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Lesson 2 Activity 3

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

Overview of Activity

Folk beliefs and their attendant rituals, celebrations, and customs are an intangible, but nevertheless very large and important, part of folklife. They encompass diverse beliefs, from the use of good luck tokens and rituals (such as carrying a lucky silver dollar or avoiding walking under ladders) to elaborate holiday celebrations. In many countries, traditional folk healers, rather than medical doctors, provide most of the routine medical care. Over the centuries, most religions have developed large bodies of folk traditions and customs supporting their basic beliefs. Common examples of traditions like this include baptism rituals, coming of age celebrations, and marriage customs. In this activity, students will reflect on examples of these traditions from their own experiences and also learn about the traditions of other Nebraska cultural groups.

Objectives of the Activity

Students will:

  • Discuss types of folk beliefs and rituals and give an example of each from their own experiences.
  • Research and describe the differences and similarities in a belief or custom of two different cultural groups in Nebraska.
  • Contribute to an artwork or booklet based on a traditional belief, celebration, or custom of one or more Nebraska cultural groups.

Planning and Preparation

  • Review the materials and resources for this activity.
  • Review "Background Information for Teachers" below.

Background Information for Teachers

Examples of Folk Beliefs, Rituals, Celebrations and Customs in Nebraska:

  • Initiations and Coming of Age Rituals and Celebrations - Quinceañeras, bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah ceremonies.
  • Wedding and Baptism Traditions - Customs observed during German Russian wedding dances, the custom of choosing padrones (godparents) for Mexican and Mexican American children prior to their baptism.
  • Beliefs about Luck and Fate - Good luck charms, lucky clothing, unlucky signs or dates such as Friday the 13th, rituals such as throwing salt over one's shoulder to avert bad luck.
  • Holiday Customs - Las posadas (Latino Christmas tradition), German custom of giving bags of candy and fruit on Christmas, Trick or Treating, Santa Claus, traditional holiday decorations.
  • Traditional Healing Practices and Lore - Curanderismo (Latino folk healing), German Russian folk remedies, faith healing.
  • Beliefs about Spirits and Creatures - Ghosts and haunted houses, spirit possession, visits from fairies, Bigfoot, werewolves, vampires, the bogeyman.
  • Legendary Heroes and Heroines - These are real people about whom semi-fictional stories are told. Examples: Antoine Barada, Crazy Horse, Sacajawea.
  • Creation Myths and Other Myths - Lakota, Yoruba, and Maya creation myths
  • Political Holidays and Customs - Cinco de Mayo, September 16th, Labor Day, July 4th.
  • Death, Burial, and Mourning Customs - The wiping of the tears ceremony (Native American), epitaphs on gravestones, wearing mourning colors and clothing.

Body of Instruction

Step 1

Begin the activity by discussing common examples of folk beliefs or customs with the class. Try to make them traditions the students will have encountered. They can be simple ones, such as the belief that finding a four-leaf clover is good luck, or that Friday the 13th means bad luck. Or, as an alternative, you can give a short account of a holiday celebration tradition from your childhood or of a traditional ceremony you have witnessed, such as a baptism or a quinceañera.

Step 2

Share examples of the types of beliefs and customs listed above (use those included in the Resources section, 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 Activities for Students" included below.

Ask students to share some of the different folk groups in which they are involved. After a good number of types have been shared, introduce the following ideas:

In each of these folk groups, we have certain traditional ways of doing things that help us feel a part of the group and help maintain the group's identity. In your family, for example, you might always celebrate birthdays with a certain ritual, such as a surprise party or the same kind of dessert. You might like to tell a certain funny family story over and over again, sing a traditional song together, or make a special food when you get together for holidays. These traditions are called family folklore or folklife.

Likewise, in many occupations; ranching or commercial fishing, for example, there are traditional types of knowledge passed on from person to person within the group. These can be traditional crafts, such as rope or leather braiding or the making of fishing nets. They can be verbal expressions, such as cowboy poetry, "in" jokes (those that are only fully appreciated and understood by members of the group), special nicknames or ways to foretell the weather. Folklorists, who often study these traditions connected with work, call them occupational folklore.

Step 4 and Closure

Engage students in a discussion about one or more of the types of beliefs or customs they have chosen to research. Pose a reflective question or two, such as the following:

  • What purpose do you think this belief or custom serves in people's lives?
  • What do you think is the most interesting, significant, or memorable thing about this tradition?

Sample Classroom Projects for Students

  1. Make a class photo collage or scrapbook of images of cultural celebrations or other customs from the Internet, newspapers, and magazines. Include examples from as many different Nebraska cultures as possible.
  2. Collect a ghost story or local legend from a family member, someone in the community, or other local resource, and share it briefly with the class. A class discussion should follow the presentations, examining similarities and differences between the stories or legends.
  3. Research the history of a holiday tradition from a Nebraska cultural group (Examples: lighting candles in a kinara to celebrate Kwanza, making an altar for the Day of the Dead, or giving money in red envelopes to children in celebration of the Lunar New Year.) Write a page about the findings for a class discussion that will compare and contrast these traditions.
  4. Research folk cures for a common ailment. Students should choose a variety of different ailments such as colds, warts, rashes, or sore throats. Each student should try to locate examples of cures for the ailment they chose, from more than one cultural group if possible. Students will compare and contrast the cures for their chosen ailment in a short report to the class or via a written report. Reports can be compiled into a booklet, if desired.

Summary and Closure

In this activity, students learned about traditional beliefs and customs as a part of their own folklife and other people's. They were able to examine similar beliefs and customs from different cultures and reflect on the importance of those traditions in people's lives. In the following two activities, students will complete their examination of folklife by learning about traditions of specific occupational and recreational groups, and experiencing the large variety of traditional music and dance represented in Nebraska.

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. Discuss types of folk beliefs and rituals and give an example of each from their own experiences?
  2. Research and describe the differences and similarities in a belief or custom of two cultural groups in Nebraska?
  3. Contribute to an artwork or booklet based on a traditional belief, celebration, or custom of one or more Nebraska cultural groups?

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

  • (8.1.5) Students will describe growth and change in the U.S. from 1801-1861.
  • (8.2.4) Students will describe the development and cultural impact of major religions.
  • (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.

Worksheets and Handouts

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