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Fairy Tales Get Real, by Maryellen Grebin

Second graders become angry giants, dancing princesses and museum curators in this language arts unit

Most children, by the time they reach second grade, have heard or read a few fairy tales. But how many have researched and analyzed them? How many have looked at the tales from another perspective? I know that my second graders have.

To begin our unit on fairy tales, we first read the most common versions of the most common tales and then I introduced other versions of the same stories from around the world. I found that every one of my students was familiar with Disney's Cinderella, but none of them had read the Egyptian, Korean or Irish versions of the tale. The children were amazed that the same story could be presented in so many ways. I encouraged them to find their own voices and write a new version of the classic story.

Giant's-eye view.
When we revisited Jack and the Beanstalk, I asked the class to consider the giant's point of view. "Think about it," I told them. "The giant's minding his own business when Jack comes up the beanstalk to rob him. Of course the giant chases Jack! He wants his belongings back!" The children enhanced the discussion by creating a puppet show with Jack as the villain.

To supplement our science studies, we planted bean plants. When they sprouted, we gave "magic dust" (Miracle-Gro®) to one group of plants. We recorded our observations and procedures and concluded Jack must have used fertilizer to make his beans grow overnight.

Child holding an empty hanger and a group dancing princessess

These fairy tales are the real thing. At left, a student displays the empty hanger that holds the Emperor's New (invisible) Clothes. Right, some of the Twelve Dancing Princesses strut their stuff at a presentation for parents.

A closer look.
We had fun with The Princess and the Pea. After reading the story, the students wrote answers to the question: What really kept the princess up that night? We laughed at some of the responses – she had a headache from listening to the thunder, the prince was practicing with his band all night, the princess stayed up late reading under the covers with a flashlight.

And what about the Prince, the boys wanted to know? Why are so many fairy tales centered around girls? So we read stories that focused on male characters. They enjoyed The Twelve Dancing Princesses, where a young man outwits the naughty nocturnal girls, as well as The Emperor's New Clothes and The Elves and the Shoemaker.

The Ugly Duckling led to a discussion of values. It didn't take much for my students to understand the story's meaning and we each wrote or drew the things we liked best about ourselves – none of which had anything to do with the way we look.

What's cooking?
This unit lent itself to cooking different recipes that I incorporated into our math curriculum. We made something to go with each fairy tale we read:The Evil Witch's Apple Crumb Cake (to die for!), Cinderella's Pumpkin Pie (eat before midnight), The Snow Queen's Ice Cream Sundaes, Hansel and Gretel's Candy Creations (no oven required), The Princess' Pea Soup and Happily-Ever-After Wedding Cake.

Yes, wedding cake. We found that most fairy tales ended with the same words: And they lived happily ever after. We wondered why the readers of fairy tales were never invited to the weddings of all those princes and princesses, so we decided to have a reception for them. I brought in cake mixes and a mixer, pans and pastry bags and we baked a wedding cake. The children helped with mixing, baking, frosting and decorating. The beautiful cake was just the thing to go with the grand opening of our Fairy Tale Museum at the end of the unit.

Student artwork depicting scenes from The Elves and the Shoemaker and Cinderella

The entrance to the Fairy Tale Museum features student artwork depicting scenes from The Elves and the Shoemaker and Cinderella.

Kiddie curators.
To create the Fairy Tale Museum, we made a list of the stories we'd read and thought of props to bring in. For The Frog Prince the children brought a little golden ball and a stuffed frog for which we made a crown. Girls brought in dollhouse furniture and clothing for Thumbelina. The Rumpelstiltskin exhibit had a small spinning wheel, gold straw and hay. The boys brought toy tools, toolboxes and shoes for The Elves and the Shoemaker.

A boy in my class gave me a pair of long johns for The Emperor's New Clothes. To complete the display, we set up an empty spool of "invisible" thread, an empty clothes hanger and needles. Our Cinderella section incorporated items from all the different versions of the tale; there was a pumpkin, a magic wand, a glass slipper and mice, but there was also a golden sandal and a dress to match, a leather boot and a "bull's tail" fashioned out of a piece of rope. The Hansel and Gretel exhibit featured a gingerbread house that we'd made, and a beautiful doll's bed was shown with a small pea on velvet for The Princess and the Pea.

Children brought play food and plastic dishes from home, which we spray-painted gold to show King Midas' table as well as the gold dress his daughter was wearing when he turned her into gold. We twisted a long piece of green paper, attached handmade "leaves"and hung cotton "clouds" from the ceiling to show Jack's beanstalk.

Fanciful artifacts.
We didn't stop there. My students each chose an item from our museum and wrote about how it came to be donated. One child wrote that the shoemaker elves went on "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" and won, so they didn't need their tools any more. Another student wrote that Cinderella donated her pumpkin because the Fairy Godmother took the magic wand and Cinderella couldn't figure out how to turn the pumpkin back into a carriage. Snow White felt the Witch's poisoned apples should be on display so others would learn about the dangers of taking treats from strangers.

The children made invitations for their parents and the rest of the school, and on a Friday afternoon our class welcomed guests to the grand opening of the Fairy Tale Museum. Each child escorted people around the room, retelling stories, explaining the exhibits and answering questions. We served punch, cut the wedding cake and raised our glasses in a toast to all the princes and princesses. May they live happily ever after!

Topic: Fairy Tales

  1. Cinderella Stories: List of dozens of Cinderella resources and versions, many with teacher guides. My favorite is The Cinderella Project, which lets you read short passages and then compare them with other versions of the story.

  2. Fractured Fairy Tales with Jon Scieszka: Complete with classroom activity guides for each of the books (The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! and Squids Will Be Squids). Then students can write their own fractured fairy tale and publish it online.

  3. Grimm Brothers: Clever renditions of 12 Grimms' fairy tales, many with sound. Detailed biography, resources and links and an activity page.

Maryellen Grebin teaches second grade at New School of Orlando, Orlando, FL.

Language Arts