As I am about to complete my first year using New Haven’s literature-based reading program, it seems clear that the program, which is in effect throughout elementary schools, provides a variety of opportunities to integrate a curriculum unit designed to develop an understanding and appreciation of various American folktales. In this unit, I will suggest a general framework for including such tales and will present specific suggestions regarding actual tales and the manner in which they might be presented to the class.
Presently, I teach a group of twenty-seven fifth grade students ranging in age from ten to thirteen. All but one is African American or Hispanic. They are of varying ability and come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Though most have relatively adequate basic skills and many have great potential, most show a substantial lack of general academic knowledge and vocabulary. It appears obvious that, by increasing the scope and quality of the reading material to which they are exposed, we will help to develop both of these areas.
Though naturally in this first year I have found some problems with the series, I feel that the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich material takes a positive step toward increasing both the general knowledge and vocabulary of my pupils, not to mention their appreciation of various forms of literature. Its stories also provide a wide range of topics which the teacher can expand to meet the particular needs of students. This unit on folktales attempts to do this. it includes primarily tales with Native American, African American, Asian American, Puerto Rican, and West Indian roots, them relevant to most pupils in my fifth grade, self-contained classroom.
Besides their value as examples of oral literature, it also appears that many of these tales can provide additional insights into topics covered in our social studies program which investigates various developments in United States history. The folklore of Native Americans would positively augment our examination of various Native American tribes. As we investigate the roots of slavery, its history in America, and its eventual elimination, African American folktales can play an enriching role. The stories of Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and John Henry integrate easily with the development of our country. As we approach more current times, tales from Puerto Rico and the West Indies can play a role in understanding and appreciating Americans from these regions. The same is true of material from any country whose people immigrated to America. By integrating such a continuing study of relevant folktales, both academic objectives and personal feelings of self-esteem could be reinforced. Besides the obvious significance these tales would have to our curriculum, most are pertinent to the cultural background of the pupils I teach. Others could open opportunities to further understanding and appreciation of other groups.
Specifically, this unit suggests a series of folktales which demonstrate elements of the six major unit headings utilized in the fifth grade reading text:
Light Up the Sky
. Some general approaches to each tale will be offered along with a few more specific lesson plans. The particular unit topics include: “Challenges”, ‘’Trials”, “Yesterdays”, “Shenanigans”, “Lifelines”, and “Flights”.
Tales will follow the flow of the reading text, not the sequence of the social studies curriculum. The tale itself, its origin, content, message and any other related learnings will be the focus. However, tales are selected with the various aspects of the social studies curriculum, mentioned previously, in mind. At times the presentation may coincide with our work in social studies. At other times, they will build upon earlier learnings, and finally, they may serve as background for historical material to be covered later.
The amount of time and depth devoted to investigating pertinent background material related to each tale may vary greatly and will not be inserted merely for the sake of relating it to our social studies curriculum. In fact, some tales might have no historical relationship to an actual group, individual, or event, but may illustrate moral values or actions that could motivate or aid the child in sorting out the real-life material being covered.
Ideally, I envision the child never being informed, and perhaps never being fully aware, that an intentional link has been made between the folktales she/he has read and discussed and the content of her/his social studies curriculum. While I feel that both areas nicely complement each other, I also strongly feel the basic essence of each must be preserved. Relating an African American folktale to a discussion of early slavery should not be an artificially imposed experience.
Though original approaches appropriate to individual tales will be suggested, attempts will be made to integrate much of the framework of the H.B.J. format which fits easily into my unit.
As gradually the number of tales covered increases, pupils should acquire a greater understands and appreciation of oral tradition. Similarities and differences among various groups should become evident. Many tales should begin to exhibit similar patterns of development and the moral messages they convey. Recognizing and discussing these will be an integral goal of this unit.
I have chosen to summarize each unit in the H.B.J. text, followed by suggested folktales which in some way relate to the text’s basic theme. I also include a few approaches the teacher might employ in developing various skills and understandings pertinent to that particular tale. Details on sources are found in the bibliography.