General Guidelines for Teaching with Folk Tales, Fairy Tales, Fables, Ballads, and Other Short Works of Folklore

Tina L. Hanlon
Ferrum College
December 1999

Diagrams of Types of Folk Literature

Timeline of Appalachian Folktales


Advantages of Teaching with
Short Works of Folklore

Pitfalls of Teaching with Short
Works of Folklore

1.  They are short!  It is easy to distribute copies of short tales or rhymes to a whole class, discuss them during a class period, and compare a variety of examples relating to different topics, without needing time for extensive reading assignments.

2.  They are fun!  Many types of folklore are entertaining and most of us have fond memories of stories and rhymes we have known since childhood. Viewing illustrated versions or film adaptations can also add variety and enjoyment to class assignments.

3.  They are memorable. Most tales and rhymes from oral traditions use patterns of language and plot that make them easy to retell and dear to the hearts of tellers and listeners.

4.  They are found in infinite variety everywhere. Every culture has long traditions of oral storytelling, verse-making, and joke-telling. Students can learn about different cultures by studying folklore, collect folklore from their own families and communities, and write or dramatize their own variants of traditional tales and rhymes. Once you start looking for them, you find allusions to familiar folk heroes, rhymes, and sayings throughout popular culture.

5.  They are universal. Although it is interesting to compare culturally specific details in folklore from different times and places, one of the most intriguing phenomena in human experience is the similarities in stories with universal themes from all over the world. For example, there are obvious historical connections between the Appalachian "Ashpet" and the German "Ashputtle," which European settlers in Appalachia would have known, but why are stories with similar Cinderella motifs also found in ancient African and Asian traditions?  There are fascinating theories about the universal elements in world folklore and myth.

6.  They are infinitely meaningful. Because folk and fairy tales represent human experience through symbols and archetypes, there is room for endless debate about how to interpret particular tales. They provide excellent examples of the complex interplay of realism, fantasy, and symbolism in literature. They can be analyzed in papers that do not require research, but there is also a wealth of recent research available on folklore, fairy tales and picture books. They can function as primary sources in complex research projects like any other literature.

7.  They link oral and written literatures of the world. We often forget that all literature developed from oral traditions, and most people in human history have had no writing system to record their languages and stories. Storytelling is still alive as an oral tradition in many places, especially in Appalachia. Folklore works well when teaching oral skills, speech and drama.

8. They link popular culture with many academic subjects and skills. Almost every type of literary and cultural analysis has been applied to folklore, so short or familiar pieces from oral traditions can be used to introduce longer works of literature (many of which have mythological or folkloric roots or themes), as well as topics in history, social studies, fine arts, and science. For example, Keepers of the Earth by Caduto and Bruchac links Native American tales from different regions with environmental activities for children.

9.  They enhance transitions from childhood to adult life. Short works from folklore can provide springboards as students move from writing about childhood experience to more complex types of analysis. They need to learn, as an important part of their heritage, that Disney versions and other widely available children's books and movies do not adequately represent the larger body of folklore that people of all ages have enjoyed for centuries.

10.  They unite children and adults.  Many types of folklore have been reprinted and adapted in children's books in the past couple centuries, while older children and adults who don't read or hear folklore or picture books often lose touch with exciting parts of their own culture. Many recent storytellers, dramatists, and filmmakers (such as Tom Davenport and R. Rex Stephenson) endeavor to entertain the whole family, just as traditional storytellers have done around home or campfire for generations. Among other benefits of teaching with folklore, what more worthy goal is there for general education courses than to prepare young adults to share good stories and rhymes with the children in their lives in the future?

1.  Sometimes we are too literate for our own good. When discussing oral traditions, we must break students of the habit of referring to the writer, the original source, or the "real" or "correct" version.  Usually there is no known original version or writer, and obviously folklore is often written down or retold using features of vernacular dialects, not in standard English.

2.  See advantage #4.  Students often think myths or folktales from unfamiliar cultures are bizarre, or pagan. Every culture has very strange, nonrealistic stories in its mythology and folklore. Insist that students realize this and respect the culture that produced the folklore, without using biased language when they compare unfamiliar and familiar stories or poems.

3.  See advantage #4 again. Because folklore adaptations and multicultural literature have been so popular in recent years, there is a danger in overemphasizing traditional cultures of the past to represent cultural diversity. There still aren't enough books that portray people of minority cultures living and working in ordinary clothing in contemporary life. (For example, a student shouldn't be surprised if a novel portrays a Seminole girl whose father works a high-tech job at Kennedy Space Center.) Stories about grandparents passing on folklore and traditional crafts to young characters can be heart-warming, but don't let students assume, for example, that all Appalachians make quilts and live in remote hollows where everyone is a farmer or miner, as well as a gifted storyteller or ballad-singer.

4.  See advantages #2 and #9.  Because people have strong emotional ties to literature they knew in childhood, they sometimes have trouble analyzing it objectively and don't want to critique their favorite stories or learn other versions. It takes some time to realize that we can keep personal memories and preferences of our own while also appreciating the larger social implications, variations, and methods of interpreting traditional stories and poems.

5.  See advantage #9 again. Because so many people associate folk or fairy tales and nursery rhymes with early childhood, they may assume that the content should be only entertaining and innocent, or that it should always teach lessons to children. Most folktales, nursery rhymes, ballads, and jokes were originally told by adults to other adults or mixed audiences (long before the Romantic concept of childhood innocence came along). Students may be shocked by the gory details and "adult themes" in many traditional tales and rhymes, but of course, these are the very elements young people enjoy if they get beyond misconceptions based on twentieth-century American ideas about literature written for children.

6.  See advantage #4 again. Because there are so many variants of any piece of folklore, it is easy to get the details in different versions mixed up in your head when you are discussing or writing about them. Remind students to read or listen carefully.  In papers they must identify the particular versions they are discussing (and cite them properly in research papers).

7.  There can be special problems with research and documentation. Students may need extra instructions for documenting oral, audiovisual, and unpublished sources or picture books (which often have no page numbers). Adapters, retellers, translators, and illustrators should be recognized when full citations are given in documented papers.

These pitfalls all provide valuable learning experiences. Enjoy discussing, collecting, retelling, or dramatizing folklore with your students!

Activities for Study of Folktales

Bibliography of Appalachian Folktales

Resources on Appalachian Dialects

Links to Online Texts

Complete List of AppLit Pages on Folklore

Unit Lesson Plan on Mountain Humor in Folktales and Other Media

ChLA Links to Web Sites on Mythology and Folktales

Recommended article: Maguire, Jack. "Sounds and Sensibilities: Storytelling as an Educational Process." Children's Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 1, (Spring 1988): pp. 6-9. Available online through library services such as Project Muse. Includes mention of Appalachian Jack tales from a "predominantly oral culture" as one tradition that Maguire and many other storytellers prefer over literary tales which rely more on description and less on action. Good essay on educational value of oral storytelling for all ages in relation to communication skills, human interaction, and growth of the imagination.

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