Exemplary folk arts education practices from the Folk Arts – Cultural Treasures Charter School were featured in a dynamic session of linked papers presented at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education Ethnography in Education Research Forum on February 27, 2016. This Forum is recognized in the field of education for nurturing research and researchers in schools over the past 37 years. This paper session was part of the Forum’s practitioner inquiry track that highlights education research by educators (pre-K to higher ed) as well as activists, community organizers, and educational leaders.
As the Philadelphia Folklore Project’s Education Specialist I provided the introduction to our session Folk Arts Education: Examining Our Practice to Intentionally Integrate Community Knowledge in School. The theoretical overview drew heavily upon my recent article in the 2015 issue of the Journal for Folklore and Education (www.locallearningnetwork.org) and set the stage for how folk arts education practices utilize community knowledge resources to help students grow academically. I described how folk arts education teaches students the skills of ethnography. Equipped with this orientation, session attendees were ready to examine how each of the four FACTS teacher presentations intersected as we discussed how FACTS develops students’ inquiry skills and folk arts understanding in complex ways.
Kao Kue provided examples of folk arts and described how her first grade students were exploring folk arts that take place in their own lives and in the school. Kao shared examples of student work from a learning activity where the first graders observed a class of older students learning Chinese Opera dances. This behind-the-scenes look at a dance rehearsal session helped first graders discuss art-making differently. Teacher Kao explained how the students began to see how art making was a learning experience, complete with challenges to overcome. They saw the aspiring dancers’ tenacity in striving to master techniques. The young observers saw how much work undergirds a seemingly effortless polished performance on the stage.
Amy Brueck closely examined how fourth grade students were progressing in developing their observation skills during a folk arts residency with Tibetan sand mandala artist, Losang Samten. She analyzed student diagrams of the mandala and their language use in describing the art-making process they observed. Teacher Amy also analyzed student language use in describing their developing understanding of the cultural context of this artist and his art form. Her presentation helped conference attendees see examples of students shifting to a neutral point of view as they observed deeply.
Lucinda Megill Legendre provided an overview of her seventh grade students’ month-long research project about their experiences with folk arts learning at FACTS. She looked at student advancement in developing the breadth of ethnographic skills throughout the project. Lucinda particularly focused upon students’ choices in images and stories when they represented their findings. She showed conference attendees examples of student presentations that illustrated the depth of insight into culture, arts, and heritage that students attained through the ethnographic research process. Students described the meanings folk arts held for the individual artist each interviewed and grappled with their own sense of themselves as cultural participants.
Debra Repak looked closely at how she helped students develop their skills in shifting perspectives through reflective writing. She described the prompts she gave students in each learning activity during the seventh graders’ Tibetan sand mandala folk arts residency experience. Teacher Debra used examples of student work to illustrate how this process pushed students to go deeper into examining both their own and the sand mandala artist’s experiences from a thoughtfully critical perspective. Reflection is a highly valued practice at FACTS. It is regularly used to help students make meanings from and connections with lessons and topics they are studying.
These presentations not only highlighted some of the intentional instruction going on at FACTS in developing students’ skills in inquiry into their own and other cultural traditions, they also showcased the practice of reflective practitioners. These FACTS teachers used the inquiry skills they teach to explore their own students’ growth and learning. The attentive audience at the Forum stayed to ask questions and discuss the issues our papers raised long after our session’s official ending time. One attendee, a University of Pennsylvania instructor in science education, expressed to us how she found herself making many connections between folklife education and what she teaches about developing young students as effective questioners and observers of the world they live in. She wished her pre-service education students could have all attended the Forum with her and heard our session. The Philadelphia Folklore Project is helping FACTS teachers discuss the learning experiences of their students engaged in instructional activities that integrate community knowledge in the classroom. Presenting at the Forum was one way we share insights gained from and about this approach to education with a wider audience.