Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fairy Tale Lesson Plans

Jessie Wilcox Smith

A friend of mine is an elementary school teacher, and she mentioned that when she taught second grade, they did a unit on fairy tales. Naturally my curiosity was piqued and I asked her more about how and what they taught. It seems the primary source of knowledge children have about fairy tales these days is Disney movies. Children may be exposed through books they have at home, and what they learn at school, but that's up to each parent and school district.

So a school curriculum that includes education on fairy tales can be a vital way of exposing children to fairy tales, but I wonder what kids are actually being taught. Which versions are teachers using? Which tales do they choose? And what are kids being told to take away from the lessons? Many versions are very didactic already and I would hope lessons on Little Red Riding Hood went beyond "and that's why it's important to listen to your parents, kids, otherwise something horrible might happen to you like it happened in the story!"

I did a simple google search to look into some of the fairy tale lesson plans that were out there. The good news is there's plenty of materials for anyone hoping to teach on fairy tales. I was pleasantly surprised to see some lists of resources recommending lesser known fairy tales, as well as alternate versions of tales. In addition to basic comprehension/reading skills, teachers can use fairy tales to help their kids notice patterns and then make predictions about what might happen in an unknown tale; they expose their students to fractured fairy tales, and they can compare and contrast different versions of tales, such as this chart from comparing Cinderella to Yeh Shen:
What a great learning tool! One thing my friend and I had both noticed when interacting with kids about non-Disney versions is this idea that the version they are familiar with is "right." Kids will interrupt a story with "that's not what happens!" or see a picture of a non-Disney princess and claim, "that's not Sleeping Beauty/Cinderella/etc.!" So it requires education just to convince them that there is a world of fairy tales outside of what they are familiar with, and the very concept of different versions.

Some lesson plans I came across that I didn't like as much. They tended to reinforce stereotypical/not even accurate ideas of fairy tales. These are from Pinterest:
Fairy tales were not actually originally written for children...They were mainly told for other adults, often to pass the time as they worked in the fields and homes.

I like that whoever made this chart recognized the pattern of 3 and 7 (a great way to use fairy tales to cross over to math), but the happy endings are not necessarily always there. Fairies and godmothers are actually most often NOT part of fairy tales. And illustrations are pretty much just in children's book versions of fairy tales, they are not integral to the genre.

But, does an elementary teacher have to be an absolute expert in everything they teach? It's good that kids are being exposed to different kinds of fairy tales at all, right? And although some ideas about fairy tales may not always be true, like the happy endings, in general that is the case.

I'm curious to hear from you-do you remember being taught fairy tales in school? How were you taught? And any other teachers out there? Have you taught on the topic, and what resources and teaching tools did you use? As a music teacher I love teaching Prokofiev's "Cinderella" to kindergarteners or first graders and talking about how he uses an orchestra to make the sound of the clock striking midnight. I have them count each bell toll to see if it's too late for Cinderella to be at the ball, and they get really excited as they get close to twelve! I've also used ballet scores to Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Nutcracker either in Russian music units, or to weave in the storytelling.


  1. Honestly, there's one major problem in teaching children about fairy tales is the simple fact that it's hard to define what a fairy tale is. While terms like "folk tale", "legend", "myth" and "literary story" have hard and fast meanings, "fairy tale" is largely a culturally dependent term. Many folk tale purists would tell you that a "real fairy tale" has to be a tale that was passed around by the common folk before being written down. If that's the case, then excludes the works of H.C. Andersen who created many of his tales wholesale. And while he may not be a favorite of mine, I can't argue with the notion that "The Emperor's New Clothes", "The Little Mermaid" and "The Princess and the Pea" are essentially fairy tale canon. Some say that a “fairy tale” must include some element of fantasy, but many of the Grimm tales (which were originally “Household Tales”) like “King Thrushbeard” and “Maid Maleen” have no fantasy in them at all. The term “fairy tale” is malleable and based on our own experiences with the idea. This can be as good as it is bad. I actually named my blog Fairy Tale Fandom partially because the term “fairy tale” has a lot of cultural power but also gave me a little elbow room in terms of material. So, with this in mind, how do we teach fairy tales to children? Well, maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should teach units on “folk tales” instead (unless you’ve really got to include that Andersen stuff for some reason).

