Pitfalls and possibilities: Presenting folk arts in the schools

There are many good reasons to bring folk arts into a classroom. They can help students think critically about what they know, and what remains outside formal histories. They can show how powerful alternative knowledge is actively transmitted within diverse communities (that is, how people know, teach, and remember that which they can't or shouldn't commit to paper because of their own social situation - but which they must commit to memory.) Folk arts can teach respect for diverse communities' points of views, and for diverse arts and humanities. And yet, the classroom is an artificial site for presenting folk arts. In the classroom, folk arts are pulled away from the richly textured contexts in which they usually occur. This process often skews folk arts so they become something else entirely - perhaps useful, but not the same. What follows is intended as a tool for teachers who want to consider (and cope with) what happens to folklore - and, even more importantly, what can happen to people - when folklore is (inadvertently or not) wrenched out of context and presented in a classroom.

How does one know what is missing, different, about folk arts presented in the classroom, either by a visiting artist or students and their families? Common sense tells us that folk arts are usually performed in front of audiences who know something about the art form, who speak the language, who have some sense of the history of the tradition, who can judge what makes the current performer different from those who have gone before, and who - if it is an interactive or humorous form, will get the jokes, shout back when appropriate, boo and hiss. In a classroom, we can assume no such knowledge base - and little possibility of customary interaction.

It is easy to underestimate what happens when folklore is "extracted" from its community setting and inserted into the alien structure of the classroom. Perhaps most interesting, much of the sting and danger of folk arts becomes invisible, or dulled, when these arts are performed in a classroom context. And yet, some of the most powerful potential for teaching may reside exactly in the uncomfortable and dangerous areas, the places where folk arts reveal conflict, deep feelings.

How can a teacher bring folk arts into the classroom without sacrificing all of the power of these traditions - yet with sensitivity to how some of that power and danger may impact on students?

First, we shouldn't underestimate folk arts. Stereotypes about folklore dismiss these traditions as being non-threatening, the stuff of "old wives" and children. Ignore the stereotypes that trivialize. Instead, assume that folk arts are complex and powerful symbolic forms, many-layered expressions - serious and even dangerous stuff, and make it your business to understand where the danger lays. (It may be useful to recall that some people in this society pay therapists to listen to folklore - to family stories. In the therapeutic setting, it is understood that such stories may be powerful social and personal dynamite, deeply embedded in a complex past, not easily plumbed.)

Second, look for where there is disagreement in a single community about folk arts. Folk arts are not universally beloved. Not everyone in a single community shares, knows about, or likes the same folk traditions. For one thing, no group of people is entirely homogenous - people sharing a common ethnicity or history still differ in terms of age, class, gender, political beliefs, aesthetics, region, and much else. Such diversity ensures that in any community people have widely different attitudes toward particular folk arts. In many communities, folk artists are specialists of a sort, and their particular skills are neither universally known nor universally respected. For example, people educated in the French colonial-based school system of Cambodia were often brought up to believe that some folk art forms were downright lower-class, disreputable, and rude. In many communities, young people go through long periods when they find the folk traditions of their parent's generation confining, embarrassing, or of little value. In some immigrant and refugee communities, there are often great breaks separating the generations - with elders skilled in languages and traditions that are not valued in the United States, and dependent upon young people for their "American" understandings.

There are politics and perspectives to all folk arts (like any kind of art) and it is important to understand them - especially when dealing with young people struggling to make sense of their own relationship to their families and the wider world. Look for differences of opinion about folk arts, and educate yourselves about why people differ.

Third, every folk art has its own (not always chronicled) art history, with its own masters, aesthetics, and periods of growth, change and decline. It is often assumed that folk arts are enduring, ageless, ancient, and timeless (another way of de-fusing them). Instead, Cambodian classical dance, as presented by local artist Chamroeun Yin is not the same as classical dance as it would have been practiced in Cambodia before war, famine and resettlement. Changes in this and other folk art forms reflect history, economics, aesthetic preferences, current styles, and individual creativity (and always have). Though connected to ancient traditions, these arts are not (and never have been) pure or unchanging. And they always have meanings and functions - often complicated, sometimes contradictory - for people in the present.

Fourth, carefully examine the structure of assignments, and the nature of relationships - relationships between teachers and students, and between students and their own family histories and traditions. Commonly, in an effort to honor diversity, students are asked to tell life stories, to show and tell their customs, or to share or recreate a cultural festival. Fundamentally, these projects are worth doing. But it is important to evaluate the worth and pitfalls of such assignments, separating out what works from what puts children at stress, under scrutiny, further marginalized from their classmates - in short, what backfires? In what follows, we use some of the possible pitfalls of each type of assignment to frame questions for discussion - and we share some ideas from experienced teachers about ways to make such assignments work.

