Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Folklore in Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God"


The Lesson


Photograph of Zora Neale Hurston.

Photograph of Zora Neale Hurston. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten collection.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory Collection.

In the years since Alice Walker's famous "rediscovery" of Zora Neale Hurston, Hurston's work has received new and richly deserved attention from high school English teachers. Hurston's work is lively, lyrical, funny, and poignant, but this consummate literary craftsperson was also a first-rate ethnographer, conducting fieldwork for Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, and for the Works Progress Administration.

It is not surprising, then, that Hurston's fictional output sings (sometimes literally!) with the sounds, songs, and stories of the Southern black folk tradition. Their Eyes Were Watching God, often acclaimed as Hurston's masterpiece, makes perhaps the richest use of her work as a folklorist: its evocation of picking in the jook joint, playing the dozens, and petitioning root doctors offers a compelling synthesis of ethnological detail, lively characterization and vivid setting.

In tribute to Hurston's fusion of social science and authorial craft, this lesson plan focuses on the way Hurston incorporates, adapts, transforms, and comments on black folklife in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Students will read the novel, explore Hurston's own life history and collection methods, listen to her WPA recordings of folksongs and folktales, and compare transcribed folk narrative texts with the plot and themes of Their Eyes. Along the way, the history of black autonomy in the post-Civil War South (especially the town of Eatonville, where Hurston grew up and where much of the novel is set) serves as a potent reminder of the vital relationships among place, tradition, history, and story. In short, the idea of this lesson is to understand, both as formal analysts of voice and style and as historians of literature, the crucial role of oral folklore in Hurston's written canon.

Guiding Questions

  • What is the relationship between formal, individual literary creativity and the informal, traditional aesthetic standards of the writer's own community?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to do the following:

  • Define folklore, folk groups, tradition, and oral narrative
  • Identify traditional elements in Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Analyze and understand the role of traditional folkways and folk speech in the overall literary impact of the novel
  • Compare Zora Neale Hurston's work as a collector of folk narrative with her better-known status as a novelist
  • Understand as both listeners and tellers the importance of voice, pacing, and other features of performance in oral narrative
  • Transcribe orally given narrative into eye dialect

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson and bookmark all material to be downloaded or copied. For several of the activities described below, you will need the handout Folklore: Some Useful Terminology, available here as a downloadable PDF. For two of the exercises, you will need to download the worksheet Folklore in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
  • In preparation for Activity 2, you may wish to review and download selections from Hurston transcriptions of folktales: available from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia is the etext of her seminal collection of black Southern folklore, the anthology Mules and Men.
  • Available from the EDSITEment resource Documenting the American South are two useful survey essays that situate Hurston's work in the twin contexts of Southern literature and folklore: "Literature in the American South" and "Folklore in Literature" (for the second webpage, go to "Literature in the American South," and find "folklore" on the left sidebar). Both essays are lucid and introductory enough to share with students who may not have a formal education in either field.
  • For biographical material on Zora Neale Hurston, including a chronology of her collecting and publishing enterprises, see the page of resources on Their Eyes Were Watching God from the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library. (Do note, however, that the IPL accepts as authoritative the birth year of 1901, which is the year Hurston, in her later years, would usually claim she was born; most scholars, however, accept 1891 as the more probably authentic date. As with much else about Hurston's life and work, separating the factual from the imaginative can be tricky!)

    Also available through the resources of the Internet Public Library are the archives of the New York Times, where you can find a fascinating article discussing Hurston's collecting endeavors: "A Well Untapped: Black Folktales of the Old South." 

