Teacher In-service Through Folk Art

T he Abby Aldrich Folk Art Gallery in Williamsburg, Virginia, is a stunning and inspiring collection of works by common people whose uncommon visions of beauty transfigure their art. The objects housed within the gallery are both regionally typical and familiar; many are utilitarian, while a few were made strictly for enjoyment. All serve to enhance a sense of wonder in the observer, giving rise to such questions as: What does this object represent? Who is the artist? What historical events shaped his or her life? What was life like for this person at this time in history?
Folk art acts to bridge social history and the larger events of history, bringing the latter into context, and mediating between the apparent values of society and those values that are less easily discerned. The Abby Aldrich exhibition of paintings, coverlets, quilts, and wood carvings inspired me to believe, like Seidman,1 that through folk culture, children might come to empathize with both well-known historical personalities and unknown common people.

Many teachers find that an investigation of folk art helps to increase not only their student's aesthetic appreciation, but also their awareness of the role of art in society. The study of folk art enriches the social studies curriculum by setting artifacts within the context of the historical period in which the object makers lived. Art illustrates a period in history socially and culturally, helps students link the past with the present, and helps them recognize that cultures use creativity to reflect the society in which they live.2

After visiting the Abby Aldrich Folk Art Collection, I began to imagine how learning about folk art could enrich elementary school teachers' practice and motivate students to learn about various historical periods. This article describes how that idea resulted in the creation of a folk art laboratory school.

Origin of the Folk Art Laboratory School
The creation of a folk art laboratory school, in the form of a one-week summer program, was a cooperative venture between university, teacher in-service program, and a local elementary school. The goal was to create a place for classroom teachers, graduate students, and elementary students to examine the interaction between form and aesthetic in folk art, and to learn more about the historical context in which artifacts were produced.

Setting this plan into motion began with finding the needed resource persons and materials to be used. A phone survey identified the state art museum and the museum library, the state and local public libraries, the local children's museum, the historical society, and the university folklore department as possible resources for the program. We also found a number of good folklore and folk art books describing the region.

The next step was inviting elementary students and teachers-classroom and in-service-to participate in the one-week folk art program. It was determined that teachers would receive graduate credit from the University of Indianapolis that could be applied toward their master's degree, continuing education units, and license renewal.

The goals of the program were:

The Program Structure
The Folk Art Laboratory School was structured to meet the dual purpose of serving elementary teachers (classroom and in-service) and elementary students. Each afternoon, teachers learned about a specific genre (or modality) of folk art from community resource persons, including local artists and senior citizens. The next morning was set aside for teachers to present this folk art genre to the fourth and fifth grade students in the program. The last day of the laboratory school was reserved for sharing art, drama, stories, and reflections about how the experience could be continued in classrooms during the following school year.

The first morning, teachers arrived early to meet each other and learn about procedures, field trips, grades, and the first set of folk art skills to be taught. Teachers then fell into a routine of setting up the room space and art supplies and materials in the morning before the elementary students arrived. When students began to arrive, teachers could immediately engage them in inquiry investigations about the folk art skills to be presented that day. A break after thirty minutes gave the whole group a time for announcements and instructions about new activities. Teachers and graduate students shared folklore and folk tales they had researched with the elementary students.

Periodically, community resource people arrived to give demonstrations, then working with the learners during a large block of work time. A discussion with the elementary students of what they had learned or accomplished took place at the end of each half-day session, while the graduate students left for lunch and discussion among themselves before the afternoon teacher session.

The Genres of Folk Art
The students in the folk art lab were introduced to a variety of experiences in folk art media. These included: the designing, cutting, and making of folk-art stencils; weaving on an Inkel Loom; theorem painting; scherenschinite (paper cutting); working with tin; quilting; basket weaving; crocheting rugs; and throwing pottery on a wheel. Folk songs, folk dance, and folklore (including games and jokes), along with cooking family recipes over an open fire, were also part of the experience.

One folklorist shared her personal collection of folk art with the graduate students, and gave them a tour of the different folk art collections at the children's museum. Teachers/graduate students each located and told a traditional tale from their region as practice in this instructional technique. They also role-played first person historical narratives in which they incorporated their own family history. The historical element of the program focused on blacksmithing skills and survival in the wilderness. A community resource person helped with wilderness survival and plant identification.

Creating and analyzing folk art encouraged problem solving as suggested by Congdon: "More important than an accurate categorization of a work . . . is that students engage in analysis of all art objects by asking questions concerning environmental factors, folk groups, individuals, the folklore surrounding the object, values, beliefs, and attitudes which are communicated, and religious, economic, social, and technological considerations."3 The students in this program explored the historical and cultural contexts of the art being recreated, and discussed what the different forms of art might have to say to people today. This exploration required using skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation on the part of the learner.

From the beginning, the laboratory school experience was intergenerational. Senior citizens and other community resource people modeled skills for teachers and elementary students to practice. The low ratio of community resource people to graduate and elementary students allowed mentoring to occur naturally. The teachers practiced education reform in practical ways, such as those suggested by Blandy and Congdon: "The appreciation of local art forms and their makers should be included in the curriculums which guide art educators in their work with children, youth, and adults in non-school and school settings."4

The folk art lab was an enriching experience for all of its participants. An unexpected benefit was in the affective domain. The community resource people benefited through strengthened connections to youth and the learning community. The classroom teachers, graduate students, and elementary students benefited from the mentoring they received.

Using folklore was especially helpful in building personal relationships, and this became a tightly knit group that worked well together. Art served as a cultural expression, helping us to recognize, celebrate, and expand the positive aspects of our communities, and promoting community reconstruction through the discovery of new ways to relate to one another.5 Folk art gave the participants a common ground for discussion.

1. L. I. Seidman, "Folksongs: Magic in your Classroom," Social Education 49 (1985): 580-587.

2. C. S. Sunal and B. A. Hatcher, "Studying History through Art," Social Education 50, 4 (1986): Supplement 1-8.

3. K. G. Congdon, "Finding the Tradition in Folk Art: An Art Educator's Perspective," Journal of Aesthetic Education 20, 3 (1986): 93-106.

4. D. Blandy and K. G. Congdon, "Community Based Aesthetics as Exhibition Catalyst and a Foundation for Community Involvement in Art Education, "Studies in Art Education 29, 4 (1988): 243-249.

5. D. Blandy and K. G. Congdon, "A Theoretical Structure for Educational Partnerships and Curatorial Practices," Visual Arts Research 19, 2 (1993): 61-67.

About the Author
Ronald V. Morris is a doctoral student at Purdue University ,West Lafayette, Indiana . He has been an elementary school teacher and participates in the arts and social studies through
various organizations.