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Lesson 1 Activity 1

Timeframe: Estimated at three (30-minute) sessions, 90-minutes total.

Overview of Activity

Activity 1 is an introduction to key terms and concepts that are used throughout the unit. It begins with definitions. Teachers are encouraged to use additional examples from their own ethnic backgrounds or other cultural backgrounds and experiences to illustrate the meaning of topics discussed. The approach of the lesson is to encourage the students to learn about the unfamiliar by starting first with the familiar--their own cultural, family, community and folk group traditions.

In this and subsequent activities in the lesson and unit, students are encouraged to express their own ideas, provide support for their thinking, and take risks by contributing to discussions in small groups and class sessions. In groups, students need to explore different points of view, discuss issues, and perhaps compromise as they work collaboratively. They are encouraged to ask questions, solve problems, and think, discuss, and write creatively.

Objectives of the Activity

Students will:

  1. Explore and investigate examples of culture and folklife.
  2. Recognize similarities and differences of folklife in different cultures.
  3. Identify and portray examples of folklife from their own experiences and communities.

Planning and Preparation

Review the images and worksheets used in this activity and the other lessons and activities. This will familiarize you with the different varieties of folklife and traditional arts found in Nebraska. Think about examples from your own family or ethnic background, or from your experiences, that could be shared with the class as you begin talking about culture and the definitions of folklife and traditional arts.

Background Information for Teachers

If we live in the same neighborhood, work at the same place, or do business with people whose views of the world are much different from ours, it's helpful to be able to understand more about them. If we know something about how others think, it helps us live and work together peacefully and productively. Folklife is a part of all cultures. Because of that, folklife is a good way to gain insight into our own culture and also to learn about others whose cultures might be unfamiliar to us.

To understand the meaning of the word folklife, it is helpful to first examine what culture is. The word culture as it is used by social scientists (scholars who study human beings and their groups), describes the way groups of people see the world, what they think is most important in life, and everything they produce through their work, or through their thoughts and imagination.

In a sense, asking "What is culture?" is a lot like asking "What is the world?" Both "culture" and "world" are difficult to define. That's because we live in the middle of a changing, dynamic culture every day of our lives, just as we live surrounded by the world. It is impossible, at least for those of us who are not astronauts, to physically step outside of our world. It's nearly as difficult to mentally step outside of our culture to take a look at it. Everything human beings do or think that is not a direct result of how our physical bodies work is a product of our culture. A dictionary definition says culture is "The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought typical of a population or community at a given time." A simpler definition, just as useful for our study, is below.

Important Note: For the majority of students, learning about different cultures through the study of folklife traditions comes very naturally and is also a lot of fun. However, sometimes teachers might find that a few students are uncomfortable about discussing their own family or ethnic traditions. For example they might have had traumatic experiences related to immigration, to membership in a particular ethnic group, or to their family situation. Students who are uncomfortable sharing their own heritage can be encouraged to explore and share traditions of another folk group about which they have an interest.

Conversely, teachers might also find students who feel they have no traditions in their lives at all, because they and their families are deeply assimilated into modern, mainstream American culture. However, with sensitive attention and a few helpful suggestions, most students realize they and/or their families are part of other folk groups about which they feel comfortable sharing information, such as sports teams, musical groups, school clubs, a social group of friends or extended family members, an occupational group, or some other group or organization whose members share a tradition or two. A variety of important traditions related to farm and ranch life are common in rural Nebraska, for example. A family or group tradition also can be something as simple as always going out for a treat together to celebrate after a game. Other folk traditions include singing a particular song on a holiday, always using a certain prayer or ritual to begin a meeting or gathering, or going to the movies together every Saturday.

Vocabulary/Definition of Terms

Culture is the entire way of life and the human expressions of individuals in a particular society.

Folklife and folklore are two words often used interchangeably to describe traditional ways through which groups express their culture among themselves. Folklife and folklore sometimes also serve to identify the group to outsiders. The terms refer to the traditional arts, knowledge, and practices shared within the group, mostly through oral communication and by example. Every group with a sense of its own identity shares--as a central part of that identity--some folk traditions.

Folklife from different cultures also adds richness and variety to our lives and our local environment. Studying and understanding folklife and how it differs from culture to culture can help us better understand ourselves, and ultimately help us get along better with other people and other nations.

Because so much of a group's identity depends on its folklife, it is an enormous and deeply significant dimension of any culture. Considering how large and complex this subject is, it is no wonder that folklorists define and describe folklife in many different ways. Try asking dance historians for a definition of "dance," for instance, or sociologists for a definition of "society." No one definition will sufficeÐnor should it. (See the glossary for other terms and their definitions.)

