People and Cultures: Preparing Junior Ethnographers

exploringpeopleandculturesStudents spend a LOT of time in school answering questions. Yet one of the most important ways we can help them develop creative (and critical) thinking is to help them ask questions–not just questions about their textbook content, but real questions about the world around them. And then, of course, they need the tools to answer them. One of the keys to managing that successfully is to help students learn the research and questioning techniques of the disciplines we teach.

If you teach about cultures–or if you just want to help students learn to be more careful listeners and observers– Sweeney and Walker’s (2012) Exploring People and Cultures can be a valuable resource.  The book is focused on a topic that’s a bit unusual for the intended audiences of grades 5-8: learning the techniques of ethnographic research. Unless you are an anthropologist or have graduate training in qualitative research, you might be scratching your head about now. Why would young students want to learn enthnographic research? Enthnographic research has its roots in anthropology. It uses careful observation to understand a culture in depth, whether that be in on a far-flung Pacific island or the culture of the school’s chess club. Exploring People and Cultures teaches students about basic research techniques like sampling, observing, interviewing, surveying, and data analysis, as well as the patterns that define a culture, such as artifacts, heroes, beliefs and assumptions, rules, rituals, stories and so forth. It includes activities for analyzing subcultures in the  school and community–or one of my favorites as holiday time approaches, studying patterns in the ways different families express affection.

Exploring People and Cultures has many strengths as a resource for teaching research, but its greatest value may be in helping students understand that all of us exist within cultures–not just the inhabitants of far off places. Our cultures shape what feels “normal” to us and yet may feel quite different to others. Beginning to examine the varied micro-cultures in their neighborhoods, homes, and schools can help students better understand differing points of view–and what better skill for creative thinking, or peaceful living, could we want?

In this season of gratitude, may we find joy in the many cultures around us, and help our students do it, too.


Sweeney, M. E.,  & Walker, B. (2012). Exploring people and cultures: Help kids learn about culture through challenging research activities. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

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