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



Day 1: Assigning Groups and Focusing on Topics for Documentation

Students take a test on the material assigned for homework. The test is mostly short-answer, with at least one question that requires a one-paragraph answer.

Next, I assign students to interview groups. Our class usually numbers around 15–18, enough for three major interview teams. I organize groups based on the need to balance talents and encourage each individual's participation. Each group selects its leader. If the class is large enough, I name a student assistant who serves as a coordinator.

I then write a list of topics that have been suggested as a focus for our documentation. I do not include subjects that have been widely documented before because I want the students to experience the feeling of going where no one (or at least few) have gone before. That experience, the feeling of being an authority, has the power to transform a lackluster fifth-grader into a lively historian.

Because we have talked about topics for four weeks, the class is able to narrow its choices down. Students have documented subjects as diverse as syrup making, holiday customs, and food preparation.

I assign one team to plan for an in-class interview on Wednesday, focusing on the topic chosen.

I remind the class that it must decide on the format for presenting its information. Classes usually wish to publish their work in the form of a book, which we self-publish and sell throughout the state. At least one group chose to curate an exhibit at a local museum, including an exhibit book, and to sponsor a museum opening with live performance. One class prepared a presentation that they took to eighth-grade classes in our area. The presentation took two class periods and included a booklet. Other options considered have been the creation of a documentary film, library exhibits, and a regional folklife festival day.

I assume responsibility for publicizing the work of the students, and I have found that local and regional newspapers and television and radio stations are eager to interview the young documenters. This kind of recognition further affirms the value of the students' work and motivates both them and upcoming classes to see themselves as responsible writers and cultural historians.

Day 2: Preparing for Interviews; Narrowing Subjects

Today the class narrows the selected subject to specific areas. For instance, when a class chose "Fall Work in North Louisiana," they selected two major fall activities, basket making and syrup making. Students generate a list of important questions, I review the process of the next day's interview, and we are off and running.

Day 3: In-Class Interview

This class follows the first in-class interview pattern, except that students move quickly to questions about the specific activity chosen.

Days 4–5: Final Review of Interview Techniques, Examination on Vocabulary and Techniques of Folklife Research

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