Body of Instruction


  1. Begin by asking students if they know what culture is. (Like many common words, culture has different meanings depending on how it is used, so there are many possible answers to the question. Responses might include "Art and music," "Something to grow bacteria in," or even "What my parents want me to learn about.")
  2. Explain that the type of culture the class will be studying is the kind related to a person's family, language, and ethnic background. Then pose a scenario in which a student comes to Nebraska from another country. What do the students think it would be like for that person? What might be different and unique about the U.S. way of life that would not be the same as the place they came from? Students will brainstorm ideas.
  3. Present examples of situations that demonstrate differences in culture to students. The following paragraphs contain suggested examples and commentary.
    • Eating - It's easiest to understand complex terms like culture by thinking about examples. In this case, we will think about what is part of culture and what is not.
    • The act of eating is itself biological (meaning "of the body"), not cultural. This is so because all human bodies need food to stay alive. There are no humans who do not eat and we don't have to learn to eat. It just comes to us as a natural reaction to hunger.
    • By contrast, culture is learned from those around us. It is our culture that determines what kinds of things we consider to be good food and the kinds of things we don't think are food at all. A recent humorous TV commercial pointed out cultural differences in traditional foods. It showed an African man and his wife in their home village proudly serving a lunch of tasty roasted grub worms to an American couple who were their guests. Later, the same two couples were shown , in the United States and the Americans were happily treating their African friends to a juicy, grilled hamburger at their backyard barbecue. In both situations the two guests looked at each other with worried expressions before tasting the strange-looking food. However, after taking bites, they smiled and said to each other, in their respective languages, "Not bad. It tastes just like chicken!" Of course, that was just a silly commercial, but it's a good demonstration of culture. What those two couples really were sharing with each other were two very different ideas about what is good food from their respective cultures.
    • The same thing goes for how often, at what times of the day, with whom, and in what situations we eat. Those conditions differ greatly from one culture to the next. People in some northern cultures, such as in Scandinavian countries, traditionally eat five smaller meals each day instead of three larger ones, as we do. In many European countries, people eat their largest meal at noontime, so they take lunch breaks much longer than the short break common in the U.S. Among some Muslim societies and in some Australian aboriginal language groups, women and men commonly eat meals separately, rather than together.
    • Going to School - Similar points can be made about other parts of culture. In the United States, we usually go to a school building to learn. Young people of some cultures in Africa, Asia, or South America stay home and learn everything they need to know from their families and the older people in their communities. The reason we go to school buildings is that it's our culture's preferred way to pass on the knowledge we need to become adult members of our society.
    • Communication - A simpler example of culture is shaking one's head from side to side or nodding it up and down. In mainstream U.S. culture, the first gesture means "no" and the second "yes." In other cultures, in countries such as India and Greece, shaking the head from side to side means "yes" and an up and down movement means "no!" It's easy to see how a misunderstanding could result between a person from the one of those cultures and a person from the United States!
  4. Ask students to share personal experiences with food, games, dance, music or entertainment from other cultures. Ask them to tell about times they had to be taught the rules or needed someone to explain how to eat the food, do the dance steps, etc.
  5. The class, with help from the teacher to get them to that point, will now define culture for themselves. Their definition should be approximately like the one below:
    • Culture is a way of life and the human expressions of individuals in a particular society. For example the phrase, "Swedish culture" means everything that makes up the Swedish way of life. That includes the way Swedish people think and the way they reveal those thoughts in things they say, do, and make.


  1. Ask students if they know what folklore is. (The usual answers that come up are "stories," "folk songs," "legends," "lies," "myths," "something that isn't true," "the same as old wives tales," etc.)
    • Actually, folklore is the variety of traditional ways through which groups express their culture, both among themselves and to the outside world. These ways include:
      1. folk or traditional arts
      2. other traditional knowledge and practices shared within the group (mostly through oral communication and by example)
    • Every group with a sense of its own identity shares, as a central part of that identity, some folk traditions. Because folklore is a part of all cultures, it is a particularly good way to gain insight into our own culture. Folklore also is an interesting and enjoyable way to learn about others whose cultures might be less familiar to us. Another descriptive word often used interchangeably with folklore is folklife. That term is the one that is used throughout the rest of this unit.
  2. Introduce students to the following five concepts that constitute folklife
    • say (riddles, traditional stories, knock-knock and other types of jokes, jump rope rhymes)
    • make (shelter, clothing, paper airplanes, quilts, furniture, foods)
    • believe (faith healing, marriage traditions and rituals, weather lore, "urban legends")
    • learn by example (how to tell if crops are ripe, how to find a good fishing spot, how to nurse an ailment, how to set a table)
    • perform (do traditional dances, make music, make hand signals)
      As these examples indicate, in most instances there is no hard-and-fast separation of these categories, whether in everyday life or in the work of folklorists, the people who study these traditions.
  3. Give an example of each of the five concepts above and ask students to identify additional examples from their own experiences and communities.

