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Voices Spring-Summer 2005:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Legends, High School History Classes, and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” Sandra K. Dolby here.
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Volume 31

Legends, High School History Classes, and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning by Sandra K. Dolby

Through its attention to the processes of teaching, the emerging research field of the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) gives folklorists an opportunity to redress the neglect of folklore materials and methodologies in public schools. Folklore’s disciplinary objectives dovetail with those of such established fields as history. Folklore methods and materials can enhance teaching goals in high school history classes by highlighting the role that collectors and researchers play in creating printed texts, offering a fresh look at what constitutes a viable source, and encouraging students to bring historical queries to new categories of source material—such as oral legends—not typically found in history textbooks.

Legend scholarship is closely tied to contemporary folklore theory and method. In her recent book, Legend and Belief, Linda Dégh outlines the synthesis of ideas that has emerged in the study of legends since the time of the Grimm brothers through her own earlier work alongside her late husband Andrew Vázsonyi to current studies such as those sponsored by the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research. Even in light of this coverage, however, I feel there is one area of legend or folklore research that has been underdeveloped in the past and is in need of expansion within the discipline: the scholarship of teaching and learning, or SOTL.

More often this phrase is used in the examination of teaching and learning in higher education, rather than in secondary or primary schools. The acronym SOTL, employed by such funding agencies as the Carnegie Foundation, is intended as a ready term for identifying serious research on pedagogy as practiced in college classrooms. And while SOTL encompasses all disciplines, one hallmark of research under this aegis is that each discipline’s characteristic theories and methods are central to the process of research that documents effective pedagogy in that field. In other words, the aim of SOTL is to use research methods acceptable to scholars in a given discipline to study the practice of pedagogy in the field.

Because folklorists are used to creating their own sources through ethnography or documentation, the discipline of folklore is ideally suited to the study of pedagogy, a field that examines practice in representative educational contexts. And to push that ideal a bit further, I would argue that, in the case of teaching that involves folklore materials such as legends, the concept of SOTL should be understood to include secondary education. In this article, I would like to consider the ways in which the scholarship of teaching and learning can combine with legend research, and how a traditional high school discipline such as history might use folk legends to improve students’ understanding of historical methodology.

Folklore Materials in the High School Curriculum

Many colleagues who meet annually in the Folklore and Education section of the American Folklore Society advocate new and exciting ways to include folklore among the materials studied in the secondary and primary schools. Often they find teachers who are eager to use new material and delighted with suggestions about how to include folklore as part of their subjects or classroom reading matter. The discipline of folklore, however, is far from reaching any goal of being included in the public schools as an academic subject in its own right. Nevertheless, I am optimistic that educators might be persuaded to include folklore in a more substantial way through the kind of qualitative research on the scholarship of teaching and learning outlined below. The field of education has long accepted quantitative research on pedagogy, and I believe educators are increasingly open as well to qualitative research that respects their need for persuasive case studies tied to disciplines already well-established in the public schools.

Sharan B. Merriam, in reviewing case study research in education, recognizes the variety of methodologies that require the kind of observation and documentation so essential to folklore studies. “Qualitative research,” she explains, “is an umbrella concept covering several forms of inquiry that help us understand and explain the meaning of social phenomena with as little disruption of the natural setting as possible” (1998, 5). Other terms often used to describe the methods of qualitative research include naturalistic inquiry, interpretive research, field study, participant observation, inductive research, case study, and ethnography. It is easy to see how folklore research could fit smoothly into the methodological framework expected by scholars trained in educational research. Educators are attracted to folklore’s use of ethnography and in-depth documentation. The challenge is in demonstrating how folklore’s disciplinary objectives dovetail with those of such established fields as history and how folklore methods and materials can enhance teaching goals in high school history classes.

