Fun with Folktales

Once upon a time there were two sweet and kind, smart and loving educators. (If I were true to the elements of folktales, there would be three, but I am getting ahead of myself.) They worked in the village of Peaslee–home to laughter, latitude in instructional design and love of learning. And then, one day, the Common Core came to town. The Common Core, with its rigid evil standards and foolishly high expectations.  (Work with me, here. I don’t really mean this, but you can probably see where I am going.)

The educators had to act fast. In their hearts of hearts they knew that the Common Core wasn’t really evil or foolish. It was just lonely. If only they could come up with a plan to welcome it to the village of Peaslee, make it feel at home. A clever, good deed, like a new and exciting unit might do the trick. So, they got together and created one. Both teachers had taught folktales before. But there would be no laurel-resting for them. Their re-engineered unit would incorporate the Common Core as well as their shared love of literature and learning. It would be fresh, new and participatory. It would include authentic assessments. It would engage and excite the students. And indeed it worked! The Common Core was accepted into the community. Our smart and kind educators loved teaching it, the warm and willing students loved participating in it and (wait for it…) they all lived happily ever after.

Our tale’s message? Good teaching is so much more than the Core. It is being well-versed in the standards, understanding your students, knowing your resources, and modeling collaboration for the students–proving two heads are always better than one.

Third-grade teacher Ariella Greenspan and I had been talking about collaboration since the beginning of the school year. The time was right when she started to think about teaching this standard:

Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2)

Common Core Standard RL 3.2

We began by looking at the standard and determining what else we wanted students to know, and how we wanted to enhance the teaching. It was important to us that students understand and recognize the elements of folktales. With a little Internet-searching and tweaking, we came up with the following elements:

•    Foolish or unsuccessful character
•    Successful, smart or loving character
•    Animals or plants with human characteristics
•    Evil character
•    Trickery or good deeds defeat evil
•    3’s or 7’s
•    Moral, lesson or message

We then decided upon a framework. Knowing that I would be working with her for the first five days of the unit and upon reviewing my collection of folktales (and focusing on the emphasis on “diverse cultures” in the standard), I suggested that we use five folktales from five continents (sorry Australia and Antarctica!) as mentor texts to teach the elements, most especially the final one—finding the moral, lesson or message.  This proved to be a huge success. It gave us a structure, it demonstrated the universality of folktales and it allowed for a bit of a geography lesson as well.

The stories we shared were:

•    Seven Blind Mice retold by Ed Young (from Asia)
•    Raven retold by Gerald McDermott (from North America)
•    Grandma Chickenlegs retold by Geraldine McCaughrean (Europe)
•    Master Man retold by Aaron Shepard (Africa)
•    How Music Came to the World retold by Hal Ober (we chose this to represent South America, although technically this version came from Mexico)

We also choose one story with two versions to be used for a compare and contrast activity. The well-known Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobokina was paired with The Hatseller and the Monkeys retold by Baba Wague Diakite. Although I wasn’t in the classroom for this lesson, I was told that the students “made connections all over the place.”

Ariella created a grid and hung it on the wall so that the children could record their observations about the elements in each tale. She also posted the learning standard in terms the children could understand (as she always does) and (with my help) collected dozens of other folktales for her classroom library. This allowed for immersion in folktales, beyond what was specifically accomplished using the five original tales. The students read stories individually, in pairs and in small groups, completing a graphic organizer identical to the classroom grid for each one. The books were also available for voluntary free reading, the key to reading success, as any good librarian (or teacher) will tell you.

The graphic organizers provided formative assessments as the unit progressed. The summative assessment at the culmination of the unit was a writing assignment. The students wrote one paragraph about what they learned and one analyzing a specific folktale.

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I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to work with Ariella on this project. Grateful for the fixed/flex schedule that allows me the time. Grateful for a supportive principal who encourages this kind of teamwork. Grateful for a veteran teacher who welcomed me into her classroom and gave me the chance to spend five hours that week with her students, above and beyond the thirty minutes of instructional time I usually have with them. This kind of in-depth teaching cannot be done working within the traditional fixed library schedule.

And they all lived happily ever after.


11 Comments on “Fun with Folktales”

  1. Kathy Rivenburg says:

    Wonderful lesson…by two exceptional teachers! The inhabitants in the land of Peaslee are very fortunate indeed!

    Always enjoy your blog posts, Nancy.

  2. Alyson Cox says:

    I’m so fortunate that I got to witness this collaboration. It really was wonderful and inspiring. Many thanks to you and Ariella. And “hurray” for the fixed/flex schedule!

    • nrkellner says:

      Happy to have you as a witness. I was trying to work you in as an additional participant (especially because that would have given us the magic number “3”), but it didn’t fit into the story line.
      For those reading this comment, Alyson, my practicum student was in on this also. When we did small group work, she worked with students as well.
      Thanks Alyson,

  3. nrkellner says:

    Thanks. Miss having you in the building. I am still doing the Dewey Decimal screensaver lesson that you designed with me. The kids love seeing their “Dewey Section” on the computers!

  4. Jill says:

    Both you and Ariella deserve kudos for collaboration and for bringing a standards-based unit to life in an engaging, meaningful way. The children’s work provides evidence that they loved the unit and learned a lot about folktales and about themselves as readers!
    I’m so happy to be a part of the Peaslee community!

  5. Mrs.Linda Watkin says:

    ABSOLUTELY OUTSTANDING!It should be published.

  6. Judy says:

    Well done on so many levels. Thank you for sharing and engaging students with an outstanding unit.


  7. […] Folktale Collaborations-Anansi and Around the World […]

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