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Folklife & Folk Art Education Resource Guide

Teaching Students about Verbal Folklore

Verbal Folklore Background Information

Verbal folklore is a communication medium used by folk groups to share beliefs and practices, teach group mores, taboos, aesthetics. There are many different types of verbal folklore: tall tales, folk tales, jokes, proverbs, rhymes, ballads, myths, riddles, legends, lullabies, personal experience stories, regional speech patterns, and place names, to name a few.

We all use verbal lore, such as the lullaby you sing to your child, the family story about how your family came to America, the riddle used to initiate a new member into your club, or the joke you tell to your office mates. Consider the story your grandmother tells about how she dealt with a parenting catastrophe. This story functions not only to give Grandma an outlet for her life's experiences, but also teaches younger parents ways to cope with parenting.

Verbal traditions, like all folkloric expressions, change with the needs of the group. The same story grandma told about a family catastrophe forty years ago might be retold today for an entirely different purpose. For instance, the story grandma told about migrating to Utah as a young bride might have served her as a way to feel a connection to her homeland and teach her children about their roots, but today the story functions as a source of pride for a generation of women who appreciate having a strong-willed female figure in their family.

Thus, through the narration of family stories, the act of lulling a child to sleep, and the customary practice of telling a scary story as an initiation practice at camp, members of folk groups utilize verbal folklore as a way to care for the basic needs of the group, build a sense of pride and awareness of the group. Some examples of verbal folklore are:

Folk speech includes regional accents, like "Hyde Pork"/ "Hyde Park" or "warsh"/"wash"; local terms, specialized language, and other elements that make up the distinctive speech patterns of a region, folk group, or occupation. Children have elaborate specialized language, which includes personalized names for games, such as "butt ball" for dodge ball; distinctive phraseology, such as "let's bust some moves" for "let's dance"; and distinctive languages, such as piglatin.

Proverbs are short, usually fixed, phrases that contain bits of wisdom and advice passed along in folk groups, as a way of making a specific point with brevity. Because the proverb format is recognizably "old," proverbs are usually viewed as the compacted wisdom of the past, expressions which are both wise and true. Some examples are:

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
A stitch in time saves nine.
Look before you leap.
Many hands make light work.
Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Legends are stories, usually connected with a specific place or person, and generally told as if they were true, even though the teller was not an eye witness to the event. Stories about ghosts, haunted places, local heroes, and tragic events all serve as the basis for legends. Stories such as the "Bear Lake Monster" and Navajo coyote stories are examples of legends.

Contemporary legends are more recent variations of the typical legend and are found all over the country. Details change to fit the local community. Contemporary legends are alleged to have happened to a "friend of a friend" or "FOAF." Everyone has heard about the woman who tried to dry her cat in the microwave or the babysitter who gets scary phone calls. Contemporary legends are utilized by folk groups for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is the ability to discuss fear. Think of the legend that dealt with a young woman who supposedly "cooked her insides" because she visited tanning salons too frequently. Among other things, this contemporary legend addresses the teller's fear of the technology of tanning beds.

Rhymes and parodies come from both children and adults. Childhood examples are jump rope rhymes, hand clapping chants, as well as parodies on simple songs and familiar commercials. Children's verbal expressions are often a device used to gain control and make sense of their world. In the parody of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," students often display their desire to gain control at school.

Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the burning of the school,
We have tortured all the teachers,
We have broken every rule.
We are marching down the hall
To hang the principal,
Our gang is marching on.
Glory, glory hallelujah,
Teacher hit me with the ruler.
I hit her on the bean
With a rotten tangerine
And her teeth went marching on.

(Jay Mechling "Children's Folklore" Folk Groups and Folklore Genres, Elliott Oring, ed. Logan, Utah: USU Press, 99.) Cowboy poetry, a century-old cowboy tradition of putting experiences from life to rhyme, is used by cowboys and cowgirls to pass along cowboy traditions, including attitudes, aesthetics, and taboos as well as work procedures. (Note: many groups use poetry and song, like loggers, fishermen, African American young men.)

Jokes, although comical in nature, usually deal with serious issues, such as politics, sex, and death. Jokes are learned and shared in informal settings and change slightly with each retelling. Because jokes often deal with issues that are reported in the media nation- or worldwide, joke cycles occur in an attempt to address or defuse the heated subjects. An example is the devastating space shuttle Challenger explosion. With in minutes of the explosion, people all over the United States, even the world, began telling Challenger jokes. These "gross" jokes were used as devices to deal with the horror of the disaster.

Personal narratives are stories told in the first person by individuals to recall what happened to them and their families. These narratives include stories of how a child got his name, when mom and dad first met, and someone's most embarrassing experience.

Family stories are the stories families tell. They include stories dealing with coming to a new country, pioneer accounts, and family misfortune stories which deal with a family's loss of great wealth. As with all folk traditions, verbal arts adapt with the group and often become anonymous, having lost the connection to their originator.

Teaching Students about Verbal Folklore

Begin by asking the students to recall a story that their family tells about them. This might include stories about their birth, birthdays, funny events, embarrassing moments, or how they got their nickname. Now ask why their families tell these stories. What function the stories serve for their family. The students' responses will likely define verbal folklore, which is the communication techniques used by folk groups to share their beliefs, practices, values, ideas and which teach group identity.

List several types of verbal communication on the board and briefly discuss each one.

Have the students share a legend, ghost story, proverb, rhyme, poem, joke, or a riddle they are familiar with. The students should also tell the class where they were introduced to their example of verbal folklore.

Additional Activities

Folk Speech
Objective: The student will recognize folk speech as a form of verbal folklore.

Have the students write a short story or essay using at least five terms (words or phrases) that are particular to a folk group they belong to. The students should list the folk group at the top of the paper and underline their five terms. For example:

awesome is a term used in a student/classroom folk group
cool is a term used in a student group
Webelos is a term used in a scout group
CTR (choose the right) is a term used in a religious group
S.Q.U.I.R.T. (silent, quiet, uninterrupted reading time) a term used in a school group.
Objective: The student will recognize proverbs as a form of verbal folklore.

Generate a list of proverbs as a class and list them on the chalkboard. Assign the students to illustrate one proverb. Have them write the proverb on the bottom or let them write in on the back and have students guess which proverb it is. You could also extend this activity by having the students explain what they think the proverb means.

NOTE: English and language arts teachers could go further with a discussion on verbal folklore, commenting on the power of folk language: metaphor (dead as a door nail), meaning, etc., which the child is already proficient, thus showing children that they have experience in literary techniques.

Objective: The student will recognize legends as a form of verbal folklore.

(For a good collection of urban legends see Jan H. Brunvand's Curses! Broiled Again or The Vanishing Hitchhiker.)

Invite a story teller to share local legends with the class. (Ghost stories could be shared with the lights turned off to create an eerie atmosphere, which would be more like the natural setting for ghost stories.) Then discuss what is being taught or "cautioned" in the legend.

Cowboy Poetry
Using the information in Teaching Children about Cowboy Poetry, discuss with your class the modern tradition of cowboy poetry, including an explication of the classic cowboy poem "An Experiment". As a follow-up to "An Experiment" invite a rancher to your class to demonstrate dally roping. Invide a cowboy poet to your class and have him/her perform for your students.

Jokes and Riddles
Have the students interview each other in teams of two, collecting jokes and riddles. Have the students illustrate a joke or riddle and make a class book or post them in the halls for other student to read.