Merriam describes a common perspective in the discipline of education that would accommodate folkloristic research. She writes: “All aspects of the [qualitative] study are affected by its theoretical framework. The theoretical framework in relation to the specific research problem to be investigated can be pictured as a set of interlocking frames. The outermost frame—the theoretical framework—is the body of literature, the disciplinary orientation.” She goes on to say that for the researcher who is trying to adapt new materials [folklore] to a new discipline [history], “this framework indicates to the reader the topic you are interested in. It also identifies what is known about the topic (citing appropriate literature), what aspect of the topic you are going to focus on, what is not known (the “gap” in the knowledge base), why it is important to know it, and the precise purpose of the study” (47). If the disciplinary concerns of history are the outermost framework, then a folklorist hoping to introduce folklore materials and methodology into a high school history curriculum needs to answer the questions historians ask and invite students to ask these questions of folklore materials, as well.

One of the first questions will concern sources. Historians are discipline-bound to identify primary and secondary sources and to reject evidence that cannot be corroborated through such sources. Folklorists, on the other hand, are wont to “create their own sources,” as Bente Alver says, and the effort involved in doing so is not often fully appreciated: “The task of creating sources using a qualitative method has in many ways suffered the same fate as housework. There is a lot of talk about it, especially when it doesn’t get done. Everyone thinks it is easy to do, and it is accorded no status except among those who do it and therefore understand what it demands” (1990, 9). If our goal is to bring legends into the study of history, the first task is this mundane one that Alver identifies for us—creating the source. Historians are used to finding sources, not creating them. Folklorists and historians are closest when looking at written texts that would be considered “primary texts” by historians and “folklore in print” by folklorists. Richard Dorson spoke of the value such printed folklore texts could have for historians in American Folklore and the Historian, but Bente Alver moves us back to an appreciation of where the printed texts come from in the first place:
Anyone who does not recognize that a special competence is required for the creating of sources ignores an important factor in the qualitative method: that from the outset, the research process is an integral part of the interviewing, since the interpretation of meaning as well as the connections in meaning goes on continually during questioning. This is not only important to the individual researcher who works in this way, but also to researchers building on sources created by others.” (9)
For the historian, it is important to recognize that texts created through interviewing—oral texts, even when printed—are inherently conveyors of the research processes that produced them, even as they are the raw data of historical study.

If historians—even young historians in high school classrooms—are going to find legends useful in studying history, they will need to understand how the printed texts they study can first be unpacked to disclose the theoretical assumptions that gave them their printed form and scholarly context.

How Students Learn

In his recent expanded report for the National Research Council titled How People Learn, John D. Bransford summarizes three key findings from new studies in the science of learning:
  1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught.

  2. To develop competence in any area of inquiry, students must: a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.

  3. A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them. (Bransford 2000, 14–18)
These three findings, Bransford argues, are well-documented and have important implications for teaching. The first finding—that students come to the classroom with preconceptions—is significant for folklorists in many ways. In a recent issue of the Successful Professor a colleague in the philosophy department at my institution examined student misconceptions about such natural phenomena as the changing of the seasons or the waxing and waning of the moon. While Professor Savion was interested in how students maintain common misconceptions despite years of science classes, I see her research as confirming, at least in many cases, the power of traditional explanations and homegrown beliefs. Her in-class documentation of the misconceptions is a valuable contribution to the scholarship of teaching and learning, and the texts she created are, in effect, the kind of sources Alver suggests warrant our scholarly appreciation. They are contemporary printed documents of folk belief.

But it is the second of the reported research findings above that clearly applies to Linda Dégh’s new book on Legend and Belief. What Dégh has provided for secondary teachers (as well as other researchers) is a compendium of legends within their analytic context—a study in depth, as John Bransford would have it—that combines concrete examples and a useful applied conceptual framework. Dégh’s book provides examples of raw data—the legends—with which students should be familiar as part of their cultural education, along with the analytical framework central to the discipline of folklore. It would serve usefully as a textbook, offering students a foundation of factual knowledge about legends.