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Folklore and Traditional Life in Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Begin by sharing Folklore: Some Useful Terminology with students. While assigning students to read a lengthy term sheet straight through is probably both punitive and counterproductive, teachers should make sure to cover the terms culture, tradition, narrative, orality and performance (listed in that order under "The Basics"); the sections on "Folklore and Its Component Terms" and "What Isn't Folklore?" in their entirety; and the genres of folktale, Märchen, legend, and ballad from the section entitled "A Few Folk Narrative Genres." A good approach with many of these terms, especially culture, tradition, and narrative, is to have students define them first—on the board, in writing, or in conversation with the teacher and with other students—before showing them the more formal definitions. The likelihood that students' own informal definitions are largely correct is empowering and a good place to start stressing the idea that everyone belongs to multiple folk groups and everyone possesses lore.
  • When students have a solid understanding of the meanings of these terms, ask them to work together in small groups to identify their own membership in folk groups. Remind them that, broadly defined, a folk group is any two or more people who share at least one common factor. Students will likely find they belong to a diverse array of folk groups constituted along lines of gender, class, family, age, and interests. Then ask each small group to identify as specifically as possible a folk group to which all the members belong (bonus points for wit if they identify the small group to which you just assigned them). Once they've chosen such a group, ask them to list as many of the traditions that unite that folk group as they can, and then have them categorize their shared lore by genre—is it folk speech, folk narrative, folk belief, folk costume, calendar customs, etc.?
  • After students have a firm idea of how the basic concepts of folklore studies relate to their own lives, assign them the following task: review as much of Their Eyes Were Watching God as they've already read, looking for both as many distinct folk groups as they can find and for the traditions that bind those folk groups together. To which genres of folklore do those traditional practices belong? This assignment would work well as homework, allowing students an opportunity to consider parts of the novel they've already read from a different critical perspective. You could also require that students present their findings in a more formal way—a handout of some kind, a multimedia display, or simply an oral presentation. Teachers with large groups of students or limited time may find it most useful to break the novel up into sections, assigning different students or groups of students responsibility for different chapters; alternately, having students consider the same chapters allows them to cross-check each other and compare their findings and interpretations. Do what works best for your schedule, class size, and classroom dynamic.
  • Once students have shared their findings, it's time to expose them to Zora Neale Hurston, folklorist and anthropologist. Referring to the biographical resources listed above from Internet Public Library, tell them that Hurston was also a well-traveled, successful, and admired collector of black Southern folklore. Students should read Hurston's "Proposed Recording Expedition in to the Floridas," archived in Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, available via the Library of Congress. 
  • Students can then compare Hurston's description of Floridian blacks' folklife to that found in the novel. Is her depiction in the novel anything like the real-world folk traditions she describes? How many of the ethnic and cultural groups listed does Hurston incorporate into her novel, and how thoroughly does she present their traditional life? Using the websites above, along with the first section of the worksheet, Folklore in Their Eyes Were Watching God, document your findings and the answers to these questions. Teachers—especially those interested in encouraging creative writers—can remind their students that most great writers write what they know, drawing on their experiences and on first-hand research to create more compelling and lively fiction.
Activity 2. Folk Song and Folk Narrative: Orality, Performance, and Transcription
  • In order to complete this module of the unit, students and teachers will need access to a computer that has audio download and playback capacities. If such equipment is lacking, the teacher might consider substituting another audio or video tape recording of a storyteller performing African-American folktales. Rex Ellis's The Ups and Downs of Being Brown (audiobook from August House Publishers) is one such collection that would work with this lesson; although the stories will not mesh as well with Their Eyes as will the actual stories Hurston herself collected, they do present a picture of the African American narrative tradition.
  • If the proper computer audio technology is available, teachers should direct students to Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, available via the Library of Congress. From here, click on "Search" and type in "Hurston" when the option to "Search Descriptive Information" comes up. Twenty-six documents should return, most of them audio files of ballads and other folk songs Hurston collected (and in many cases performs) throughout the rural black communities of Florida. Before having students embark on transcription on their own, the teacher can model a simple transcription exercise, working with the entire class as a group to show how transcription is done. "Let the Deal Go Down" would be a good choice for this exercise, owing to its relative brevity and simplicity.
  • Once they feel comfortable with the rudiments of transcribing from oral performance, encourage students to browse through the other tracks if time and resources allow; it is best for them to feel ownership of a particular song and to choose that song for themselves. (Teachers should be aware that these songs make reference to drinking, gambling, and sex; some, such as "Uncle Bud," are particularly ribald. If a class is reading Their Eyes, however, then there should be very little content in the songs that isn't also in the novel.) Eventually, working alone or in groups, students should select a song to work with. Teachers can direct more or less capable and confident students to longer or shorter tracks, as transcription is more difficult the longer a track gets.
  • Allow students to listen to their chosen track multiple times, at first just paying attention to the words and the music but on successive listenings zeroing in on more performative features—tone, pacing, dynamics, and the like. Teachers should define any of these terms that are unclear, making sure that students are clear on their meanings. Eventually, students should listen while taking notes, either using a word-processing program or a pen and notebook. Students may need to replay bits and pieces of their tracks repeatedly: that's fine, as some portions of the tracks may be more easily intelligible than others. (It may be easiest if students have access to headphones so they don't distract others or get distracted themselves. If feasible, a language lab would be an ideal environment for such an exercise.) If only one or a very few computers are available, the teacher can limit the exercise to group transcription of one song together—the important thing is to get students focused on the relationship between oral performance and written text.
