Education Guide

Unit 3Sense of Discovery

Sense of Discovery

I had 80-year-olds that I got a great laugh with, you know, sitting down as a 21-year-old, sitting over at a house, having played music for three hours, going out into the kitchen to have tea and ham and listening to them telling stories about music in the 1940s and loving it. I hope I’ll be there for some young person that comes along; even if there’s only one, I’ll say, “Here you go, this is what it was like, and here’s the laughs that we had, and here’s the fun that we had, and here’s this story, here’s that story―and here are some tunes.

Liz Carroll
Chicago, Illinois

In addition to learning from others, the Heritage Fellows pass on their knowledge and skills, inspiring a sense of discovery in younger generations. Just as Liz Carroll sat enthralled in a Chicago kitchen listening to older musicians talking about their exploits and the Irish music scene of earlier eras, young people today are often surprised when they break the generation barrier to discover that family and community members have rich memories and traditions to share. Although young, Liz Carroll, like most people, hopes that some day young people will ask her questions so that she can pass on stories and tunes.

Folklorists use the term “personal experience narrative” to describe a story about one’s life. Traditional storytelling is not a formal, staged event but an informal “performance,” occurring in countless times and places in our daily lives. This lesson provides ways of discovering that open students’ ears and eyes to the stories and traditions around them. Students may learn from the stories, music and crafts of the Heritage Fellows, and they may learn by conducting their own folklore fieldwork at school, with family members and in the community. They will discover community masters of tradition and examine what they themselves know and teach. They will master new literacy, technology, analysis and presentation skills.


You cannot do this work if you don’t appreciate it. It’s not something you’re just doing out of the sky. It’s some precious work. It’s like a diamond, like a jewel, and it’s for you to preserve it.

Earl Barthé
New Orleans, Louisiana

Folklorists often discovered the Heritage Fellows through fieldwork, and their documentation through various types of media of the artists’ lives and their importance to their traditions and communities served as evidence to National Endowment for the Arts panels that these artists should be named Heritage Fellows. Tradition bearers themselves conduct fieldwork by studying the traditions of their cultural groups, asking questions and sharing what they have learned. Fieldwork consists of planning, assessing existing resources, identifying traditions and tradition bearers to interview, using equipment properly, ensuring release forms are signed, reviewing and transcribing interviews, processing photographs, editing audio and video recordings and preserving findings. Often fieldwork results in a presentation of some kind, such as a publication, exhibit, performance, CD, film, festival or Website. Students need these same skills, and by conducting fieldwork they not only learn more about their communities, they also improve their investigative and reasoning skills and build their self-awareness and self-reliance.

What can you and your students discover about family, school and community traditions and local masters of traditions? Students do not need elaborate equipment to conduct folklore fieldwork. They begin by simply asking questions and listening carefully. Crafting questions and following up are important skills in any subject area. An in-depth fieldwork project would include documenting people in your school or home community. As students can see from this guide, documentation can take many forms: handwritten notes, audio and video recordings, photography, maps and sketches. Students must buy into a fieldwork project. Find out what they are interested in by asking them where they hear stories–on the school bus, at the dinner table, on the playground, at soccer practice, during family events? Where do they tell stories and with whom? Where do they hear music? Perform or sing? Where do they make things? With whom do they do these things? For example, Norma Miller describes how she and her sister went out on their fire escape to watch dancers in the Savoy Ballroom. Elaine Hoffman Watts played klezmer with her musical family. Clarence Fountain shares his sense of relief at meeting other blind children when he was sent off to the Alabama School for the Blind.

This guide offers some basic fieldwork tools. Find more detailed student fieldwork tools and strategies in these free online guides:

  • City Lore Interviewing Guide and Listening Exercise
  • Louisiana Voices is an extensive guide in the public domain that is very useful in studying all types of folk arts. Unit II on Fieldwork provides detailed instructions for planning and carrying out documentation projects. There are many student work sheets and rubrics for many topics.

The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage provides two interviewing guides:

Wisconsin Teachers of Local Culture guides are easy to use for any grade level, especially elementary:

This guide provides these tools:

Exercises — Fieldwork

As practice for fieldwork, ask students to complete the Masters of Traditional Arts Interview Form in this guide for one of the Heritage Fellows using the artist bio, audio profile, video segments and photographs. They do not have to complete the Release Form for these artists, but they must when interviewing classmates, family members and people in the community so that they may use the results in their presentations.

Interview practice is essential, so students should pair off and practice interviewing one another, which students do with ease. Like most people, students enjoy talking about something they know how to do, so this makes a good topic for rehearsing. Games and play are also fruitful topics.

Additional practice could come from asking students to choose a person they would like to know more about and deciding how they would obtain the information. They should craft questions, choose what equipment they would ideally use and describe how they would set it up, create a fieldwork checklist of tasks and materials they would need, and imagine how they would present and preserve their findings.

Ask students to review the Masters of Traditional Arts Interview and Release Forms. What questions do they think are most important? What questions would they add or leave out? Your class may design its own interview form to learn about how a classmate, family member or community member learned a tradition and what this tradition means to the person.

With students, design a fieldwork project that focuses on a theme that fits your curriculum needs. They can collect the musical traditions associated with children, community celebrations, local occupations, traditional crafts, seasonal customs or personal experience stories about something that happened to them. Students may work individually or in teams, dividing tasks such as note taking, mapping, questioning, taking photographs, handling audio or video recording equipment, transcribing interviews, designing presentations, following up interviews and so on. Let them know how you will assess their fieldwork. The Fieldwork Rubric offers one assessment approach. Older students’ work should be more detailed.

