This unit was so much fun! I don’t always plan a language arts curriculum for an entire year, but this was it for one year and it delivered. Because I used this throughout an entire year I was able to pack in quite a few examples and activities, but I could definitely see splicing a section off and just doing Fairy Tales or Tall Tales for a few weeks. Either way, use the resources and links below to create a folktales unit study that is just right for your students!
Dewey Decimal, Bingo, & the Folktale Genre
Before we did any of our sub-genre reading or discussions, we took a week to explore the Dewey Decimal System.
We went for some first-hand experience on this one. To encourage my girls to read outside their normal preferences, I created a Dewey Decimal BINGO sheet for them.
First, they had to find a book that they wanted to read that started with the three numbers listed in the square. They could check the book out from the library and when they finished reading it, then they could mark off the square.
They got a BINGO, and I had introduced them to Dewey and expanded their reading exposure. Bingo for me too!
(For other ideas about how to use BINGO for learning, check out this post of over 30 ideas!)
After our Dewey introduction, we talked about Folktales as a general genre, and I purchased this set of genre posters on TeachersPayTeachers. I pointed out that Folktales is generally used as the overall genre title as well as being a sub-category within the group.
For our unit we explored the sub-genres of Fairytale, Folktales, Fables, Tall Tales, Myths, and Legends. Fairytales and Folktales were the longer, more time-consuming aspects of our study. Fables, Tall Tales, Myths, and Legends were shorter in terms of the amount of reading and activities that we did.
Another distinction to make is that our unit was interrupted by COVID-19. This impacted our library access (boo hoo!) and our overall enthusiasm depending on how we were mentally and psychologically adjusting to pandemic-living at the time. It fluctuated as I’m sure it did for others as well. Nevertheless, we read some great books and had some good discussions.
With Dewey and Folktales suitably introduced, we jumped in! Fairytales first!
We referenced the genre posters for definitions, but I also found a helpful chart in this Fairytale Genre Study that had several unique-to-fairytale components grouped in a chart. After I found the chart I decided that we would not be reading a bunch of different fairy tales for this portion. My girls were already familiar with quite a few of them so instead we were going to go global.
Stay with me. We did read fairytales. Well, we read one fairytale – over a dozen times!
That’s right, Cinderella was a global study. It was so fun! We ended up with so many variations, some of them were specific to a region in the U.S. and some were from other countries around the world. In fact, English speakers get their fairy tale from the French version, but there are earlier versions from China and Greece.
I grabbed a couple pieces of white poster board, taped them together, and put the chart from the handout on the poster. As we read each version, we identified some of the key elements (such as good vs. evil themes, and recurring numbers in 3’s, 7’s, or 12’s, the use of magic, etc). We could also see how they were similar and how they were different.
My main objectives were to give them experience identifying elements of fairytales and comparing and contrasting familiar stories. The compare and contrast exercise was good from a literary standpoint and cultural expectations perspective.
This also created a situation where we could talk about “what counts as a Cinderella story?” There were so many variations, some of them quite striking, that narrowing it down to core components was tricky.
Cinderella is fascinating with this angle!
If you’re interested in using a global Cinderella perspective, check out this post with 13 Picture Books about Cinderella. (It also includes suggestions of books that I didn’t use in our study because I couldn’t get them from the library. So in fact, the list has over 25 titles.)
Studying fables was one of our shorter components. I found a collection of Aesop’s fables at a used bookstore while I was creating the folktales unit study and picked it up immediately.
Fables are short stories with explicit morals and usually involving animals only. Aesop’s fables were perfect for this section. Surprisingly there were a few that we had to think about or argue with the moral. Could be good conversation-starters depending on the age of your students.
The main lesson I introduced with this component was writing a summary paragraph. This packet of activities provided a fable and an outline for my girls to use while they practiced using Somebody-Wanted-But-Then-So. The first time around we read a fable and then filled in the blanks. Who was the somebody? What did they want? But why couldn’t they have it? Then what happened? So what was the conclusion?
The second time around my eldest daughter practiced writing out each of the sentences. I don’t use a lot of formulaic writing strategies, but this was a good (and memorable) introduction to summary-writing.