It is the third of the findings, however, I would like to focus on here, especially as its principles apply to the use of folklore in the teaching of history in the secondary schools. The third standard calls for the teaching of metacognitive skills: that is, skills that involve reflection on one’s own process of learning. For the typical high school student such skills might have been modeled by teachers but rarely articulated directly as central processes of inquiry that need to underlie an individual’s engagement with the materials of a given discipline. If the goal of educators is to promote the use of metacognitive skills as part of the teaching of history and to design teaching strategies that combine the disciplines of folklore and history, then it will be important to clarify for students how the underlying questions that pull these two fields together arise from an examination of the materials—in this case, legends.

The Ghost in the Bottle

For an example of the way underlying historical questions can be articulated through an examination of legends, let us look at one of the stories in Dégh’s book—a tale about a ghost in a bottle reported in a Swiss tabloid:
In the Aargau village Moosleerau people fear a ghost. For 150 years the spirit of an evil servant has been trapped within a bottle in the old customhouse. Now the customhouse is to be demolished, and the Moosleerau people fear the haunting will return to the village. [Dégh’s translation from German] (Dégh 2001, 178)
Dégh goes on to recount a number of fragments or versions of the legend, some including an exorcism by a monk who forced the ghost back into the bottle when it escaped. The ghost was supposed to be that of a servant who had killed the family he worked for.

The form of the story is fairly consistent through all of the printed versions Dégh collects. It is reported as a legend, a believed narrative, but its means of transmission is a print tabloid. Dégh comments on the role of such tabloids in maintaining varying degrees of belief:
The common believer … is the largest, invisible contingent in the magic market, the preschool for candidates of occult factions. There is no documented information on the degree of belief among the forty million American tabloid readers who routinely pick up a copy at the grocery store checkout counter; and the degree of belief of those who actually respond to magic promotions is immeasurable, probably divided between strong believers, hesitants, and selective and temporary believers. (Dégh 2001, 63)
Because the legends exist in the uncontested realm of privately read print media, there is little direct evidence on the actual level of belief associated with such legends. These examples of legends in print are tantalizing raw data, but they are also sources created and subtly manipulated by the media that carry them and the journalists who collected them.

Folklorists are content with the traditional content, diffuse form, and uneven style of stories such as the spirit in the bottle legend, but what is a history teacher to do with it? How can such a story help teach the metacognitive skills central to the discipline of history? We might first keep in mind what social historian Robert Darnton says about the expectations informed scholars will bring to the study of folklore materials within the discipline of history: “They do not expect to find direct social comment or metaphysical allegories so much as a tone of discourse or a cultural style, which communicates a particular ethos and world view” (Darnton 1984, 15). Darnton, in other words, encourages his readers to ask themselves exactly what about the folk stories can be taken away as evidence: What is the effective evidence these stories provide for the historian? This is the kind of metacognitive question Bransford would have teachers lead history students to ask themselves. It is a question related to fundamental principles of the discipline of history and yet tied to the materials of folklore.

Let us look at six of these metacognitive questions about the discipline of history itself and its methodology—questions students, even at the high school level, should be able to ask themselves if they fully understand how folklore materials are useful in the study of history.
  1. What is effective evidence? What material in the ghost in the bottle story conveys evidence of a particular ethos or worldview, for example? Dégh provides several versions all dutifully reported by the journalists who submitted the story to the tabloid for publication, and yet the journalists were not seeking the kind of evidence an historian would typically require. It is important for a budding historian to know the difference. Evidence within the discipline of history must be well-documented and amenable to corroboration. In this story, for example, it is significant that several legend-tellers report the detail of a religious figure (a monk) being summoned to exorcise the malevolent spirit. The evidence supports an assertion that 150 years ago the community maintained a strong belief in religious ritual, but it does not document the existence of spirits or even verify that a stoppered bottle ever was buried.

