Friday, July 24, 2009

The Uses of Fairy Tales

I want fairy tales to be relevant. Like myths, these are stories that dig deeply into what is really important to children. They are dark and uneasy - but so are the stories and novels that our students are reading on their own "for pleasure." So many of these contemporary series and novels, and even movies, have their roots in the "old stories" that I have decided to bring my 7th graders on a journey back through the classic tales. It would take a year to read them all, so I am going to use the Reading Circles framework to let student groups guide themselves through as many fairy picture books as I can gather from our district and town libraries.

I will be doing a read-aloud of The Prince of the Pond and Jack and the Seven Deadly Giants to model the questioning and discussion methods the students will be following. The goal is for them to begin to develop their own skills as discussion group members (a group where everyone is a leader). My anticipation is that a month-long dose of this process will have a huge pay-off in terms of larger collaborations later in the year. And because the tales are short and almost always well-written and beautifully illustrated, I will gain a tool for measuring oral reading fluency, and for teaching literary terms and basic visual literacy (how to look at and compose an image).

But what intrinsic value do the fairy tales, and related lore such as fables and myths, have today? First and most obvious is their value as ur tales, tales upon which much of Western literature is scaffolded. From my point of view as a teacher of literary texts, recognizing the oldest character archetypes, settings, and story patterns in current works enriches the reading experience. It also provides a set of mental puzzles to be solved - a reader's search that simulates deeper reading. Making connections is itself a higher order thinking skill that our ping-back students sorely need to develop.

Discussion is one way to explore these connections. We will all be comparing and contrasting the telling and illustration of a core set of tales: Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack & the Beanstalk, The Three Little Pigs, and Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose. Reading groups will explore contemporary retellings and fracturings of these and other tales.

Online collaboration via wiki and/or shared Notebooks will allow individual students and reading groups to build a larger discussion of connections, opinions and interpretations. This will also give us a publication format for some of the more formal short writing assignments.

An equally important value is the intrinsic meanings found in the stories themselves. What can you do when a situation seems beyond your control? What makes good good and evil evil? These are core contemporary questions for today's middle schooler. By providing multiple forums for the discussion around these question, students will begin to gain confidence in their own ability to act and answer.

What are some of those forums? Writing and structured discussion (agreed upon questions), of course. But also more creative and alternative ways to build understanding. I will be asking students to retell one tale in Molly Bang's "cut shapes" format (Picture This). I have done my model as a ComicLife movie (the cover is above), but paper and glue, claymation, or colored pencil will do just as well. Reducing character and setting to basic forms is a path to meaning. I have shared my movie with many adults and it engenders great conversations about my choices of voice, shape, color and story.

Another forum will be dramatic. The "hot seat" activity is a wonderful way to make characters come to life in the classroom. Dramatic retelling is a true collaborative activity. Our students will be able to do this "live" and digitally through movies or slide shows.

Old tales will be followed by new translations of fairy. I would love to teach the myth retellings (Percy Jackson, etc.), but too many of our students have discovered these on their own. So I am going further back in literature time and sideways: Haroun and the Sea of Stories uses story to ask What is the value of story?; Briar Rose and Crazy Jack bring tales into troubling adult events; The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents plays with the Piper and questions of loyalty, courage, and what it means to be aware of the world. These will be read in choice groups, supplemented with Caldecott readings and libraries of other novels.

Beyond fairy tales is a difficult novel, which we will all read mid-year. Each student will read the novel differently - some for basic identification of how good & evil evolve in the book, some to making connections to tale and lore, some to identification with the protagonist and follow his growth. My goal is for each to have confidence in one way of reading deeply. The essence of individual understandings will make for Reading Circle discussions, as well as for individual written responses.

We will end the year by reading novels that bring fairy tales home - novels about being "orphaned and alone." Each novel choice will be paired with one or more picture book for pre-reading. Varmits, for example, is wonderful to pair with Un Lun Dun, I Am a Rat!, and I Am the Cheese; Woolves in the Sitee pairs with Slake's Limbo and Finding Stinko; The Brave Little Tailor with Bud, Not Buddy and Maniac Magee; The Snow Queen with The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism; The Pied Piper with Spring-Heeled Jack; Twelve in One Blow with A Single Shard; Beauty and the Beast with The Secret Garden. We will all read the verse story of Home of the Brave and remember how Jack got the seeds to adventure.

Some of these are untraditional choices for literary reading circles, but all allow students to read at a choice of level and genre. It will be year's work to see if focusing upon ur stories, characters, themes and settings will empower students to read with more joy and depth.

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