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Last year, I taught The Princess Bride in my classroom, which is a fairy tale satire. To make sure my students understood what, exactly, William Golding was making fun of, we spent about six days taking a deep look at fairy tales. I was amazed at the conversations we had. Students were struck by how the place a fairy was set changed the tale. They marveled at how fairy tales were used to share some sort of wisdom for children. Most of them were just shocked to learn anything new from these old stories.
When we say fairy tales, it means one of two things. It's either a story with magic or a story that is a lie. We have all heard fairy tales, from Cinderella to Beauty and the Beast, and we think we have learned everything we can. They are just stories for tiny children, after all. But there are complex morals and ideas hidden in these seemingly simple tales.
Beauty and the Beast was written to help young girls cope with the fear of an arranged marriage. The Twelve Brothers tells girls what their role is, to be silent, pretty, and sew. Hansel and Gretel was written during the Starving Time, a time when people abandoned their children in the woods and some resorted to cannibalism. Luckily, there was a fresh supply of lonely children. In Scotland, Cinderella has no fairy godmother, because in Scotland, fairies were always trying to kidnap mortals. Scottish fairy tales are dark.
In High School?
You might be with me so far, thinking, "Yes! They're great. Kids can learn from those. In middle and elementary school." I might have lost you at high school. I want to point out something, however. I looked back at my standards, and a unit on fairy tales that included comparing different versions of the same tale, a research project about the time a particular tale was written, and fairy tale interpretations from a variety of medias meets at least twenty of my high school standards.
I'm not the only one who noticed this. I found a copy of this thesis by Nicole Steeves. She noticed that students were becoming bored with the same old curriculum and decided to try something new. There are many lesson plans on Teachers Pay Teachers that address fairy tales and folklore in secondary settings, and some not even on Teachers Pay Teachers, just out there to share.
Fairy tales in high school was all over the internet, and has been the subject of several research projects, like this one by Angelica P. Babauta from James Madison University, which emphasizes the adaptation aspect. Basically, how do different cultures retell the same story, and why would they do that? These are all things that are taught at the high school level, and if we can teach it in a way that is engaging, why not?
In her article, Snejana Stoykova from Cortland University points out that most fairy tales have "serious historical undertones that a child would not be able to grasp at the elementary level. I firmly believe that fairy tales should be taught at the high school level, so both students and teachers can address issues like crime, morality and social duty – all of which are addressed indirectly in fairy tales, and all of which a child's mind picks up subconsciously but cannot properly frame in meaningful ways at so young an age." Basically, there are some things that make fairy tales what they are, an important look into human history, that younger students are likely to miss.
She also makes the case for using fairy tales to teach critical reading and comparison between various tales. How is The Frog Prince different in Norway versus the version told in China? Why is there a difference? Students have to look at the various cultures and histories to piece together the answer to that mystery.
When I taught this unit, I was met with some resistance. Students did not understand why I was wasting their time with something for "babies". Some of them took a chance, started looking deeper, and were able to meet the targeted goal, examining fairy tales as a genre and as a glimpse into the past. Other students put up a roadblock when they heard "fairy tale," and were unable to get past that.
I used a Document Based Inquiry (DBI) for each fairy tale. This allowed the students to see a variety of media and interact with them. It also was a fun way to get students to think about some of those deeper concepts. There are unfamiliar words in fairy tales, but that gives them a chance to practice using context to define words they don't know.
At the end of the day, my students left that unit having learned something. For some of them, it was just going to make The Princess Bride a little easier to read. For others, they left wanting to read more fairy tales, searching to learn more about the time each tale was written and how that impacted the way the story was told. Plus, they were learning, and they had fun.
Final Thoughts on Fairy Tales
There is research out there to support teaching fairy tales in secondary settings. Students are familiar with the style, so they feel comfortable diving deeply into them. There are things in a fairy tale that younger audiences do not, or should not, understand, making them perfect to take another look at later. Fairy tales show us something about the time they were written. By examining them, students not only learn more about history, they learn about writing, storytelling, and, sometimes, themselves.