Timeframe: Estimated at four (30-minute) sessions, 120 minutes total. Time will vary depending on types of student projects chosen.
Overview of Activity
Oral traditions are elements of folklife that originate in oral form. They are primarily passed on to others orally (by speaking), rather than through writing or other means that are not face-to-face. So far in this curriculum, we've mentioned traditional stories, knock-knock jokes, and jump rope rhymes. There are a myriad of different types of traditional stories, including ghost stories, personal experience narratives, and fairy tales. Likewise, scholars classify the many different types of jokes into subcategories based on their subject matter, such as "light bulb jokes," or based on their form, as in "shaggy dog stories." Other important types of oral traditions include creation stories and other myths, legends, folk poetry, riddles, and proverbs or sayings. (See definitions of some of these types in the Glossary.)
Oral traditions may sometimes be the only way that elders pass on important cultural information from one generation to the next. For example, until fairly recently, all of the indigenous tribes in the area that is now the Northwest Territories of Canada lived by knowledge that was passed to them through oral tradition. The tribes taught skills for survival, such as hunting, building houses, making clothes, fashioning tools, and preparing medicines by telling and showing one another how to do these things instead of writing instructions. They also taught religious and artistic practices in the same manner. Singing, telling stories, and acting in traditional plays are also ways of passing knowledge through oral tradition.
Elders are very important in cultures that teach primarily by means of oral tradition. The elders are the people with the most knowledge. They have gained knowledge throughout their lifetimes, and they are needed to teach the younger generations. They are honored as the educators of the community.
This activity will focus on some of the most interesting oral traditions found in Nebraska.
Objectives of the Activity
- Realize how oral traditions function in their everyday lives.
- Explore one or more oral traditions from a cultural group or groups other than their own.
- Identify two types of verbal folklore used by a Nebraska cultural group and explain how those types function in that group's family and/or community life.
Planning and Preparation
Review the materials and resources for this activity, and review "Background Information for Teachers," below.
Background Information for Teachers
Some Examples of Oral Traditions Found in Nebraska
- Traditional stories - Ho Chunk (Winnebago) trickster stories, La Llorana (Latin American)
- Word Games - Riddles, jump rope rhymes, the game of Gossip (see Glossary)
- Made-Up Languages or Secret Codes - "Pig Latin," "slang," "jargon"
- Prayers and Other Religious Recitations - Many religions have traditions of reciting religious verses or prayers at special times. Example: children memorizing and "saying a piece" at Christmastime is a custom still followed in Missouri Synod Lutheran churches (and others) in Nebraska.
- Jokes - Puns, knock-knock jokes, joke cycles, such as "light bulb" jokes
- Proverbs and Dichos (Sayings) - "A penny saved is a penny earned. A stitch in time saves nine." An example of a Dicho: "En boca cerrada no entran moscas. Flies don't enter a closed mouth." (For more examples see Worksheets and Handouts.) Both proverbs and dichos are used often by parents and grandparents in teaching children proper social behavior.
- Urban Legends - "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" Urban legends are not always urban and they are not really legends at all. They are instead fictional stories that reflect the current worries, perceived dangers, or preoccupations of a society. Today, a large variety of urban legends are spread via the Internet, which has in some cases become a substitute for in-person communications. Urban legends are told and believed as accounts of actual incidents that befell or were witnessed by someone the teller "almost" knows, such as a friend of a friend's sister. For more information and examples see www.snopes.com.
- Nicknames - Germans from Russia nicknames, performing names of blues and jazz musicians, professional names of sports figures.
- Family Stories - immigration stories, bad weather stories, vacation stories.
- Ritual Greetings, Good-Byes, and Insults - African American - "the dozens" and "freestyle battles" in rap; Germans from Russia - ritual greetings and good-byes.
Example: Instead of saying goodbye upon parting, a German Russian might call to a friend, "Machts gute!" (in English "Do good!" or "Be good!") and the friend would traditionally reply, "Machts besser!" ("Do (or be) better")
Body of Instruction
Step 1 - Introduce lesson by telling a joke you know or telling a story from memory. (Examples of traditional stories can be found in your local library.)
