Activity Ideas

Documenting Your Community Traditions

The study of folklife should begin at home. By studying and increasing awareness of their own cultural traditions and creative expressions, students will have a foundation from which to understand and appreciate the folklife of other cultures. By researching the past and recognizing its manifestation in the present, students begin to see a continuum between history, their own lives and the future. Furthermore, lessons that involve community research give students a sense of place and pride in their community.

Recognizing Folklife

Joseph Weigel holding his violin

Many people think folklife (which is another name for folklore) is anything old. Actually, folklife is being created every day. For example, most people will recognize decorated crosses by the side of the road as a place where someone has died in a car accident. No one knows who started this custom, but many people have adopted it as a way to honor, memorialize and remember their loved ones. These roadside shrines also serve as a warning to other motorists. This custom satisfies the criteria for folklife:

It has value for the culture that practices it. It serves a function that encourages people to maintain it over time and over space. It is a dynamic custom; different communities may decorate these shrines in ways that reflect their own identities. Therefore, there are many forms. People have learned to practice this custom informally through observation, not through formal academic channels.

Folklife is practiced among groups as small as a family, or as large as a country. Folk groups can be religious, ethnic, or related to common interests, like a book club or a hockey team. Each group shares a common identity and creates folkways that reflect its identity.

Folklife can be found in many forms. Following are just a few examples that students can consider when looking at their own communities.

Customs/traditions: celebrations, festivals, parades, birthdays, games and other traditional practices of a culture…

Verbal expressions: tales, legends, jokes, nicknames, traditional toasts, personal narratives…

Music and dance: cowboy poetry and song, rap music, Hmong Queej music, old time fiddle, Native American drumming/singing/dancing, contra dancing…

Beliefs: superstitions, folk medicine practices, magic…

Handmade Objects: folk art, architecture, gravestone decorations, plastic yard art, favorite dishes made for particular occasions, occupational equipment…

photo of a jingle dress

Folklorists study these practices and ask “Why?” They look at the context for the particular form of folklife they are studying and seek to determine the value that it has for the group that perpetuates it. Unlike historians, they are less concerned with the truth of a story, and more interested in the reasons behind the fabrication.

An integral component of studying folklife is the process of collecting information. Folklorists call this fieldwork. It involves interviewing people in the community who practice the folklife being studied, and documenting and analyzing their responses. In this lesson, students will conduct fieldwork in their families and communities.


1. Explain the concept of folklife and use Introducing Folklife from the Kentucky Folklife Program’s “A Teacher’s Guide to Kentucky Folklife” to help students identify examples of folklife in their own lives. It can be found at

2. Challenge students to find examples of folklife in their families or their communities. Have students pair up to compare and discuss their examples of folklife. Ask students to present their findings to the class.

3. Teach interviewing techniques. Cultural Arts Resources for Teachers and Students (C.A.R.T.S.) at and the Montana Heritage Project at both offer guidelines and tips for teaching interviewing. The Louisiana Folklife Program has an excellent unit on teaching folklore fieldwork in its Louisiana Voices Educator’s Guide at

4. Have students keep a journal of folklife that they discover. Older students can document these traditions using photography, audio or video and present it to the class. Consider developing a journal/photo album, website or documentary based on their findings. Organize a community gathering to present the results. Submit your product to the local library and the Montana Historical Society Archives.

5. Choose a distinct group in the community and ask students to research it. This could be an ethnic group, a local club, or an occupational group. Students should combine secondary library research with fieldwork techniques. What folklife traditions does this group have and what are their functions in the group? Consider things like rituals, celebrations, names, foods, stories, works of art and/or functional materials. In what ways do these customs reflect the identity of the group? What do they have to do with the group’s history, heritage and physical environment (landscape)?

Content Standards (not grade level specific)

  • Art: 5.1-6; 6.3, 6.4
  • Social Studies: 1.1, 1.2; 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.5, 3.7; 4.1-7; 6.1-6
  • Library Media: All
  • Speaking and Listening: 2.2, 2.3; 3.1-6; 4.3
  • Writing: 1.1-4; 2.1-5; 3.1-3; 4.1, 4.2; 6.1-4
  • Literature: 4.1-3; 5.1-3
  • Reading: 1.1-5
  • World Languages: 1.1-5; 4.1-4; 8.1; 9.1-3

Selected Resources


Montana Heritage Project

Cultural Arts Resources for Teachers and Students

Western Folklife Center, Voices of Youth

Voices: Community Stories, Past and Present


The Community as Classroom: A Teacher's Manual, by Stanley Cogan, Frances Eberhart, John Krawchuk, Julie Maurer & Lynn Shapiro.

CityWorks: Exploring Your Community, A Workbook, by Adria Steinberg and David Stephen.

Classroom Interviews by Paula Rogovin

Student Worlds, Student Words: Teaching Writing Through Folklore, by Elizabeth Radin Simons

*These and many other books can be found in the C.A.R.T.S. Catalog at

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