This is part two of a three-part series presenting the lesson suggestions on the Explore Your Community Poster (PDF), designed for middle school and high school classrooms. Read Part One. Read Part Three.
Community Culture: It’s All Around You
One important aspect of culture that is hard to remember when when we go out to collect cultural traditions, is that we are always in culture. Human beings need culture to get along and survive. So we can’t step outside of culture. We often become more aware of culture when we meet up with someone else’s traditions or language different from our own. So for many people their first project is to go out and collect songs, stories, or traditional arts of people different from ourselves. Then it may be hard to convince the people you want to interview that their traditions are important—because to them they are ordinary. But by persisting and reassuring people that what is ordinary to them is important, often we can learn important things about people’s lives and how important creativity is to human life. An example is this interview with Del Bonis and his wife Ida Bonis. The interviewer is Tom Burns, who asks Del about how he got started making sand sculptures at the beach in this interview. Once Mr. Bonis gets started, it is clear that sand sculpting is an important part of his life, and he gets especially engaged as he talks about teaching kids on the beach how to make sculptures.
It is also possible to take a look at what is important to your own life and see aspects of culture and creativity that are important and worth documenting. Looking back at yourself when you were younger, how did you count players when you needed to decide who is “it?” What were your favorite jokes when you were little? Do you tell different kinds of jokes now? Did you have favorite songs learned from classmates or at summer camp? As we grow up and get older some aspects of our culture change and we can become nostalgic about the things we used to do. That also is a way that we discover that the cultural activities we take for granted are more valuable to us than we thought when we were more actively doing them. Community culture, sometimes called “folklore” or “folklife,” is the living expression of culture in everyday life—anyone’s culture—learned and passed on informally from person to person.
Often it is said that folklore has no author. But those who study culture are also interested in stories we tell about ourselves, or our friends and families. A song someone makes up about their life can tell a lot about their experiences and hopes or fears. Tradition takes time, but personal experience can be immediate. To get a good picture of a culture, both are are important.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s there was an environmental disaster called the dust bowl, as the land dried out and the topsoil blew away. Many people from the central part of the United States were forced to move, and many went west to California to find work, often picking crops, as there was little other work to do. For many people this was a wrenching change from what they were used to. For high school students, it often meant being taken out of school to work picking crops to help support their families. That was what happened to Lloyd Stalcup, age 14, who found himself picking cotton instead of going to school. He wrote about his life in a song, “The Cotton Picker’s Song,” which tells a lot about what it was like to be a young man in those times. If it had not been recorded by two men documenting the migrant workers in California, Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin, this song, and its connection to history, would have been lost. So while traditional songs, stories, arts, and celebrations are often central to what is called folklife, the creative expressions original to individuals within their culture can also be of great importance to understanding that culture. Also, traditions change over time, so it is often interesting to find out what was done by previous generations, and what has changed.
Here are some examples of traditional culture. These may give you some ideas about what you would like to study:
- the stories that you tell at family holiday gatherings
- the nicknames you call your friends
- the jokes or chain letters that you forward to friends
- the ghost stories or legends you tell of strange happenings in your neighborhood
- the way your grandmother prepares special holiday dishes
- the notes and rhymes you inscribe in each other’s school yearbooks
- the songs your parents learned from your grandparents and sang to you, and which you may sing to your own children someday
- the rhymes you used for jump-rope or other playground games
Communities are made up of many different types of people. There will be people of various ages, often different ethic groups, different religions and different interests. Yet people in a community often feel a strong connection with their neighbors and take pride in successes among the people who live there. Schools are communities and have a lot in common with neighborhood communities. So you may decide to do a project in your neighborhood or in your school. Since you spend a lot of time in school, that might be a good place to start.
There are quite a few collections in the archive of the American Folklife Center that include interviews with students and interviews done by students. Young people are an important part of the community, especially as they are likely to remain part of the community as adults. Even those that move away will have ties to the place they grew up and the people they grew up with. An example of fieldwork done in a school is the Abridged Compilation of American Virgin Island Children’s Songs (AFC 1984/54) made by a teacher, Karen S. Ellis. She collected songs and rhymes from her students, often by getting them to teach them to her, and recorded her students playing singing games and singing songs. These are in English and Spanish, as the Virgin Islands includes Puerto Rican students who came to the islands recently as well as the descendants of Puerto Rican immigrants. You can read about the collection and listen to some songs in this post I wrote in Folklife Today, “Collection Spotlight: Children’s Songs from the Virgin Islands” (2017).
