Skip to main content
Camel sitting in sand against night sky.
Main content

Teach and learn culture with help from the Smithsonian

Smithsonian castle in Washington, D.C. with yellow flowers in the foreground
Getty Images

It can be difficult to know where to start to teach about another country’s culture. For some countries, the breadth of knowledge and resources can be so overwhelming that you aren’t sure what to choose first. For others, the scarcity of materials can make it feel like an impossible task. Luckily, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage offer a vast array of resources for educators, students, and the curious. You can access lesson plans online, as well as their music library and video archives. Here, we’ll highlight some of the places you can go to on their website to help make your own classroom, or independent educational endeavors, more interactive and in-depth.

The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage has a list of cultural education resources for educators to aid them in teaching students about cultural traditions around the world. Check out the Guide to Learning About Folklife, archives of their Talk Story newsletter, and online exhibitions on Hungary, Vietnam, and many more.

The Center, along with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, also puts on the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which every year around July 4th celebrates a number of cultures for two weeks on the National Mall. Next year, the Festival will “highlight cultural heritage enterprises in Africa, Armenia, and Catalonia through fashion, feasts, and other festivities. Expect to experience human towers with the Catalans, Armenian craft and cooking demonstrations, traditional-meets-contemporary styles from around the African continent, and much more.” If you are unable to venture to D.C. for the festival, you can browse the website’s blog and video archives to experience past festivals virtually.

Smithsonian Folkways offers lesson plans that can give educators ideas for teaching students about both music and the culture the music originates from. Plans include Folk Music of Turkey, Thailand: Songs for Life, and Journey North to Norway.

You can also browse hundreds of recordings and albums from around the world, and listen to them on the website or on Spotify. Below are a few you could start with:

  • Music of Brazil: “This playlist features styles from Brazil’s five regions, including a hit bossa novasong from an award winning film, Brazilian protest music, numerous sambas, field recordings from Amazonia, and workers singing while digging for gemstones. "Brincando na Roda" exemplifies music for Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art developed by enslaved peoples in the Northeast; listen for the call and response of the Capoeira circle (roda) and the Berimbau, a single-stringed percussion instrument that drives the tempo of the Capoeira game. From folk roots to internationally renowned styles, this playlist samples the sounds, rhythms, and tempos of South America’s largest country.”
  • Sounds of Haiti: “Some say that Haiti has been in perpetual revolution for 200 years. If so, then that revolution has a soundtrack: one that began with the rattle of the Taino caciques; that invokes healing and fighting spirits with the drums and chants of rada and petwo in Vodou; and that continues to express the appetite for freedom through the sly double meanings (betiz) in the songs of Carnival and rara, the cathartic dance rhythms of konpa and the compelling global edge of mizik rasin (roots music). The music of Haiti is a synthesis of Taino>, African, and European music created out of often violent encounters, but has come to reflect great pride in their independent nation."
  • Music of Kenya: “As a cultural crossroads at the edge of the Indian Ocean, Kenya has taken musical influence from the Arabian Peninsula, other parts of Africa, Europe, and now the Americas. In conjunction with the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program Kenya: Mambo Poa, this playlist oscillates between tribal traditions in local dialects and Western pop-style music, concluding with a song about the African diaspora in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.”
  • Throat Singing: “Tuva is a predominately rural region of Russia located northwest of Mongolia. It is home to one of the world's oldest forms of music. In Xöömei, or "throat-singing," a single vocalist simultaneously produces two distinct pitches-a fundamental note and, high above it, a series of articulated harmonies that are sequenced into melodies. The Tuvan herder/hunter lifestyle with its great reliance on the natural world and deeply-felt connection to the landscape is reflected in the Tuvan vocal tradition. With throat-singing Tuvans recreate the sounds of their natural surroundings—animals, mountains, streams, and the harsh winds of the steppe. Examples of this unique and moving vocal tradition are featured here.”

Go explore the Smithsonian Folkways website: listen to music, read the publications, browse the interactive features. If you’re a teacher, how do you think you can use the resources they offer to help teach your students about other cultures around the world?

Fish kites blowing in wind against blue sky.