The Folktales genre has several sub-categories, but it also includes timeless stories of unknown origin that stand outside these restrictions. These creative stories are considered folktales and fall under the overall genre as a sub-category. These were my favorite stories to read together, and we had quite a few favorites.
In fact, the bulk of our material fell into this category. Cultures and civilizations around the world and throughout time have relied on stories for entertainment, instruction, and explanation. What we have to sift through is only a sliver of that content. Perhaps even more instructive is considering what lessons still resonate today – folktales are the original timeless masterpieces.
Here are the 18 Folktales that we read. You could easily make the study of folktales into an all-year study alone. Take a look at what is available in your library in addition to these great titles.
These stories are over-the-top. Tall Tales are epically wild with exaggerated characters and circumstances. Often, they are based on historic happenings, but the storytellers use heavy artistic license to explain natural occurrences or phenomenal moments of time.
I didn’t find a lot of these to read, but you don’t have to read very many for kids to pick up on the exaggerated proportions. We did still thoroughly enjoy the 8 Tall Tales that did make it on our reading pile!
If you read these books in a group, talk about what is good about this kind of storytelling and what is problematic. Do they think that using epic details is an effective way to make a point? Do they think all stories could or should be told with such exaggeration? Some kids may find it too over-the-top all-the-time and wonder where the line is between fact and fiction.
Though we didn’t do this ourselves, I could also see using this as an opportunity to talk about similes. Students could identify similes in the stories, or they could write their own examples. Maybe have them write two things they did today and then describe it with an outrageous simile.
Myths & Legends
We broke myths & legends into two components but changed our format a bit. Instead of using picture books, I relied on a middle grade read and, partially due to COVID-19, YouTube videos.
First, I introduced some of the distinctions between myths and legends. I don’t think they will remember all of this part, but it is something that will come up again as we venture into world religions and other areas of thinking.
In many cases I think introducing concepts at this age is a worthwhile effort. No, most students probably won’t remember the details, but they will have a vaguely familiar concept of what is being discussed that they can build on the next time around.
I found this poster (insert link) helpful for discussing some of the distinctions between myths & legends.
For legends we read King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin.
Grace Lin has some fantastic resources for readers of her books. Be sure to stop by her site for some ideas.
We loved the role of dragons in this book and the explanation of their origin and purpose based on Chinese legend. It prompted me to look a bit further, and I found the perfect picture book!
Gondra’s Treasure by Linda Sue Park compares the distinctions between dragons of the East and dragons of the West. It is the story of a young dragon who has a parent from each realm, and she inherits an odd mix of their traits.
I also discovered the Legend of Princess Yennenga on YouTube, and we loved hearing her story. She is the founding queen mother of the country of Burkina Faso.
Finally, for myths we were coming into the home stretch. Our library was closed and though my girls had had exposure to various Greek myths and others, they were not thrilled with the idea of studying them.
I know a lot of kids LOVE Greek mythology, but that just isn’t the vibe in our house. So, I opted for some short visuals. In the end, these short episodes, Greek Tales for Kids, available for Amazon Prime members, were the perfect introduction. We picked what we wanted to see, and the girls were glad to mix up the medium we were using.
Since I was on a roll with the audio-visual route, I introduced a couple other myths as well from this TED-Ed series.
I advise reviewing the Ted-Ed videos before showing. Some were fine for my girls and others made them cringe. Additionally, some introduced concepts and ideas that I wasn’t ready to discuss with them in-depth.
But, if you’re looking for content for older students, this may fit better than the Greek Tales for Kids series mentioned before. You know your kids best.
Overall, this was a great way to explore some of the various genres of folktales and practice some literary analysis techniques. These stories have high entertainment value, meaningful content, and a timelessness that connects readers to history.
My biggest problem was narrowing down what we were going to read! Several chapter books, 18 folktales, 13 Cinderella stories, 8 Tall Tales, and several other books created a reading-intense but creatively-stimulating unit.
I’m glad that I expanded it for a year. The pandemic took us all by surprise. We needed the flexibility to adapt and engage at the level they were ready to mentally and intellectually.
What other suggestions do you have for activities or books that would help others create a folktales unit study?
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