An International Proverbs Project

Using Telecommunications to Investigate Folklore

The following describes a project by teachers involved in Orillas, an international learning network whose name is short for the Spanish phrase De Orilla a Orilla (From Shore to Shore). Teachers in Orillas usually participate in one of three types of activities: the exchange of cultural packages, using the mail; partner-class projects involving mutually coordinated investigations and usually resulting in a joint product; group projects involving many teachers and their classes, and usually resulting in an Orillas-wide publication. The group projects are usually based on a theme with global interest, such as the environment, human rights, or the loss of oral traditions. They are particularly suited for themes that benefit from multiple perspectives on a single issue or in which collective effort can create impressive bodies of information that students can analyze.

In 1989, Orillas announced a group project whose goal was to collect and analyze proverbs. It is important to note that the categories proposed were simply suggestions, based on the previous experiences of successful team teaching partnerships. In all Orillas projects, teachers are invited to design and shape the activities according to their local needs. Here we provide a close-up of one particular class in Puerto Rico and then describe different ways in which other teachers have adapted the project to their own curriculum.

La Escuela Abelardo Diaz Morales, named after a distinguished Puerto Rican educator, is an elementary school in Caguas, Puerto Rico. Its students are proud of their computer lab; the walls of which never fail to catch the eye of the visitor. On these bulletin board walls are photographs of students and their teachers, flags of Mexico and California, illustrated maps, richly colored student artwork, a collection of Yaqui legends from the Southwest, and several issues of the student-produced newspaper, Cemi. The bulletin boards trace the history of this school’s participation in Project Orillas.

Each year since 1986, the computer writing teacher, Rosa Hernandez, has engaged in a long-distance team-teaching exchange with a teacher in another part of the world, using a classroom computer, a modem, and a computer network. Networking also has made it possible for Ms. Hernandez and her students to stay in touch with the wider group of Orillas teachers and to participate in a variety of Orillas group projects, including a survey of endangered species, an international human rights project, and several inter-generational folklore investigations, such as the Proverbs Project, originally presented to Orillas teachers in the following project announcement.


“from Kristin Brown, Dennis Sayers, and Enid Figueroa, Orillas Co-Directors

“Orillas is sponsoring a multilingual proverbs contest. We invite your students to participate in one or more of the following categories:

  • BEST DRAWING illustrating one of the following proverbs: ‘‘Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones” or “It takes all kinds to make the world go around”.
  • BEST ORIGINAL FABLE Students pick a proverb, write an original story illustrating that proverb, then give the proverb at the end of the story as the “punch line.”
  • GREATEST NUMBER OF “ANIMAL” PROVERBS SUBMITTED BY A SINGLE CLASS Example, “A barking dog never bites.” Helpful hint: Ask the parents and relatives of your students to help out!
  • GREATEST NUMBER OF CONTRADICTORY PROVERBS SUBMITTED BY A SINGLE CLASS Example, “There’s no place like home” contradicts “The grass is greener on the other side of the fence.”
  • BEST ORIGINAL ESSAY ON “WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PROVERB” Pick a proverb you don’t agree with and write an essay explaining what is wrong with the views it projects. Not all proverbs are wise; some of them say terrible things about others. For example, the sexist proverb “A woman’s place is in the home” suggests that women should only do housework. Other proverbs are racist, ageist, or ridicule people with handicaps.

“The contest is open to students of all grades and speakers of all languages. By identifying proverbs whose social, moral or political views are obsolete, by searching for modern examples to illustrate noble or wise proverbs, and by exploring under what circumstances seemingly contradictory proverbs are true, we can all help define the “collective wisdom” of the 20th century, and beyond.

“At the end of the semester each participating class will receive a booklet containing selected student essays, photocopies of the drawings, and a list of all the proverbs collected.”

Over the next few weeks, Ms. Hernandez’s class, like many others throughout the Orillas network, gathered proverbs, focusing especially on those containing animals. The list grew as students collected proverbs from parents, older brothers and sisters, grandparents living at home, neighbors, and other nearby relatives. During the school’s spring break, the week of Semana Santa (the Holy Week preceding Easter), when families travel to other parts of the island to visit friends and relatives, the list grew most dramatically. Just before the vacation, Ms. Hernandez printed out for each student a copy of the animal proverbs collected up to that point. When the students returned to school the following week, their lists were well worn and much longer. “Nearly a hundred animal proverbs!” they exclaimed when they had finished adding the new proverbs to the old.

The class discovered that the task of categorizing the proverbs they gathered by theme was not as easy as it first appeared. The students debated the meanings of the proverbs and eliminated duplicates while making note of the frequency of use of each proverb. They identified different versions and regional variations, and compared notes with their classmates about the contexts in which their parents and grandparents actually used the proverbs. As they continued to gather and analyze proverbs, they stayed in touch with other classes on the network.

In other classes, teachers and students had integrated the project into their own curriculum in a variety of ways. In Watsonville, California, for example, the proverbs project was used to build parent involvement in the school’s bilingual program. A migrant farmer parent at Watsonville and his kindergarten child wrote the following critique of a proverb:

Vale más un pájaro en mano que ver cien volando.

No estamos de acuerdo con este refrán porque las personas no nos debemos conformar con lo que tenemos sino luchar y esforzarnos para vivir major cada día.

— Por los padres de Angélica Pérez

 [A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

We don’t agree with this proverb because people shouldn’t be satisfied with what we have but instead should struggle and make an effort to make each day better.