  2. How can the specific or concrete inform the general or abstract? Or, as Richard M. Dorson asks in his book American Folklore and the Historian, how can specific traditions, specific legends, inform our understanding of “the great dramatic movements of [American] history?” (Dorson 1971, 28). Can we generalize about ghosts or exorcisms on the basis of this one legend? If we have multiple legends for comparison, can we then use the specific details of this legend to understand how the historical context of the event and its telling inform our sense of history?

  3. What is the difference between coincidence and cause? In Dégh’s report, one informant argues that “there was no sight of the spirit until a teacher and his family” moved into the customhouse (178). Some say the teacher’s son found the bottle with the spirit in it and threw it out the window thus bringing on the hauntings, although others note that ghostly signs were around before then. For a social historian, the more telling coincidence might simply be that people had been watching the old house crumble without comment until the wrecking crew came upon the scene to tear it down. Then the belief about the ghost resurfaced.

  4. What about cultural presentism? That is, in what way do legends such as this offer an interpretation of a culture based on current concerns and perspectives, rather than on those of the past? (See, for example, the discussion of family stories and presentism in Dolby 1989.) Why is it “mainly the older generation” of villagers that believes the ghost will start acting up again if the building is destroyed? Who has offered us this observation? What do those who report the legend want people to believe about the present attitude toward ghosts, exorcisms, and the preservation of old houses?

  5. What does “cultural lag” tell us about social history? “Cultural lag” is the term anthropologist Ruth Benedict has used to identify anachronistic allusions in narratives. Historians seek to determine when stories contain references to ideas, practices, or beliefs that are no longer an active part of the culture that tells the stories. Would the villagers still call for an exorcism of the ghost? Would a mason be called to wall in the bottle that supposedly held a ghost? Do people today believe that a ghost or spirit could be confined in a bottle?

  6. In what ways are legends historical? Do they, as Darnton says of the peasants’ tales in his book, reflect a cruel social order? Do modern legends instead reflect, as Dégh suggests, a “culture of fear”? And is this culture of fear a dimension of the historical context? In other words, what is ”historical” in any narrative, and what is simply not amenable to historical analysis?
According to Bransford, students need to be able to monitor their own progress as they try to reach learning goals they have set for themselves. The challenge of asking all of the pertinent questions required by a simple legend text would move students toward this level of metacognitive learning. Legends are ideal as sources in this kind of historical learning because they raise questions about the students’ own beliefs, as the students learn to assess what others have believed about the stories.

Critical Thinking, Personal Belief, and the Legend of Silver Creek

Linda Dégh argues in Legend and Belief that “a legend is a legend once it entertains debate about belief” (97). For folklorists, the question of genre—when is a legend a legend?—is essential to research in the discipline. But research on legends should increasingly come to include research on how the legend genre serves the needs of other disciplines and how it raises questions of belief and analytical methodology in whatever context it appears.

I would like to close by returning to the question of how research on teaching legends can inform the typical theoretical concerns of legend research, as well as the methodological requirements of teaching history to high school students. Let me illustrate with a legend that was not in Linda Dégh’s book. This is a legend from my hometown of Huntington, Indiana. The most complete version of the legend I have encountered is told by my brother-in-law, Sam Shenefield, but many people know it. It might be considered a place-name legend, but it is also a treasure legend, an “Indian” legend, and more simply a local legend sparked by an old chimney. The aforementioned chimney is all that remains of the old Indian trading post that stood along the Wabash River, near what is now the intersection of highways 9 and 24 just west of Huntington. The Miami Indians had settled there because, legend says, tornados would not touch down at the forks of the Wabash. In the early 1800s, the owner of the trading post usually exchanged furs and other goods for merchandise, but he had recently taken in a bag full of silver dollars issued by the government. An Indian robbed the store and took the bag of silver coins, along with other goods and provisions. He saw no use for the coins and threw them into the nearby creek. That’s why the creek is called Silver Creek, and they say you can still sometimes find silver dollars in the creek bed.