Closure - Folklife is a very accessible way to learn about other cultures. Ask students: "Why is it especially important right now for us to know about, to understand, and to accept cultures other than our own?" (Two suggested answers are below.)

  1. In today's world, we literally no longer live as far away from people with cultures different from ours, as we once did. Airplanes and other modern means of transportation and communication have made it much easier to get to and from, and to communicate with, even the most remote places on earth.
  2. At the same time, wars and economic hardship in other countries have brought many new immigrants to Nebraska to live (and to the rest of the U.S.). These new Americans have brought their many, varied cultures and rich folklife with them. Those cultural ways are contributing to changes in our communities.

Sample Classroom Projects for Students

The classroom activities included below are meant to illustrate the varieties of folklife present in our lives. The activities also help students realize that both similarities and differences occur, even in the folklife of different individuals within the same cultural group. Differences in folklife among different cultural groups are usually more marked than differences among individuals in the same culture. However, even across cultures, remarkable similarities also occur. For example, almost every culture has some kind of food that is a "pocket" sandwich (meat or cheese, sometimes with vegetables, encased in a "pocket" made of dough) that is either baked, steamed or fried. Germans from Russia usually call this food a bierock, a krautburger (because of the cabbage they use in it), or a runza. In Mexico, as well as in other Latin American countries, a similar food is often called an empanada. The Chinese and many other Asian cultures have various steamed buns that are filled with meat or vegetables. People from Poland, Russia, the Ukraine and some other Eastern European countries make a slightly different, but similar, food called a perogie that consists of meat, cheese, and/or vegetables, encased in a soft noodle dough and then either steamed or fried.

  1. Adapted from the Louisiana Voices Web site (see resource list), this exercise can be played as a game in class, using the worksheets included with this unit and resources found on the Internet or in the school media center. Essentially, the aim is the same as regular bingo--to be the first person to get one row filled in accurately, diagonally, vertically or horizontally. Each student receives a copy of the bingo sheet with the categories and a copy of the blank worksheet for answers. The game also can be assigned as homework. The person or persons with the most squares appropriately filled in is named the winner(s). Prizes are optional, but encouraged.

  2. Also from Louisiana Voices, this exercise helps students begin to identify their own folk groups and to think in terms of their own folklife traditions. This information will be needed in the next lesson when students choose their fieldwork experience. Sharing the information from the worksheet should initiate quite a bit of class involvement and discussion.

Summary and Closure

This part of Lesson 1 was focused on: 1) learning about the terms "culture" and "folklife", 2) recognizing that there are both similarities and differences in the folklife of different cultures and being able to identify an example of each, 3) knowing the five broad categories of folklife and giving an example of each, and 4) identifying and portraying examples of folklife from one's own experiences and communities. Definitions and examples were shared, as well as questions to ask to generate class discussion about folklife and culture. Completing the suggested activities will enable students to be ready for Lesson 1, Activity 2, in which they will discover folklife traditions in their own culture — in fact in their own "backyards!"

Assessment Suggestions

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:

  1. Explore and investigate examples of culture and folklife?
  2. Recognize similarities and differences in the folklife of different cultures?
  3. Identify examples of folklife from their own experiences and communities?

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.
  • (8.2.5) By the end of the eighth grade, students will demonstrate the use of self-generated questions, note taking, summarizing and outlining while learning.
  • (8.3.1) By the end of the eighth grade, students will participate in group discussions by asking questions and contributing information and ideas

Social Studies/History

  • (8.4.2) Students will demonstrate skills for historical analysis. (Example Indicators: Identify, analyze, and interpret primary sources, e.g., artifacts, diaries, letters, photographs, art, documents, newspapers, contemporary media, and computer information systems, making generalizations about events and life in United States history since 1877. Recognize and explain how nationalism, race, religion, and ethnicity have influenced different points of view.)

Visual and Performing Arts

  • (12.1.1) Essential Learnings 1. Students recognize the connections between the arts and their own lives and environments.
  • (12.7.1) Essential Learnings 7. Students recognize diverse perspectives in the creation, performance, interpretation, and evaluation of the arts.

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. Right-click (PC) or Ctrl-click (Mac) and select "save as" to download.