banjo, for instance, was brought to America by African Americans and certain harmonies and types of music also came that way; okra and sweet potatoes, staple foods in our region, also came from Africa). I note that a few French fur traders also came into the region early, bringing with them elements of the French culture, and that a few Native Americans remained in the area and were assimilated into the population.

I play samples of fiddle music and point out early homemade utensils for food preparation I have brought into our classroom from my own collection (they are always shocked at how large the tube cake pans are) and how they were used. I show quilts from the mid-19th century and let them pass around a piece of heart pine from a cabinet piece made in this parish in the late19th century so they may see how heavy—and beautiful—it is, so different from today's woods, and yet how relatively crude its joinery is. We look at bonnets, tools, baskets, recipes, copies of wills, photographs of early houses—typically single and double-pen log cabins, anthropologists' reconstructions of gardens and farm buildings, photographs of vegetable, fruit, and flowering plants that came with the settlers, and old hymnals. In short, this is a visually rich day in which we see for ourselves that culture really does include all the ways a group lives. I usually conclude the day by asking again questions asked of others at the beginning of the unit: Why did people save these objects? What is their value? Why is it important to document and preserve knowledge of ways of life that are fast fading or have already become obsolete?

The assignment for the evening is to study the day's notes and Folklife and Fieldwork. I tell them there will be a test on this material on Monday, since we need it in order to evaluate our upcoming discoveries. I give examples in which the knowledge of migration patterns or the aspects of culture are necessary to explain phenomena or date objects or occurrences.

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