Telling life stories - Students are asked to report on personal and family history. Questions: How may such an assignment unintentionally force a performance? What are the risks (and the stakes) of such forced performances? Does it "cheapen" the experience of immigrant students by turning their often traumatic experiences into either something valuable as a commodity (information exchanged for a grade or for acceptance from the teacher) or something exotic (further isolating and even objectifying the student)? Ideas: Such assignments have to begin in trust, in trusting relationships. Kids may not tell you what they don't want to, but they may still suffer from the pressure. They may also try to tell you what they think you (or their peers) want to hear: allow and facilitate their own control over their stories. Give kids room: invite them to "make up" a story, or to tell someone else's story, allow them to use indirect framing mechanisms, and to rewrite and retell. Allow privacy for writing, so that kids don't have to share.

Show and tell about your customs - Students who practice traditions at home that aren't part of white, Christian American culture are asked to display or report on those customs or holidays. Questions: Does this really provide "equal time" and equal respect? Aside from the fact that this gives such students extra responsibility (e.g. having to do a report on the meaning of Passover while Christian kids are not expected to do a report on the meaning of Easter), it also further marks some students as "different" or "other," and has the tendency to stigmatize even despite the teacher's best intentions or stated goal of making the child feel "special." Are kids competent to present complex information about holidays or are they being pushed past their level of knowledge? (They are after all, not the main producers of these events, and often their education and socialization is partly the focus in community-based versions of these events). What are the implications of pushing kids to be the "authority" on cultural traditions? Ideas: Collectivize the process: give kids choices (silence or sharing, or not). Encourage acts of responsibility and power: allow kids to own and control the process but make questioning a part of their responsibility. What about attention to customs that hurt: to racism, sexism? How can discussion feature differences within any "culture"? How can attention to customs open into discussion of the many cultures in which any of us are simultaneously members (i.e. we share some custom and culture with others of our own gender, age, class, politics)? What we mean by "us" and by "them" is porous, constantly shifting, dependent on who is doing the categorizing and why. Explore what we don't know about participation in customs: can you seem to do a custom you are expected to do, while resisting?

Do your own festival - Students and sometimes families are asked to "put on" some or all the elements of a traditional holiday, in the school. Questions: Does this safely compartmentalize culture as entertainment, as public display separate from religion and removed from the sacred cycle? Festival and ritual in their "natural" contexts tend literally to bring many people together as communities, allow many different meanings of festival to emerge, and thus avoid a single, simple "meaning." Artificial "displayed" festivals generalize about the meaning of ritual and tradition for all involved, and depict it as spectacle not as participation. And what can children and youth, who seldom have roles as "ritual specialists" in ritual and festival, be expected to convey? Is there the danger (as above) of pushing them beyond their level of competence? Ideas: Expressions (festivals, arts) have different meanings when there are different compositions of the classroom and school - i.e. whether one, twenty, or the majority of kids are from similar cultural backgrounds. Ask kids to describe different viewpoints on (for example) a birthday, or on various coming of age traditions. Create an imaginary collective, non-exploitative festival. Use a photo of a "typical" "American" Christian wedding and ask kids what they can deduce from the photo. Why do they know these things? What assumptions are they making? What don't you know/can't you know from looking at the picture? (Are people happy? Was someone forced into the ritual? Does it have the same meaning to all? Do they "believe" it? Is it a first/will it be a last wedding? Are they all Christian? etc.)

Effectively, these assignments are various ways of looking at difference, and that raises a final challenge worth commenting upon. How do we craft assignments that do not inevitably lead us to one of two conclusions: either "...and underneath we're all the same" or "we have differences but we're all part of the great American melting pot/patchwork quilt"? How do we develop sophisticated means of representing folk culture in ways that broaden the range of understanding of traditional forms, while not overlooking the immediacy of violence, racist incidents and hate crimes that show the basic need for even the first steps in culturally sensitive education? And, if we look at cultures in ways that emphasize their validity and beauty, how do we deal with the less attractive aspects, such as, for example, women's narrowly defined roles in patriarchal cultures? How do we encourage presentations about culture which depicts culture, not as fixed and given, but as constantly changing, fluid, and subject to multiple interpretations based on shifting perspectives?

There are different categories for sameness and difference - each carries connotations. Often, the only things kids are offered for self-identification are things that are "old-world," "traditional." Explore here-and-now issues and arts as points of identification. When youth feel (or are made to feel) that "they don't know about their own culture," we are missing a chance to understand what their culture is: a complex mix of influences, expressions, responses, knowledge, language.

If you invite folk artists into your classroom or school, you will need to develop different tools for presenting them. No "recipes" for successful multicultural projects exist: classroom situations, power balances and dynamics vary, teachers have widely varying styles and maintain a range of different relationships with students, students come to class with widely different histories and personalities. Here, we emphasize the need for care and caution. Our aim is to consider how we can develop tools for multicultural teaching that do not inadvertently request (or exact) a price from students. We are interested in providing avenues for self-expression that are constructive and possible. Our intention is not to frighten you away from such endeavors, or to suggest that it is impossible to "ever get things right," but to encourage and facilitate the kind of hard discussion necessary to developing non-exploitative, critically valid, multicultural curricula with integrity, validity and guts.

Debora Kodish and William Westerman
Philadelphia Folklore Project