– by the parents of Angelica Perez Garcia, Kindergarten, Watsonville, California]

In a bilingual fifth/sixth-grade class in Connecticut, students worked on a unit on fables, first reading fables in Spanish and English written by Samaniego, Aesop, and La Fontaine, then writing their own fables that illustrated some proverbs the class in Puerto Rico had collected. In this class, students chose proverbs that reflected their own experiences. Here is one story/fable they wrote illustrating a proverb and tying it to academic learning:

El mismo perro pero con diferente collar

Había una vez una maestra llamada Ms. Caraballo. Le estaba enseñando a sus estudiantes de tercer grado como multiplicar. Ella les enseñaba todo lo necesario a sus alumnos.

“Bueno estudiantes,” dijo la Sra. Caraballo. “¿Cuánto es 2 X 3?” Solo una estudiante levantó su mano y dijo, “Seis.” Todos los estudiantes entendieron eso, menos Pedro.

“Maestra,” dijo Pedro, ‘Yo no sé como hacer eso.”

“Bueno Pedro,” dijo Ms. Caraballo amablemente. “Esto es como si tu dijeras 3 + 3, pero en otra forma. Como si dijera 3 + 3 + 3 que es lo mismo que 3 X 3, que es igual que 9, pero en otra forma.”

“Ahora ya entiendo,” dijo Pedro. “Es como mi abuelo me dijo del refrán -‘el mismo perro pero con diferente collar.’”

 [The Same Dog but with a Different Collar

Once there was a teacher named Ms. Caraballo. She was teaching her thirdgrade students to multiply. She taught her students everything they needed to know.

“Okay, students,” said Ms. Caraballo. “How much is 2 X 3?” Only one student raised her hand and said “six.” All the students understood this, except Pedro. “Teacher,” said Pedro. “I don’t know how to do that.”

“Well, Pedro,” said Ms. Caraballo in a friendly way, “it is like saying 3 + 3 but in a different form. Just as 3 + 3 + 3, 3 X 3, and 9 are all different ways of saying the same thing.”

“Now I understand,” said Pedro, “it’s just like the proverb my grandfather taught me —‘The same dog but with a different collar.’”]

At another school, a sixth-grade class asked students at other grade levels to illustrate familiar proverbs. They then classified the drawings in terms of whether each illustration was based on a literal or figurative interpretation of the proverb. The teacher was excited to note that for the first time in all her years of trying to get her upper-elementary level students to understand the textbook terms “literal and figurative speech,” her students had announced in class, “Now we understand, Sra. Druet, it’s like the way you can be talking about the horse’s mouth and really it has nothing to do with a horse.”

In other classes, this folklore project evolved into a lesson on sophisticated editorial writing. Proverbs are controversial by nature. They cannot be separated from the inequities of power relationships within the social fabric from which they have developed and in which they inextricably exist. In several classes, students wrote about proverbs they could not agree with. In the following examples, students from New York draw on their own experiences as they critique proverbs that they feel are unfair. The least favorite proverb among students in the United States was “A woman’s place is in the home.” A New York student explains:

El lugar de la mujer es en el hogar Yo, Martha Prudente, no estoy de acuerdo en que la mujer esté en el hogar. Eso era el pensamiento de los tiempos antiguos. Asi era como mis padres pensaban pero yo no, porque soy rebelde. Si yo voy a tener un hogar pero si quiero trabajar, voy a trabajar. Y pienso ser enfermera antes de casarme y después yo sigo trabajando en mi carrera.

[A woman’s place is in the home.

I, Martha Prudente, do not agree that a woman’s place is in the home. This kind of thinking is old-fashioned. This is how my parents thought, but not me because I am a rebel. Yes, I will have a home, but if I want to work I will work. I hope to be a nurse before I get married and afterwards continue working in my career.]

Cervantes once referred to proverbs as “short sentences drawn from long experience.” The International Orillas Proverbs Project just described stems from a long-standing and continuing interest on the part of Orillas teachers in exploring folklore in networked classrooms. The teachers involved in the project concluded that proverbs provide an excellent vehicle for students to share cultural and linguistic knowledge for the following:

  • Proverbs are universal.
  • The families of students are involved, encouraging oral histories.
  • Children from families who have immigrated to North America and elsewhere can build links to their (in some cases, disappearing) culture, and learn to take pride in their rich proverbial heritage.
  • Analyzing proverbs encourages discussion, critical thinking, and a deromanticized appreciation of culture.
  • Students studying Spanish as a foreign language gain from the cultural knowledge embodied in proverbs.
  • Young students can participate as the amount of text to be shared is small and easily entered in the computer.
  • Proverbs can encourage much longer writings, such as opinion statements or modern fables.
  • A database can be used to categorize proverbs by themes in order to facilitate cross-cultural comparisons.
  • Collecting proverbs is a provocative yet discrete task resulting in a rich, concrete product.

In this project, telecommunications made it possible for bilingual students from diverse regions to collaborate rapidly in a wide-ranging investigation of proverbs. Moreover, the students created materials that classroom teachers everywhere were able to use to stimulate reading and writing skills, often across two languages. Folklore collections of all kinds can be instrumental in building bridges between schools and families and within the wider community of speakers of a particular language — both among the diaspora of local immigrant communities, and their cultures of origin around the world. Yet they also can bring cross-cultural awareness and language skills to students who otherwise would never have access to people from distant lands and other world views. Once again, students from every background stand to benefit from participation in global learning networks.

The above is excerpted from Brave New World, by Jim Cummins and Dennis Sayers. Reprinted with permission.

The chapter is based on Kristin Brown’s “Balancing the Tools of Technology with Our Own Humanity: Team-Teaching Partnerships Between Distant Classes” in Tinajero, J. and Ada, A. (Ed.), The Power of Two Languages, NY: Macmillan.