They are short! It is easy to distribute copies of
short tales or rhymes to a whole class, discuss them during a class
period, and compare a variety of examples relating to different topics,
without needing time for extensive reading assignments.
2. They are fun! Many types of folklore are entertaining
and most of us have fond memories of stories and rhymes we have known
since childhood. Viewing illustrated versions or film adaptations
can also add variety and enjoyment to class assignments.
3. They are memorable. Most tales and rhymes from
oral traditions use patterns of language and plot that make them easy
to retell and dear to the hearts of tellers and listeners.
4. They are found in infinite variety everywhere. Every
culture has long traditions of oral storytelling, verse-making, and
joke-telling. Students can learn about different cultures by studying
folklore, collect folklore from their own families and communities,
and write or dramatize their own variants of traditional tales and
rhymes. Once you start looking for them, you find allusions to familiar
folk heroes, rhymes, and sayings throughout popular culture.
5. They are universal. Although it is interesting
to compare culturally specific details in folklore from different
times and places, one of the most intriguing phenomena in human experience
is the similarities in stories with universal themes from all over
the world. For example, there are obvious historical connections between
the Appalachian "Ashpet" and the German "Ashputtle," which
European settlers in Appalachia would have known, but why are stories
with similar Cinderella motifs also found in ancient African and Asian
traditions? There are fascinating theories about the universal
elements in world folklore and myth.
6. They are infinitely meaningful. Because folk
and fairy tales represent human experience through symbols and archetypes,
there is room for endless debate about how to interpret particular
tales. They provide excellent examples of the complex interplay of
realism, fantasy, and symbolism in literature. They can be analyzed
in papers that do not require research, but there is also a wealth
of recent research available on folklore, fairy tales and picture
books. They can function as primary sources in complex research projects
like any other literature.
7. They link oral and written literatures of the world. We often forget that all literature developed from oral traditions,
and most people in human history have had no writing system to record
their languages and stories. Storytelling is still alive as an oral
tradition in many places, especially in Appalachia. Folklore works
well when teaching oral skills, speech and drama.
8. They link popular culture with many academic subjects
and skills. Almost every type of literary and cultural analysis
has been applied to folklore, so short or familiar pieces from oral
traditions can be used to introduce longer works of literature (many
of which have mythological or folkloric roots or themes), as well
as topics in history, social studies, fine arts, and science. For
example, Keepers of the Earth by Caduto and Bruchac links Native
American tales from different regions with environmental activities
9. They enhance transitions from childhood to adult life. Short works from folklore can provide springboards as students
move from writing about childhood experience to more complex types
of analysis. They need to learn, as an important part of their heritage,
that Disney versions and other widely available children's books and
movies do not adequately represent the larger body of folklore that
people of all ages have enjoyed for centuries.
10. They unite children and adults. Many types of folklore have been reprinted and adapted in children's books in the past couple centuries, while older children and adults who don't read or hear folklore or picture books often lose touch with exciting parts of their own culture. Many recent storytellers, dramatists, and filmmakers (such as Tom Davenport and R. Rex Stephenson) endeavor to entertain the whole family, just as traditional storytellers have done around home or campfire for generations. Among other benefits of teaching with folklore, what more worthy goal is there for general education courses than to prepare young adults to share good stories and rhymes with the children in their lives in the future?
Sometimes we are too literate for our own good. When discussing
oral traditions, we must break students of the habit of referring to
the writer, the original source, or the "real" or "correct"
version. Usually there is no known original version or writer,
and obviously folklore is often written down or retold using features
of vernacular dialects, not in standard English.
2. See advantage #4. Students often think myths or folktales
from unfamiliar cultures are bizarre, or pagan. Every culture
has very strange, nonrealistic stories in its mythology and folklore.
Insist that students realize this and respect the culture that
produced the folklore, without using biased language when they compare
unfamiliar and familiar stories or poems.
3. See advantage #4 again. Because folklore adaptations and
multicultural literature have been so popular in recent years, there
is a danger in overemphasizing traditional cultures of the past to
represent cultural diversity. There still aren't enough books that
portray people of minority cultures living and working in ordinary
clothing in contemporary life. (For example, a student shouldn't be
surprised if a novel portrays a Seminole girl whose father works a
high-tech job at Kennedy Space Center.) Stories about grandparents
passing on folklore and traditional crafts to young characters can
be heart-warming, but don't let students assume, for example, that
all Appalachians make quilts and live in remote hollows where everyone
is a farmer or miner, as well as a gifted storyteller or ballad-singer.
4. See advantages #2 and #9. Because people have strong
emotional ties to literature they knew in childhood, they sometimes
have trouble analyzing it objectively and don't want to critique their
favorite stories or learn other versions. It takes some time to realize
that we can keep personal memories and preferences of our own while
also appreciating the larger social implications, variations, and
methods of interpreting traditional stories and poems.
5. See advantage #9 again. Because so many people associate
folk or fairy tales and nursery rhymes with early childhood, they
may assume that the content should be only entertaining and innocent,
or that it should always teach lessons to children. Most folktales,
nursery rhymes, ballads, and jokes were originally told by adults
to other adults or mixed audiences (long before the Romantic concept
of childhood innocence came along). Students may be shocked
by the gory details and "adult themes" in many traditional
tales and rhymes, but of course, these are the very elements young
people enjoy if they get beyond misconceptions based on twentieth-century
American ideas about literature written for children.
6. See advantage #4 again. Because there are so many
variants of any piece of folklore, it is easy to get the details in
different versions mixed up in your head when you are discussing or
writing about them. Remind students to read or listen carefully. In
papers they must identify the particular versions they are discussing
(and cite them properly in research papers).
7. There can be special problems with research and documentation.
Students may need extra instructions for documenting oral, audiovisual,
and unpublished sources or picture books (which often have no page
numbers). Adapters, retellers, translators, and illustrators
should be recognized when full citations are given in documented papers.
These pitfalls all provide valuable learning experiences. Enjoy discussing, collecting, retelling, or dramatizing folklore with your students!
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May 2000 | Top of Page | Last