Step 2 - Share examples of the types of oral traditions listed above (or from your own or friends' experiences). Be sure to include examples from several different cultural groups. Ask for other examples from the class.
Step 3 - Give students instructions for pursuing one or more of the "Sample Projects for Students" included below.
Step 4 and Closure - Engage students in a discussion about one or more of the types of oral traditions they have chosen to research. Pose a reflective question or two to the class for the discussion, such as the following:
- Do you think this tradition is alive and well, or is it fading away? What makes you think this way?
- What do you think is the most significant or memorable thing about this tradition?
Sample Classroom Projects for Students
- Make a notebook of jokes, proverbs, riddles, and/or dichos known to the students (illustrate if desired). Reproduce copies for everyone in the class.
- Collect a family story or a story from one of the students' other folk groups. Share it briefly with the class.
- Find the origin of a nickname and write a paragraph about it for class. The nickname can identify a person known to the student, a historical person, or someone in the news, such as sports, political, or entertainment figures.
- Research an urban legend to find variants of the story. Also, point out what characteristics make the choice an urban legend. Report on the urban legend in class or via a written report. Compile the reports into a booklet, if desired.
Summary and Closure
In this part of Lesson 2, students explored the many varieties of oral traditions present in our state and in our daily lives. They also had the opportunity to learn about and participate in oral traditions from varied Nebraska cultures. In the following parts of Lesson 2, students will learn about and experience examples of other categories of Nebraska traditional arts and folklife.
Using a generic rubric or other common assessment tool for assessing the students' learning from this part of the lesson, indicate the answers to the following questions:
To what extent were students able to:
- Realize how oral traditions function in their everyday lives?
- Explore one or more oral traditions from a cultural group or groups other than their own?
- Identify two types of verbal folklore used by a Nebraska cultural group, and explain how those types function in that group's family and/or community life?
Correlated Nebraska Educational Standards
- (8.1.2) By the end of the eighth grade, students will identify, locate, and use multiple resources to access information on an assigned or self-selected topic.
- (8.1.3) By the end of the eighth grade students will identify and classify different types of text.
- (8.3.1) By the end of the eighth grade, students will participate in group discussions by asking questions and contributing information and ideas
- (8.1.9) By the end of eighth grade, students will describe key people, events and ideas since World War II.
- (8.4.2) By the end of eighth grade, students will demonstrate skills for historical analysis.
- (8.4.6) By the end of eighth grade, students will improve their skills in historical research and geographic analysis.
Visual and Performing Arts
- (12.1.1) Essential Learnings 1. Students recognize the connections between the arts and their own lives and environments.
- (12.2.1) Essential Learnings 2. Students recognize the value of the arts in their own learning and creative processes.
- (12.3.1) Essential Learnings 3. Students understand the roles of the arts and of artists in the past, present and future.
Materials and Resources
Worksheets and Handouts
Click on the handout/worksheet, once it opens up, right click and choose "save as" to download documents in PDF. If you don't already have it, you will need Adobe Reader.
Click on the picture to access a printable image. All images are at a moderate resolution (150 dpi) but may vary in usable size. Most images will fill an 8.5 x 11" sheet of paper when printed.
Ngan Dang of Lincoln speaking about Vietnamese cultural traditions at the Asian Community and Cultural Center's Lunar New Year Celebration, Lincoln NE, 2006 (Photo by G. Meister, Nebraska Folklife Network Collection)
Books on Nebraska oral traditions and other folklore by Louise Pound and Roger Welsch (Photo G. Meister)
A storyteller pottery figure from Cochita Pueblo in New Mexico illustrates the importance of oral tradition in Native American cultures. (Public Domain)
Storyrobe (also called a winter count) by He Dog (Percy Creighton) of the Blood Tribe of the northern Great Plains. This painted bison robe recounts the tribe's oral histories of several renowned tribal leaders. Circa, early 20th century. The Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, has an online display that tells the story of the robe.
Illustration depicting the vanishing hitchhiker urban legend. (From www.snopes.com)