How are legends such as this historical? What is effective evidence for historical purposes? How can such legends inform social history? What could a history teacher do with such a fragment of legend? And, most importantly for our purposes, how could high school students be prompted to ask of this legend the kind of questions that would demonstrate their understanding of the discipline of history? Can we make folklore a viable part of the high school curriculum by bringing it into the strategies of teaching and learning tied to the well-established field of history? Can folklorists document the role of legend and belief in student learning about history and its methodology? I believe such scholarship on teaching and learning is a strong future direction for legend research.

Paramount in bringing such pedagogical concerns into legend scholarship will be developing an appreciation for the tasks teachers face in teaching their disciplines and the metacognitive maturity required of students. Carnegie national teaching award winner Craig Nelson says, “The teacher’s basic task is to delineate the values inherent in the practice and application of our fields, the limits of our fields, and the consequences that follow from applying them” (Nelson 1999, 175). Students’ task is to recognize and question their own participation in the intellectual context that supports these values, limitations, and consequences. For young history students, the legend of Silver Creek should spark questions not simply of “fact,” but also of the value history can attribute to the story, the limitations of the historical corroborative process, and the consequences of accepting such a legend as a part of history—both for themselves and for their discipline. Because the legend is tied to history and to belief, scholarship on the legend must expand to include research on the legend’s role in teaching history. Students who recognize that their own beliefs are called into play as they assess the importance and meaning of a legend will also recognize the role belief plays in the discipline of history. It is our responsibility as folklorists to study this metacognitive, even metadisciplinary, aspect of legends and to include our findings in the growing body of legend research.

Further Reading

Dégh’s book is a comprehensive introduction to international legend scholarship, but there are several additional books that will be especially helpful to American history teachers. Dorson’s American Folklore and the Historian is good background reading connecting folklore and American history. A fine general survey of American folklore is Jan Harold Brunvand’s Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, 4th ed. (New York: Norton, 1998). Ronald L. Baker’s Hoosier Folk Legends (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982) is an excellent regional legend study, with a helpful introduction and effective examples. Brunvand’s 1981 book The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings (New York: Norton) is the first in a series of books specifically addressing the modern legend, and Brunvand’s more recent Encyclopedia of Urban Legends ( New York: Norton, 2001) is a useful finding tool. An authoritative web site for tracking current urban legends is www.snopes.com.


Sandra K. Dolby is a professor of folklore and American studies at Indiana University. Her books include Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005) and Literary Folkloristics and the Personal Narrative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

Folklorists are content with the traditional content, diffuse form, and uneven style of stories such as the spirit in the bottle legend, but what is a history teacher to do with it? How can such a story help teach the metacognitive skills central to the discipline of history?


Alver, Bente Gullveig. 1990. Creating the Source through Folkloristic Fieldwork. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica.

Benedict, Ruth. 1935. Zuni Mythology. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bransford, John D. 2000. How People Learn. Expanded ed. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Darnton, Robert. 1984. The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. New York: Basic Books.

Dégh, Linda. 1994. American Folklore and the Mass Media. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dégh, Linda. 2001. Legend and Belief. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dolby, Sandra K. (Stahl). 1977. The Oral Personal Narrative in Its Generic Context. Fabula 18:18–39.

Dolby, Sandra K. (Stahl). 1989. Family Settlement Stories and Personal Values. In The Old Traditional Way of Life, 362–366. Ed. Robert Walls and George Schoemaker. Bloomington, IN: Trickster Press.

Dorson, Richard M. 1971. American Folklore and the Historian. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Merriam, Sharan B. 1998. Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nelson, Craig. 1999. On the Persistence of Unicorns: The Trade-Off between Content and Critical Thinking Revisited. In The Social Worlds of Higher Education: Handbook for Teaching in a New Century, 168–84. Ed. B. A. Pescosolido and R. Minzade. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Savion, Leah. 2002. Walls of Misconceptions: What Every Student Brings to Class. Successful Professor (August):4–6.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Spring-Summer 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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