  • Next, students will transcribe their choice from among Hurston's songs using the audio recordings on the WPA site above. They should try their best to faithfully recreate its performative dimension on the printed page, just as Hurston does in many of her works. Students have by now doubtless noticed that Their Eyes Were Watching God is written in eye dialect (for a definition of eye dialect, see page 3 of Folklore: Some Useful Terminology); for another definitive example of eye dialect, try Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (link from the EDSITEment-reviewed Center for the Liberal Arts at the University of Virginia). If students have not already read aloud from Their Eyes (or from Huck), now is a great time to actually have them read the words not as they would sound translated into so-called standard English, but as the spelling and arrangement of those words literally suggest. Discuss the various tactics authors use to recreate the sounds of various dialects and speech features when writing. Students may have already transcribed their chosen songs into "standard" English, but they should also attempt to transcribe them into appropriate eye dialect—either have them revise a "standard" English transcription or, if time is short, transcribe directly into eye dialect.
  • Once students have finished their transcriptions, have them trade transcriptions with other students or transcribing groups, and try to read one another's transcriptions aloud. Which transcriptions are most phonetically accurate? Which are closest to "standard" written English? Where did two students or groups of students make different choices in transcribing the same oral text? Ultimately, students should see that transcription approaches and eye dialect are judgment calls on the part of folklorists and authors, who must balance readability with local color/accuracy. Having a student read the eye dialect transcription of a song she hasn't heard and then playing the song to see how close the two pronunciations and readings is a great way of getting students to think about the relationship between oral and written language and literature.
  • Next, share with students some of Hurston's own transcriptions: her seminal collection of black Southern folklore, the anthology Mules and Men, available as an e-text from American Studies at the University of Virginia. Mules and Men contains Hurston's transcriptions of some of the folksongs archived at the Florida WPA site, including "Mule on de Mount" and "Let the Deal Go Down," so if students chose either of those songs, a comparison may be illustrative. Remind students that Hurston's patrons and audience were largely composed of white Northern scholars and writers—do they think she watered down (or, conversely, exaggerated) any features of dialect for her audience's sake? If so, did she make the right choice? Are the same factors at work in Their Eyes Were Watching God? Who, in students' opinions, was the target audience for the novel?
Activity 3. Hurston and Storytelling
  • Having crafted written transcriptions of texts first encountered in oral form, students may enjoy converting one of Hurston's already-transcribed texts into a live performance. An excellent choice from American Studies is the etiological folktale "Why Women Always Take Advantage of Men" which not only contains some excellent examples of pacing, dialect, and tone, but comments on gender relations in a manner very germane to Their Eyes. Students may wish to act out the story in groups like a play, or they may want to practice creating different voices, postures, and gestures for each of the characters in the story (God, the Devil, Man, and Woman). In any case, make sure to instruct the audience (i.e., the rest of the class) to pay close attention and be ready to ask the storyteller or actors about the decisions he/they made when performing the story. Which characters, scenes, and lines were most effective from the audience's point of view? How did the performance choices made contribute to the theme or message of the folktale?
  • If time permits, the teacher can break the class into groups, assigning each group a folktale, which they are to perform as a group to the rest of the class, and which only the teacher and they have seen in advance. Afterward, have the audience (everyone except the performing group) write, from memory, a transcription of a few lines from the story highlighting the most important performance features they noticed when the group acted out the story. Remind students that Hurston didn't always have a tape recorder when she was collecting, and that she often relied on both her memory and her ear for features of dialect and performance! (Other appropriate folktales for this exercise include "How the Negroes Got Their Freedom," "Why They Always Use Rawhide on a Mule," and "How a Loving Couple Was Parted").
  • Have students pull out their completed worksheets (see Activity 1) and then return the discussion to the text of Their Eyes Were Watching God: Which scenes and characters in the novel do students feel are most like those found in the folktales they've looked at? Have them complete (perhaps as homework, or in groups) the second part of the worksheet, labeled "Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Folktale." To what extent do the most folktale-like parts of the novel overlap with those portions that most vividly and accurately reflect folklife and culture as identified by students on the first part of the worksheet? Remind students that good storytelling relates details of plot, character, and setting in both vivid and familiar terms; this principle holds for novelists as well as spinners of oral tales.
  • At the very end of the novel, Janie tells Pheoby, "… Talkin' don't amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh can't do nothin' else …. It's a known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo' papa and yo' mama and nobody else can't tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody's got tuh do for theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves." And yet, some of Janie's most powerful moments in the novel come when she tells stories or uses language in some way—her defense in court of the true circumstances of Tea Cake's death, for instance, or her telling Joe off on his deathbed. Is Janie right? Is talking no substitute for experience? Can talking count as experience? When and when not? These questions are a good way to draw to a close a consideration of the role of orality and storytelling in the novel—not just compositionally, but thematically. In what other novels do characters tell stories in ways that affect others or express the novel's themes?