Record a story about your own life as a model for students. Then, assign students to record a personal experience narrative such as a story about themselves when they were little: an adventure, how they got a scar, or a favorite relative. Combine classmates’ stories for a class podcast of personal experience narratives. Invite the principal to add a story. Play the podcast for parents at a class family night, for other classes or the school board or through a “live broadcast” on the public address system or the school Website.

Collecting and Organizing

If anybody needs help of any kind with any of the traditional beadwork, or dress, or whatever, anyone that comes or calls me, I’m willing to help because of the fact that I know how to do these things and I would like to help anybody that wants to even learn.

Lila Greengrass Blackdeer
Black River Falls, Wisconsin

Organizing information is a big part of learning. When students begin fieldwork, they begin accumulating data, which they will have to organize and analyze. They will have to assess how much more information they need, how to establish categories, how to evaluate their data, what to do with their research results.

Exercises — Collecting and Organizing

To start students thinking about collecting and organizing information, share stories about things you collected when you were their age and what you collect now. Ask what they collect, where they keep collections, how they organize them. Do they have albums of stickers or trading cards, a drawer filled with rocks, an MP3 playlist, a shelf of action figures? Do they carefully arrange their collections or toss new items into a pile? What stories do they have about collecting? If their collections were museum exhibits, what would a visitor to the exhibit learn about them? What would the visitor need to know to understand the collection ― and the collector ― more deeply?

Organizing their fieldwork may be an individual, team or class endeavor. Students must decide whether to use documentation from all the media they used or only some of their research results. They must decide whether to preserve their documentation data, how to share results with people they interviewed and how to assess their products and presentations.

Ask students to organize themselves into a “living exhibit” based on what shirts and tops they are wearing. Give them only six or seven minutes to work together. They must choose on their own how to organize the data: size, style, color, pattern, sleeves, gender, neckline and so on. When they have arranged themselves, ask them to describe how and why they chose to “exhibit” themselves in this fashion. Discuss how many other criteria they might have chosen.

Students may choose a Heritage Fellow and reorganize the multimedia materials to create a new style of presentation. Or they may choose a theme such as music or craft, region, family, hard times, childhood, ethnic background and so on, and organize information about several artists into a presentation.

Work with students to design individual, team or class presentations of their fieldwork discoveries. Students may invite the people they interviewed, parents and other classes to showcase an exhibit, oral presentation, demonstration, Power Point presentation or video or audio podcast, for example. The Fieldwork Rubric offers assessment strategies for presentations based on student fieldwork.


It was always a big excitement to say, it’s getting close to the time to start following the people around. Where are we going to start this year? Well, this year in the state of Washington, and then it’s cherries and we go off to Michigan…. Wherever there were people working, it didn’t matter to us. We knew we were going to travel from one end of the United States to the other.

Antonio De La Rosa
Riviera, Texas

Mapping is yet another way of learning and organizing information. Fieldwork involves identifying not only people but places. Putting stars or pins on a world map to show all the places that the Heritage Fellows mention is one way to use mapping. Another is to ask students to map something very familiar, such as a corner of the classroom or the inside of desks or backpacks. Or what about mapping sounds in school, home or the community? What discoveries do they make when they compare these personal maps? They can also design a compass rose for their Masters of Traditional Arts Map or their personal maps. Older students should make more complicated maps. All maps may be incorporated into a class Masters of Traditional Arts atlas.

Exercises — Mapping

Stories also fall on maps. Where have important things in your school occurred? Where are the special places in students’ lives? What local history developments and stories would go on a community map? Mapping local history connects students to national and world history. As students conduct fieldwork, ask them to put stars or pins on a community map to show where they have interviewed people and observed traditions. Students can see how they and people in their family and community participate in and contribute to making history.

Using information about Sidiki Conde, ask students to trace his life journey from a village in Guinea to New York City. They may do the same for any of the Heritage Fellows, characters in literature they are reading or historical figures they are studying, or by interviewing classmates and other people about places they have lived and traveled. Such life journey maps can be displayed in a classroom exhibit.

Ask students to make a musical map by researching musical traditions of the region, the United States or the world. In addition to what they learn from the multimedia materials in this guide, students may add recordings, films and publications to their findings. They will find recordings in the school library, from the school music specialist and through the Internet (see Websites in Resources). Families’ and students’ music collections may include traditional recordings. Older students can add research on the folk roots of popular music that they like and share findings in class presentations that can include music, images and maps.

Culminating Projects

While studying Masters of Traditional Arts, students have encountered diverse, authentic grassroots art forms and artists. They have also considered their personal traditions and local art forms and artists. Organizing their work into a culminating project validates and reinforces students’ learning. Their explorations of Heritage Fellows and local masters of traditional arts are exciting and demonstrate students’ expertise to the school community, family members and the larger community.

Ideas for student products shared throughout this guide can be expanded to incorporate all their work: exhibits, multimedia presentations, performances, podcasts, poetry, expository writing, photographs and portfolios. No matter what form they take, such projects should invite audience contributions in some way, for example, a question-and-answer session; an invitation to share personal traditions or an opportunity to draw, sing, dance or make something.

Culminating projects also offer assessment opportunities for the teacher and for students themselves. Methods include developing a project rubric, guided writing prompts or an oral or written self-assessment reflection. Invite family members to comment on student work as well.