As many of my students did not have the “traditional” upbringing that might have fostered a nostalgia for and lifelong interest in reading, they have a limited familiarity with the classic fairy and folk tales many of us remember from our youth. Many were not told bedtime stories by their grandparents or read to by their parents and so they excluded from what some education and child development experts would consider a crucial period in the growth of young readers – those moments when stories not only ignited our imaginations but also strengthened the connection between reading and being close to the people we love. Reading may be important for enlightenment and entertainment, but it is just as important for how it reminds of us of the bonds we have (or wish we had) with others. So one goal of this curriculum is to return them to a time when they missed something vitally important to many a happy childhood, to perhaps restore what was lost to the distractions, shortcomings, and traumas of their less than perfect childhood homes. Perhaps by doing this we can make reading something fun again (or for the first time), something that does not torture them or expose their stupidity. Perhaps we can nurture the bonds that reading creates between people and communities, giving us a sense of belonging and security.
Now some may warn of the dangers of ethnocentrism and a prejudiced perspective on the “perfect” childhood. They might argue that my attitude and efforts will only serve to alienate and embarrass those students who were not read to as children. This is a valid concern, but it leads to a criticism that could be made just as powerfully against reading as a whole. Evolutionarily, we are not designed to be readers. We are designed to gather information that will ensure our survival and enable reproduction. In as much as familial and community bonds promote these goals and reading promotes these bonds, a shared canon of literature (or at least stories – because the oral tradition has a longer history and is more pervasive than the written word) is necessary. In as much as reading provides the information necessary to best achieve these goals, reading itself will be attractive to the individual. But when our brains evolved, there was no writing and the gathering of such information required the use of all our senses – most especially sight, hearing, and smell. So when modern technology can appeal to two of those senses in the process of disseminating essential (or non-essential) information, how can reading, which stimulates only one, really compete? Communication and perception was largely lacking in complex symbolism when our brains evolved – there was no alphabet, no written words – so how can writing with its lack of literal ease and obvious appeal to our visual senses survive against video images that mimic the real world in a so much more vivid and readily digestible way.
Our evolutionary predilections aside, reading has almost universally been the province of the wealthier classes of society, an occupation of privilege rather than survival, so there will always be a bias toward elitism in our expectations that every child read at a high level. If we truly wanted to accommodate a universal education unfettered by socio-cultural prejudices, then we would promote an oral tradition of storytelling because all cultures have embraced that regardless of wealth or technological advancement. And embracing the oral tradition is very much a part of this curriculum. However, if our goal is to prepare our students for the world in which they live, then that is the world of reading and being indoctrinated into a love of literature from an early age is an American ideal if not a consistent practice.
With that in mind, I would like to reintroduce (or introduce) my students to the classic folk tale “Little Red Riding Hood.” We could ultimately explore other tales, but the goal will always be to explore how these stories are more than simple, silly narratives meant to be remembered fondly and then ignored as our tastes mature and our reading abilities improve. Because these stories are generally easy to read, teaching them will not meet with the resistance one gets when offering
The Scarlet Letter
. Because they are a reminder of childhood they will ideally engender an enthusiasm in my students to embrace the familiar and return to a time before life became terribly complicated and difficult. This will maintain their attention while we use these stories to strengthen their appreciation of how to interpret a text’s deeper meanings as well as their understanding of how these ageless tales have been adapted from time to time and culture to culture to serve some common purposes and some very different purposes. Fairy and folk tales are always popular; that is why they are even today being refashioned into movies and TV shows. This popularity can be attributed to cultural nostalgia, to timeless themes, to simplicity of language and message, to appealing plots and characters, and to their effectiveness at conveying the cultural expectations and societal norms of a given people in a given place and time. My students will love them at first because they are short, accessible, and entertaining, but they will appreciate them even more when they realize they are not exactly the juvenile stories my students thought they were.
Reading “Little Red Riding Hood” and other stories will help my students overcome their difficulties in decoding and dissecting texts, but there are other reasons for choosing these tales. There have been countless adaptations of these stories in a variety of forms. Studying various versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” and other tales would allow the students a cross-cultural perspective on the use of folk tales to educate/warn people young and old about the perils of the wider world. They could learn which elements of life and storytelling are universal and which elements are unique to particular cultures and/or time periods. We will read, watch, and listen to various versions of these tales and analyze what each says about the time and society from whence it came. Ultimately, this will allow them some insight into the cultural and temporal spectrum of humanity, even as it offers them a stronger sense of their own place and purpose in their specific corner of the world.
“Little Red Riding Hood” offers us an excellent gateway into a study of how fairy tales reflect cultural and temporal proscriptions and prerogatives, and how many of those proscriptions and prerogatives are consistent across time. An obvious interpretation of Perrault’s version would introduce my students to the socio-sexual mores of 17
century France, but more importantly and more interestingly, it would get them thinking deeply about an issue that greatly affects many young members of their community, perhaps even themselves: teenage sexuality. Nationally, teen pregnancy and STD rates are the lowest they have been in a long time, but if you were to survey my students you would find that almost all of them know at least one girl who has gotten pregnant while in high school (and often the father is an older man who preys on their youth and innocence.) The statistics on teen pregnancy are terrifying when it comes to future prospects for both the mother and the child. The likelihood of the mothers dropping out of high school and ending up on welfare is high. The chances their children will repeat this pattern is also high. The statistics for Hispanic and African-American girls are even worse. There are very few positive outcomes for young inner-city women who are careless about their sexual activity. By studying, Perrault’s version (and a few other versions) of “Little Red Riding Hood,” my predominantly female and minority students can draw parallels between the dangers of their own time and place and those imperiling young women in other times and places. They can begin to understand what has changed and what has not across time and distance, and they can use that understanding to strengthen both their connections and protections when walking through their own little modern corner of the woods.
By using a story with which they already may have a vague familiarity, one that is more or less easy to interpret and understand, academic commentary and criticism becomes much more accessible to struggling readers. If a text such as
is used, just understanding the play becomes enough of a challenge and reading academic papers dissecting it becomes an incomprehensible bore. The interest they have in “Little Red Riding Hood” stemming from its intrinsic connection to their lives will propel them through more difficult readings in literary analysis and criticism and offer them deeper interpretations of the story as well as insights into the various cultures that have adapted it. This more complete comprehension will ultimately lead them to a stronger ability to research and analyze a favorite folk or fairy tale of their own choosing.
The culminating activity for this unit will be to produce a contemporary version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” This adaptation must capture through symbolism the particular mores of a subculture within American society to which they belong and offer a necessary warning to the children of that subculture. Having accomplished that, they will then turn their new version of the story into a children’s book (or play script, video, or graphic novel) to share with a larger audience either within or outside of Coop.
Of course, lesson plans are rarely on paper what they become in the classroom, and there is always the need to adapt intentions and ideals to fit the time, resources, and students we have, but below you should find plenty of information to get you started. The particular focus of this unit will be various incarnations and adaptations of the story of “Little Red Cap” or “Little Red Riding Hood,” but you may modify the contents of this curriculum to guide your students through a study of any classic tale you and/or your students prefer.