When I began teacher training in 1993, educators were abuzz with all sorts of new terms, such as outcome-based education, whole language, and diversity. Back then, they were just theories to me, but soon I began noticing real changes. Among those changes was an unprecedented emphasis on multiculturalism. For the first time, it seemed that students were learning more about the traditions of other countries than their own multi-ethnic, yet distinctly American ones.
Celebrating other cultures was important, of course. What troubled me was that this new emphasis on them seemed to be replacing a celebration of our own country and its traditions—not simply enriching it. As a part-time substitute teacher and children’s bookseller, I observed this shift firsthand, particularly through folklore. Sure, American folklore was still available, but it was no longer intentionally transmitted to the new generation the way it once was. Even more disappointing, sometimes I would reference a common folkloric tidbit in a classroom, only to receive uncomprehending stares in return. Our national traditions seemed to be disintegrating before my eyes, and there was little I could do.
Even American society seems to have pushed our folklore aside in favor of ever new and progressive offerings. We are a young country that has always thrived on forward movement. Yet, we also have many distinct subcultures and a vast treasury of both mainstream and regional folklore that begins with the Native American Indians. Through folklore, we preserve our nation’s unique customs, games, arts, and foods, just as other cultures have throughout history. In fact, folklore is one of the most important ways that every society is unified and preserved.
Folklore can be passed down in several ways, including education. I remember hearing legends and singing folk songs and playing traditional games in my classes. During recess and elsewhere, I learned other folklore, too, like how to square dance, how to play tag, and even how to protect my mother’s back by avoiding sidewalk cracks.
Folklore will always be with us because it is continually evolving, but it is important to continue passing on traditional folklore, as well. Many children today are growing up with little knowledge of it. The good news is that homeschoolers can help revive American folklore. It is valuable for many reasons, such as these:
Our national pledge says that we are "one nation, indivisible," but never has this seemed less true than it does today as social structures collapse around us, and politics polarize us. Folklore, however, has the power to unite Americans, because it belongs to everyone. Not only is it fun, it conveys shared ethics and values; it helps us understand our past and look more clearly towards our future; and it helps instill a sense of delight and pride in everything good about America. It also gives us windows into the various ethnic groups and subcultures around the country that we might not otherwise notice. In ways that history, politics, and academics cannot, folklore connects us all.
During my homeschool years, I tried hard to avoid a textbook approach to history. My own history education was as dry as dust because of that, and I grew up with no concept of the fascinating stories underlying all the facts drilled into me. By strategically incorporating folklore into a history program, homeschool parents can help students make meaningful connections between events and the people who lived through them. For example, students who study the Negro spiritual, "Follow the Drinking Gourd," will learn how it, and similar songs, contained coded instructions to help slaves escape north.
Although Mozart and Rembrandt are important to a well-rounded arts program, so are folk arts. American handicrafts, music, and other arts reflect our nation’s character and heritage. By experiencing the folk arts of different regions, students gain a broader experience of art and a deeper appreciation for the unacknowledged creative minds that contributed so much beauty to our culture—like Native American Indian moccasins, cowboy songs, and Appalachian clog dancing, all of which Americans continue to enjoy today.
Folklore is important for a strong literature foundation. Before any stories were ever printed on paper, folklore was already a complex and ancient genre. American folktales, as well as some from other countries, deserve a place in the literature curriculum—and not only for their own sake but because many folktales show up as references or reinventions in new stories. Students with a broad exposure to folktales will have a richer literary experience overall than students who don’t.
As you plan your curriculum, look for ways to incorporate American folklore, and help revive this precious national treasure. Where to begin? Try my course on SchoolhouseTeachers.com and Amy Cohn’s stunning anthology, From Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American Folklore and Folk Songs!
Cheri Blomquist is a former homeschool mom who is now the author/instructor for The Denim Beret writing program (www.denimberet.com) and two courses for SchoolhouseTeachers.com. She is also a freelance writer/teacher and operates the website What’s In It?: The Concerned Parent’s Guide to Young Adult Literature (www.wiilitguide.com). Cheri lives in Colorado with her husband, five children, and one ornery cat. A romantic when away from her computer, she loves the arts, travel, the Renaissance Festival, and beautiful scenery.
Copyright 2018, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms. Read The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com, or download the free reader apps at www.TOSApps.com for mobile devices. Read the STORYof The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine and how it came to be.
Photo Credit: Unsplash/Ashton Bingham