City Lore

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Research: Make the Anvil Theirs: Assessing the Impact of Oral Poetry on Young Children’s Imaginations


Do folk arts have a place in arts education?

Everyone, not only “artists,” has an imagination. Streets and woodlands, as much as museums, exhibit human inventions. Think about how people in flood plains have created sculpture out of the stranded trees, like woodcarver Simon O’Rourke, or how entire neighborhoods come together to show off holiday decorations.


These are small, everyday acts of creativity. Our everyday language is just as much a playing field for imagination. Conversations, as much as scripted plays and composed operas, exhibit human invention. Whenever people teach six-year-olds how to tell riddles, use metaphors in public meetings (in the wake of George Floyd’s murder), or tell the tale of their ill-fated commute to work, they exhibit how to invent and create with words to articulate human experience.


However, when we advocate for arts education – the space to cultivate creativity and invention – we are often speaking up for the “fine” arts, not for these daily forms of imagination or “folk” arts. But how much plainer would life be, without impromptu kitchen dances, hand-made wedding dresses, or the oral legends passed down in families? Similarly, national, state, and local literacy standards largely shun creative writing in favor of fact- and argument-based forms. Most curricula for English as a New Language (ENL) learners hones reading and writing, rather than the speaking and listening capacities that so many young people have across their languages. These narrow conceptions of literacy waste one of the most vital and universal starting places for learning about language as an artistic medium, and about people as potential wordsmiths, storytellers, and poets.


More broadly, turning away from jokes, legends, and lyrics – the creative heartbeat of our days – may foreclose on one of the most immediate arenas in which young people learn to articulate how they see the world.

Our Study: 

Folk arts and folklore are about celebrating the histories, traditions, invention, and creativity that make up the fabric of everyone’s daily life.

In that spirit, City Lore wanted to know what would happen if folklorists partnered with culturally and linguistically diverse teaching artists to envelop students in oral language traditions over a five-year-period. More specifically, as their evaluation partner, we (the team at WolfBrown) wanted to know whether engaging and sustained oral poetry residencies could have a measurable impact on young people. We had these questions:
• Will this kind of residency program change young people’s attitude toward poetry? Will
they come to see it as a powerful way of making their voices heard?
• Will they grow more open and curious about the poetry of other traditions and cultures?
• Will they grow as poets?
• Does time spent with poetry transfer to other domains? For example, If asked to transfer what they learn in City Lore to social studies or science class, do they write in more imaginative and individual ways? How is the writing and thinking of young people with multiple years of City Lore residencies different from that of their peers?

Read the Project Profile Here