Extending The Lesson

  • As a capstone to the unit, have students craft their own short stories in which they draw on their own folk traditions and folk group affiliations to create believable characters, social relationships, conflicts, and dialogue. Refer them to Chapters Five and Six of Their Eyes Were Watching God, which contain some of Hurston's liveliest evocations of folklife, for use as models. Drawing on the folk groups they identified and explored in Activity 1, and the transcription activities from Activity 2, challenge them to create short stories in which eye dialect, traditional narratives such as jokes or family stories, and other aspects of oral tradition figure prominently. Students may find it helpful to do some "ethnographic spying," interviewing or listening to their friends with tape recorder and/or notebook in hand to record credible and accurate details of folk speech.
  • Follow up with a reading aloud of students' stories (it would be wonderful also give hard copies of each story to all the students so they could again compare the authors' oral performances and the printed texts of each story) and with a discussion of how their stories are similar to or different from Hurston's narrative in Their Eyes Were Watching God. How easy or hard was it to portray their own folklife in writing? How well do they think they did? How important is it to get these details right? Where else in their reading have they seen authors incorporate aspects of traditional life into their fiction?
  • Another way to extend the lesson, as suggested above, is simply to bring students' attention as much as possible to the presence of folklore in other works of literature. For example, in an American literature survey course, students might enjoy exploring the role of folklore in the following canonical novels: Puritan folk beliefs concerning witches and the devil in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter; slang and customs present in the party scenes of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (even the rich possess folklore, remember!); and tracing the many, many depictions of superstition, folk magic, and folk speech in Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  • Another possible approach is to delve more deeply into Hurston's work, investigating the way she weaves folk tradition and literary creativity together not just in Mules and Men, but in Jonah's Gourd Vine, Moses, Man of the Mountain, and Dust Tracks on a Road. What sorts of parallels exist between those works' utilization of folklore and the folklife that forms the heart of Their Eyes Were Watching God?

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

7-8 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Folklore
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
  • Auditory analysis
  • Compare and contrast
  • Creative writing
  • Critical thinking
  • Expository writing
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Oral analysis
  • Oral presentation skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • John Deal (AL)


Activity Worksheets