Wednesday, May 28, 2014

But, Einstein, there's a problem with fairy tales...


We're learning about fairy tales in first grade.  It's a really fun unit, with lots of talk about fairy tale elements, fractured fairy tales, and alternate endings.  We're also pushing story elements in general (characters, setting, problem, solution) as a way to wrap up studying literature at the end of the year.  We ask the same questions over and over again.  Does this story use the rule of 3 or 7?  Was royalty involved?  Were there magic words?  What was the problem?  How was it solved?

Identifying the problem is such an important life skill, and you can usually get into some great conversations about the different layers of a conflict in a story and which problem was the most important one.  But when studying fairy tales, it gets pretty bleak.  This week we're reading Cinderella, and we start the week with a classic version before moving into different cultural or fractured retellings.  Here are some excerpts from our post-read class discussion:

"So what is the problem in this version of Cinderella?"

"Um...they are mean to her."

"Yeah, and she does all the work, all the time."

"She has a bad life."

"I agree.  How did this problem get solved?  What changed?"

"Her sisters decided to be nice to her and she forgave them!"

"Why did they decide to be nice to her?"

"She was pretty.  They didn't know she could be so pretty."

"She did look different at the ball, that's true.  Is that why they changed their behavior?"

"I think it's because she became a princess, and you can't be mean to princesses."

[At this point I realized I had kept digging because I thought we were going to get to something deeper, but that's it.  The only positive change came from getting married to a prince.  I didn't want to write it on the board.]

"I think you're right.  The only real change in the this story came when she got married to the prince.  Then her life got better."

[The girls were smiling and I panicked a little.]

"But, even though it's romantic, it's not very likely in real life.  Do you think any of us will marry princes or princesses?"

[Hysterical laughter.  Almost in danger of losing them.  I pulled it back.]

"Doubtful.  So pretend you're Cinderella, and marrying a prince is out of the question.  What could she do to get a better life?"

"She should have stood up for herself."

"Yes!  I agree!  What could she say?"

"She should have said, 'You can't treat me that way.'"\

 [Direct from our classroom procedure for speaking to someone who wronged you!]

"I think that's a very good idea.  What else?"

"She could find a new family with nice people in it."

"That's a possibility, too.  The story says that Cinderella is strong and kind, so I know she would have found a way to get a better life, even if she never met the prince."

I wish I actually believed that.  I felt very magical sharing fairy tales with my tech-obsessed modern kiddos, but so far we've uncovered that Jack was a greedy thief who abused his beanstalk, Goldilocks was guilty of breaking and entering, and Cinderella was persecuted because she was too beautiful to stand- only royalty could get her high enough to stop being hurt by people who were jealous of her. Even the chick in Rumpelstiltskin happily marries the prince who three times threatened to kill her if she didn't produce enough gold.  That's just a side plot.  None of the characters face consequences.  Happily ever after means married, rich, and not getting in trouble for your crimes.

I know there are versions that remedy this- I just found a retelling of Goldilocks at the library in which she makes the beds, helps the family fix the chair, and then they make another breakfast together.  Fractured fairy tales are humorous and usually show character flaws in the heroes or heroines, which opens up great conversations about perspective.  But the basics, the classics, have dark themes and zero self-esteem building for girls, or boys, or anyone.

I think this is why I love the movie Frozen so much.  Love at first sight is mocked and shown to be silly and unsafe, the love that saves the day is a love between sisters, and the male lead character asks permission before kissing the girl he likes.  Not his true love forever wife- it doesn't end with wedding bells.  And the kiss is a sweet addendum to the real climax, where sisters embrace and Anna punches the bad guy all by herself.  I'm weirdly grateful to Disney that, even while retelling another fairy tale (we covered that most Disney movies are based on fairy tales heavily in our introduction at school), they were able to make this one so fresh and modern and fair.

Next year when we take out the fairy tale unit, one of the most important things will be modern day alternate endings that I'm going to have the students write.  I never want to stop sharing the magic of dragons and giants and castles and adventure, but I also want the students to recognize that you can have magic and still be a good person, that you can be strong without being a prince, that you can have a good life without ending up married and rich.  It seems a little deep for 6-year-olds, but this is the age where those messages get embedded.  My favorite quote about education (and life) is from Cardinal Thomas Wolsey: “Be very, very careful what you put in that head because you will never, ever get it out.”

Any tips for sharing fairy tales without completely betraying everything you believe about appropriate behavior for men, women, and dragons?  I'm going to be scanning the A Mighty Girl character list to see if any good book recommendations pop up.  I'd love any advice.  Happy reading.

10 comments:

  1. Have you read the book CinderEdna? I love it because it kind of "poo poos" Cinderella and focuses on hard work and reality.

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    1. This is my second recommendation for that book, and both came from teachers, so I'm intrigued! Thank you!

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  2. Nice post, fully informative thanks for sharing

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  3. The NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour just did a really great segment on fairy tales and about why they are the way they are. I recommend listening to it! I don't know if it gives you any good advice or direction with your first graders, but another good thought about why these stories are the way they are. Would a first grader get that? Marriage meant security and a home back when the story was written, but now you don't need to be married to get those things?

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    1. This makes so much sense, and I definitely want to check that out. Is it a podcast? I think with certain classes or groups of kids, I could boil that down to a few sentences that could be understood. I want to read more about this. And watch Ever After.

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  4. Great blog Ashlie. I'm going to send you an email about a baby topic I am researching.

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  5. I love this! Beautiful. I love how sweet and smart children can be. And I love Frozen

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    1. Frozen is such a huge step in the right direction! And I love the music. :)

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