  2. I work part-time with a theatre company and we're considering doing a series of mini-plays for children on less familiar fairy tales that are versions of ones they will recognise e.g. Donkeyskin instead of Cinderella. As part of that we would love to go and do creative workshops in primary schools. This idea is still at very very early stages and wouldn't happen for at least a year or so, but if it happens I'll let you know!!

    1. You know, I never considered "Donkeyskin" a version of Cinderella. However, that's probably because there are almost as many variants of "Donkeyskin" across cultures as there are Cinderella variants. From the Celtic "Cap O'Rushes" to the German "Allerleiraugh" to the Appalachian "Catskin" to the Italian "Wooden Maria" and Puerto Rican "The Three Gowns". It just seems like such a big thing throughout folklore that it seems like a motif within itself.

  3. AdamYJ-But should the fact that it's hard to define fairy tales keep us from teaching kids about them at all? Even if they are never officially taught about them in school, they will still have an idea of what typical fairy tales are. The best case scenario would be to expose kids to fairy tales/folk tales in ways that increase their respect for them and dispel some of the most negative stereotypes, and hopefully inspire some kids to research fairy tales more on their own.
    And yes, though they seem unrelated, Donkeyskin tales are classified within the larger Cinderella tales family.

    A.L. Loveday-Sounds like a great project! I was in plays and musicals through high school, and looking back a lot of them were actually fairy tales, but I didn't interact with the kids in the audience and how they responded to the material. That would be fascinating to see!

    1. I suppose you're right. But I wasn't so much saying "don't teach fairy tales" as "use the right terminology to begin with". As for "Donkeyskin", I can see where the classifiers could have come to that conclusion. Still, for such a richly varied tale, it seems a shame to lump it in with another, more famous one. But, I've rarely had much use for classification schemes for folk tales. Most of my knowledge of folk tale variants and such comes from my own observations.

    2. Yeah, it would be ideal for teachers to be accurately able to tell children what fairy tales are and aren't, but frankly that's a lot to expect from an average elementary school teacher. It might be an appropriate discussion in a high school lit class, but in elementary school if they're even exposing them to alternate versions I think it's a good win for fairy tale fans.

      Fairy tale classification is so complex, I'm glad other people have taken up the challenge so I don't have to.

  4. The only time I ever had to study about fairy tales was in order for me to be able to write a research paper about them (I chose to write about fairy tales). I would recommend reading Tolkien's essay On Fairy Stories because it's very interesting and certainly helped me narrow down a little bit what fairy tales/stories are.
    My whole family didn't know a lot about fairy tales as I was growing up. My curiosity made me read more books from the library about it, and read the Grimm's fairy tales on my own. Whenever someone mentions Cinderella, most Americans will only think of Disney's version (which wasn't my favorite). I didn't like his version of her character.
    I'm intrigued about a certain movie coming out this Christmas that I'm sure many people will end up watching because of the cast. Into the Woods will for sure show people a taste of the Grimm's real versions of the stories. I hope Disney doesn't ruin it or overdo the violence.

    1. Tolkein's On Fairy Stories is great. So many people have definitions of fairy tales and they can all be quite different and even overwhelming to sort through them all.

      That's awesome you got to write a research paper on fairy tales! In college my interest had begun and I have fond memories of writing a paper on C.S. Lewis' "Till We Have Faces" and a set of speeches on Beauty and the Beast :)

      I'm not getting my hopes up too high for Into the Woods yet, I'm gonna wait till I hear the musical though! Although so many people are playing around with "dark, twisted" fairy tales these days, I wonder if people will even realize Into the Woods is a Grimm mashup, or if they'll think it's just another "challenge" to squeaky-clean family friendly fairy tales?