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Folklife & Folk Art Education Resource Guide

Folklife Education: Teacher Background Information

Folklore (folklife) consists of the expressive traditions of everyday people in everyday life. These traditions are passed along through time and space either orally or by example within folk groups (groups of people who share similar values, goals, experiences, and interests). Everyone belongs to at least one folk group and often many more. Major folk groups include: age-based, ethnic, family, gender, occupational, regional, and religious. As people within a folk group interact with one another, the group's values are shared with new members, thus passing on the traditions and customs within the folk group.

Tradition Bearers

Within folk groups, the people who create the objects and actions that represent group values are called tradition bearers or folk artists. A tradition bearer does literally what the name implies: "bears" (carries) the tradition through his or her actions, words, customs, and beliefs. Therefore, all people are tradition bearers of some of the folklore in their group. However, it is those who best understand and represent the group's worldview who are often called upon to represent or pass on the group's traditions. Think of your grandmother who always creates the pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving. Why? Because she is the most seasoned piemaker in the family. However, young people are also expert tradition bearers. A visit to the playground will evidence this as older students pass on the folklore of the playground: rules, games, chants, etc., to new or younger students.

Folklife Education

Because folks are experts of their groups' folk expressions, a classroom teacher has the opportunity to include the traditions of his/her students, self, and community, thus highlighting Utah's diversity in class activities. As well, class instruction is elevated when skilled tradition bearers from the community are invited into the classroom to discuss and augment classroom instruction. The stimulation of having everyday folks (who the students will mostly likely encounter again in the neighborhood) visit the classroom is very beneficial to both learner and visitor. Including community traditions and tradition bearers in the classroom strengthens bonds of community, responsibility, and respect. The opportunity of community members to share their expertise with children can also foster mentor relationships. Mentor relationships benefit not only the student and the mentor, but also the classroom teacher who will often see a more engaged student in his/her classroom because of the added attention and example shown to the student. However, to make folklife education, including community education, work, the tradition bearer should be included or invited to visit and share with the class his or her traditions/expertise when an appropriate unit is being taught. For instance, a unit on the Great Depression Era would be enhanced by having a student's grandparent visit the classroom to discuss his/her life during that time: games, chores, schoolwork, living conditions. This exposure would enhance the textbook learning by bringing the era into a "real life" experience for the students. Similarly, during a unit of fractions a discussion with the students regarding the principles and skills of quilting could enhance the learning process for many students, modeling for the students how useful an understanding of fractions is, and another way to comprehend the subject. In fact, folklife education can be integrated into most classroom disciplines. However, both the discipline and folklore must be accurately discussed and understood in order for real learning to take place.

Folk Expressions

Folklore is expressed in a variety of exciting and meaningful ways. These expressions are grouped by folklorists (people who study folklore and folk groups) into four categories:

customary expressions--things people do (like gestures, birthday parties, planting practices, and dances); verbal expressions--things people say, sing, or write (like jokes, legends, hopscotch rhymes, and nicknames); handmade objects or folk objects--things people make (like quilts, grave markers, paper airplanes, and special foods); folk beliefs--things people believe (like good luck charms and hiccup cures).

Folklorists: Cultural Investigators

Folklorists try to learn about people from their folklore: traditions. Just like folklorists, students can also learn about themselves, their classmates, and their community as they study folklore. Being a student folklorist is a lot like being a cultural investigator (detective). Student folklorists investigate folk groups, including their own and their classmates', in a sensitive, educative manner, in order to better understand their friends and themselves. Learning about yourself and others in the classroom setting is inclusive, for no one is left out. Each student is the docent or "expert" on his or her own traditions, and therefore, each student has the opportunity to excel at school. One boy in a folklife residency I conducted in Tremonton, Utah, became very engaged the day a cowboy poet and rawhide braider visited his class. His teacher mentioned to me that he rarely spoke because he has an acute learning disability. However, on the day of the rancher's visit, this young man, who was from a ranching background, felt "at home" with the materials being discussed and because of this he became actively involved in the learning experience, answering questions and sharing examples of his ranching experiences.

Here are a few reasons why you should use folklife education in your classroom.


studying folklore is fun. Children like sharing their folklore & folk art with others. Students are experts of their own folklore; therefore, studying folklore provides all students, not just the highly motivated or academically successful, with an opportunity of being an expert.


students acquire new perspectives about themselves, their culture, and others' culture when they study folklore. When students share their folkloric expressions with others they learn to interpret them and gain insights into their own values and the values of others.


folklore and folk art circulate within all ethnic groups, therefore the use of folklore from diverse ethnic groups will introduce ethnic heritage to students in a positive and supportive way. With folklore instruction everyone is involved, no one is left out.


through the study of folklore students often bridge the gap between their lives and the lives of those presented in history. By seeing the continuity of their folk group's expressions through time students begin to feel connected to the past.


because everyone is a bearer of folklore, the instruction of folklore and folk art in the classroom connects teachers and students as they explore together examples of their own group's expressive culture.

(I modified the reasons to study folklore from folklorist and educator Elizabeth Radin Simons' Student Worlds, Student Words: Teaching Writing Through Folklore. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 1990, pp. 20-5. ~Randy Williams)