Seventh and eighth grade students are a delightful mix of optimism (that anything is possible), willingness (to experience life to its fullest), anticipation (by skipping the growing process and wanting what might happen six or eight years later), and bewilderment (with what they are going through). They have an impatience with anything or anyone that is outside of their quite involved but tightly limited experience. It is this characteristic that I would like to help them with—the characteristic of not understanding any thing that is different. If they don't know what or why something is done the way that it is, they have a tendency to think that it is stupid and therefore will laugh at it or ridicule it. For example, if they hear someone speak with a different accent, they think that it is hilarious. When it is explained to them, they become very interested and will ask insightful and thoughtful questions. They will accept the difference with pride and understanding. Teenagers and pre-teenagers who don't understand differences often will not accept a classmate who wears different clothes, has a different mental capacity, speaks differently from the way they do, looks different, uses different language expressions, has different religious beliefs, or is taught different values at home. It poses a dilemma for all students who want to be accepted by their peers. These same students who are so willing to ostracize the "different" child will also befriend that same child when presented with background for these differences. It is my intent that through the study of folktales of various cultures found in the United States, junior high students will discover not only the joy of reading but also the greater joy that comes from learning acceptance and understanding of one's fellow human beings.
The first unit in the seventh grade
the basal reading book, is about fables and folk tales. I will use a couple of the stories, which are tall tales, and supplement these tales with stories from different cultural groups in the areas of trickster tales, legends, and some of the many forms of the Cinderella story. Even though I have chosen only two or three stories from each of the first three categories, I have worked hard to find many examples of each type, especially of the Cinderella stories. In a way, the extensive annotated bibliographies are the real heart of my unit, for it is in them that I have tried to make fully available to other teachers the results of my efforts. The Students' Bibliography is all tales and collections of tales that are written for the younger person. The Teacher's Bibliography has further collections in addition to some works of scholarship by folklorists.
In order to know who we are, it is essential that we know who and what we have been. Folktales help us out here as they are the oldest accounts which have been shared in the oral tradition. Nowadays, we are very fortunate that many of these stories have been written down and have been preserved in books so that they will be available for years to come. These tales are important for us to understand because they tell us the way that life was for the common man. They will often tell us something of the history of a particular area, the values of the people, and how they lived and what their behaviors and customs were.
Folk tales are fascinating and entertaining. Levette Davidson in his book
A Guide to American Folklore
suggests that comparative studies in folklore provide a bridge from one folk culture to another. He articulates a fundamental notion that any knowledge or activity that helps us to bridge the chasm between people separated by differences in race, in cultural background, in economic status, and in vocational activity should be utilized to the fullest extent possible. He stresses that democracy rests upon an intelligent and sympathetic recognition of the dignity and the worth of all human beings. I would like to reiterate that the purpose of this unit is to emphasize the essential unity of diverse cultures and to help my seventh and eighth graders understand their own culture and those of their neighbors through studying and comparing the folktales of different groups within the United States. It is my hope that this will bring to my students recognition of their own self-worth, increased sympathetic understanding of their neighbors, and, by breaking down barriers of ignorance and prejudice, ultimately, a peace within themselves.
The unit which I have prepared will take approximately ten days and can be lengthened or abbreviated according to the interests and needs of the students. I will begin with the tall tales which are in the reading book and which are a uniquely American tradition.