Bright Idea: Teaching Literary Analysis Through Fairy Tales
Think this is too simple? Too baby? Let me show you how this is perfect for any age.
One of the most engaging ways to teach literary analysis is through fairy tales. Learning this was something that took years of random experiences (well, not random depending on your view of how the universe works).
In college, I took a Slavic Studies class on Russian Fairy Tales. It was one of the most popular courses at the University of Pittsburgh. It was a HUGE lecture style class packed with students and about 7 or 8 smaller lab-like classes with TA’s once a week. It was so much fun for me to learn about the history of iconography, illustrations and culture of a community.
The information I learned in that class incorporated psychology, like Jung and Freud, and viewing and reading fairy tales through lenses.
This is where I first noticed looking at a piece of literature through a filter.
Filters, like motifs, had me noticing patterns like trebling (seeing patterns in sets of 3's or multiples of 3) and magical helpers, and characteristics like characters not having specific names, brought a depth and meaning to these simple stories from childhood.
It wasn’t until I was in my first year of teaching that I found a gap in my curriculum map for my seniors. It was in the 4th quarter where their final projects were done. I needed time to grade those projects, but at the same time I needed a daily lesson plan. My students regularly struggled with analyzing a text and it felt like a great opportunity to dive into the art of teaching with a topic that intrigues me.
Since Disney fairy tales are tightly woven into our culture, those were the best to start with. I didn’t even need to read or talk about stories like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Cinderella. My kids knew them by heart. The next step was where it got fun.
The University of Pittsburgh regularly updates and stores fairy tales online at “Folktexts: A library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology”. This site will blow your mind. It categorizes folktales and fairy tales by subject or topic, the Arne-Thompson-Uther tale type index. We went to the tales we knew best by heart. Beauty and the Beast was a favorite among many of my classes. Under the Beauty and Beast category are a list of 20 stories from all over Europe and one from China. Only 2 of the stories are listed under the Brothers Grimm, which are the most recognizable fairy tale recorders for my kids behind Disney.
What we did next was magical. I taught my kids the lenses and filters to use to complete a literary analysis. Gender roles were up first. Beauty and the Beast is a perfect story to use a gender roles filter. We analyzed the Disney movie first. We started with feminine and masculine gender roles: feminine- passive, submissive, sweet, emotional, intuitive, damsel in distress; masculine- active, dominant, courageous, rational, logical and knight in shining armor. Disney turned the idea of Belle’s feminine qualities on its head, making her into the female heroine that we are used to seeing in recent times, intelligent and a lot more independent with agency. But the Beast, now he fits being a beast. He is masculine, but to the extreme. It’s through the kindness and love of Belle that he is able to tame his temper and animalistic ways. Now, if looking through a filter, what does this teach girls about their role in a relationship? What does it teach boys? What kind of behavior does it perpetuate or condone in a romantic relationship?
This is a great discussion to have with kids. I actually had the Vice Principal of the school’s son in my class and his response was that he was never going to read fairy tales to his daughter when he has children. I just told him to think about the messages he wants to give his children, that’s all. Or to have conversations with them about what they see and hear. Parent connections are everything in teaching and right sizing the world.
It was also a jumping point to have my kids explore their creative writing sides. I had them write their own fairy tales to either uphold the status quo or to challenge the status quo. To maintain the status quo they changed the time period, character’s form (changed people into animals) or the setting. To challenge the status quo they changed endings to unhappily ever after, or challenged what success or love means in the current times. One student changed Cinderella’s ending where the Prince married a boy. That student, who is gay, said that he never read a fairy tale growing up where his love was okay. *cry!*
This was a great experience for those kiddos and I hope they kept those ideas near to them.
I’ll explain in part 2 how I structure this now for my ever curious 5th grader who is interested in reading and writing his own fairy tale.
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