You will forever be a character in the story your students will tell. I learned this from our brilliant colleague, Jim Burke; the things we do today will determine which kind of character we will become when the story is told later. Let’s consider for a few minutes how we might use fairy tales to enchant the everyday stories our students live.
The most urgent reason to use fairy tales in a classroom is for contact. Our world is spinning into more and more isolation for children — less laptime for babies, less sitting-around-the-table time, less conversation with adults. More individualized class work, more stations, more seatwork. More screen time. More flipped lessons. Direct instruction seems to have fallen into disgrace, adding one more area that students don’t interact with adult voices. And though we’re making progress in instructional advances, we’re seeing the effects of isolation in spikes in depression, separation anxiety, and social backwardness. How can fairy tales be used here?
Fairy tales provides a voice in a child’s ear, the gift of a tale. Tales are told. The word “tale” comes from the Dutch taal, or speech. Not texted or emailed or read silently in a hushed classroom. Told. One voice in a classroom. Children never age out of the gift of a read-aloud of a good story. When I distributed copies of “The Frog Prince” to a group of rowdy eighth graders this year, I heard one of them say, “Ugh…this is for babies.” Within a few minutes, however, when we’d finished, I heard, “Man, that frog got some game.”
Now, what about some academic uses?
We give students short passages to use for a variety of purposes. In the last couple of decades, we’ve been encouraged to use more and more non-fiction, but short fiction pieces can be just as useful. We can ask students to tinker with the endings, with the point of view, with the characters, to write and perform scenes, to explore vocabulary. Here are a few of my favorite ways to use fairy tales to teach serious academic content:
- For practice discussing themes. Students can write arguments about universal themes, using moments from fairy tales and moments from their own lives to share what they think is true about honesty or greed or home. I’ve heard high school AP teachers empowering students to harness the power of the archetypes in the Disney movies they memorized as children.
- For practicing analytic writing. Students can write their own text-based questions and answer them, citing text evidence directly from these stories. Whether they use our “QA12345” method, Jane Shaffer’s paragraph structure, or any other method, it’s useful to practice the question-answering process by using a text with high accessibility. And fairy tales coax along the kids’ reading because the stories are just so good.
- For creating multiple-choice reading questions. Our colleague Jennifer Martin has turned up a high-octane process of having students write multiple-choice questions like the ones on standardized tests they all have to take. Jennifer chooses a couple of subjects straight out of the standards (like vocabulary, characterization, theme) and has her middle school students read a short passage, highlighting a couple of vocabulary words, or clues about characterization, or phrases that point to a theme. Then she distributes question stems, taken directly from high-stakes released tests or practice tests. Students create questions.
- For social studies connections. Fairy tales can illuminate universal situations in society. We may not have princesses and peasants, but we could talk about socioeconomic differences and injustice. We don’t have naked emperors, but we could discuss evaluating truth and integrity in our public officials. We don’t have children wandering the woods, but we could talk about the real effects of poverty on children or the plight of refugees. Stories can bridge the huge chasms between our students and the content in their social studies classes.
- For nothing but a gift. Sometimes, just read the story with the kids, and don’t do anything at all with it. When you finish it, just breathe and look at them. Ask students to tell you the best parts, if you must, but remember it’s a gift. What they learn from this telling isn’t in the standards.
Which leads us to a developmental reason for fairy tales…
There has never been a greater need for superheroes and fairy tales. Children are painfully aware that we live in dangerous times, maybe more aware than any other generation before them. They know more about global threats, about climate change, about the fragility of our planet, than possibly any generation before them. They have nightmares about shooters and classroom massacres.
Fairy tales may not make the world safer, but they can help children cope with their fears, help them make sense of the world. In his historic work, The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim lays out the best reason for using fairy tales in the classroom – and explains what I have seen with my own eyes: Fairy tales comfort kids. Of course kids know the difference between fact and fiction, but fairy tales meet them where they are developmentally, with clear viewpoints in a world full of confused difficulties. Fairy tales can actually dispel fears by allowing children to visit a world where there is clear good and evil. Evil is vanquished.
If we cannot give children a world free from worry, safe from global threat and local bloodshed, we can at least take some concrete steps to be the adults who shoulder the worries, while allowing children some years of believing that the good triumphs over evil. If we have to find short passages for our students to read, let’s occasionally give them something they can love, stories that provide comfort and enchantment.
Bettelheim, Bruno (1989). The uses of enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Vintage Books.