The Explore your Community poster has some suggestions of things you might look at as you think about traditions in your school:
What You Can Do
The Trophy Case:
Investigate the trophies in your school’s trophy case. Interview parents and others who were on the teams in the past. Talk with retired teachers and coaches. How did they celebrate victory in the past, and how have these celebrations changed? What memories of school sports do they have? Research pictures in old school newsletters and yearbooks. Create an archive of these materials for the school library or a time-capsule from this year’s teams and their activities. Invite past champions to the school for recognition. Add research you have collected to the school’s Web page or write an article for your school newspaper.
Are You Ready for the Game, the Test, the Show?
Interview classmates about the good luck charms, customs, or rituals that are used in your school before a big game, exams, or a school play. How are these charms or rituals the same or different from those your parents or teachers used when they were students? Write articles about your findings for the school newspaper and place them into your school library.
Clothes, Fads, and Hair Braiding:
What are you and your friends wearing? How is your hair done? What is in your pocketbook, book bag, or locker? What kinds of hats or caps, jewelry or make-up do you and your friends wear? What words do you use to describe something or someone that is “in” or “out” of fashion? What do clothes, hair styles, and personal decoration communicate about us as individuals and as members of a group? Pick a theme for your research, interview your classmates, take photographs, and create an exhibit that displays clothes, hair styles, and accompanying paraphernalia over the years.
Work and Play, Ritual and Celebration: Cultural Heritage in Your Community
We all belong to several different groups that might share traditions in common. Holidays in a town, family stories, songs sung by people as they work, all are examples of traditions that are sometimes called the “glue” that holds people together.
In the online presentation of an important collection in the Center’s archive, Hispano Music and Culture of the Northern Rio Grande, Juan B. Rael Collection documented the traditions, plays, and songs of a community on the border of Colorado and New Mexico who’s ancestors were early settlers in what is now the United States. He recorded elderly singers who could remember older versions of songs and plays. A number of these were plays for the Christmas season. He also recorded this wedding song, “Entrega de novios” that is part of a ritual of taking the newlyweds from the altar to their families again and wishing them well.
The Chicago Ethnic Arts collection documented a number of different ethnic communities in Chicago, including songs, stories, and customs. “Teaching the Japanese Tea Ceremony: Mine Somi Kubose,” in Folklife Today, looks at one of the traditions the folklorists in this project documented.
The Occupational Folklife Project presents several collections that were created by folklorists who chose a profession and interviewed people about their experiences and traditions in that occupation.
Here are some examples of projects from the Explore Your Community Poster that might give you some ideas:
What You Can Do
The common experiences of family life, All families have stories they tell about each other when they are together, and special customs, recipes, and other traditions that only they know. Interview one or more of your family members about a family tradition. Write about your findings and ask family members to comment on what you’ve written. Use family photos to prompt memories.
Celebrations and Rites of Passage:
We all have participated in rituals and celebrations—birthdays, baptisms, high school or college graduations, marriage, religious festivals, community fairs, New Year’s Eve parties, and Thanksgiving and Fourth of July gatherings and events. Document a specific holiday celebration that you know something about. Interview members of your community at local events or family gatherings, take photos and videos, or make sound recordings. Develop a school- or community-based archive based on your research material. Do a comparative study of the same event or holiday as celebrated by several different families.
Occupational Folklife and Work Traditions:
Many occupations have their own special language, stories, tools, and customs. Interview a baker, teacher, computer programmer, car mechanic, farmer, salesman, nurse, or factory worker in your community about his or her work. Collect work-related stories, or special terms, pranks, sayings, jokes, legends, and songs. Document the skills associated with the job on video or in photographs. Investigate how the job serves the community. Research how the job was different in the past. An entire class might study members of different occupations and work places and combine their research to create an occupational portrait of the community.
Explore Your Community educational poster (9 pp., 30 MB, front and back panels, Library of Congress)
Folklife and Fieldwork: An Introduction to Cultural Documentation, fourth edition, 2016, by Stephen Winick and Peter Bartis (Library of Congress)
Veterans History Project: How to Participate (Library of Congress)