We will begin by exploring the value of reading and what memories my students have of reading and/or being read to, then discussing those in the context of how such experiences shape our attitudes toward reading later in life. To inspire and inform discussion, I usually begin with a journal assignment, responding to a prompt such as: “What are your earliest memories of reading or being read to as a child?” The desired effect of the following discussion is not to make some students feel badly for having missed certain beneficial and/or meaningful experiences, but to convince them that it is never too late to have such experiences and that such experiences are worth having. When they share their entries we will work in a discussion of why reading may be valuable and why some people enjoy reading while others do not. The goal is to have them see that reading is more than simply a way to entertain ourselves or accumulate information; that it is a vehicle which brings us closer to the people and communities around us.
From there we will brainstorm a list of actual stories we remember from childhood. In this discussion, I may reinforce elements of theme, audience and purpose, and narrative structure. My hope is that, even if they were read to infrequently or not at all, most of my students will have some familiarity with classic fairy tales which will provide for an easy transition into the main focus of this unit: “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Before I read the Perrault version of the story, I want my students to create a graphic organizer that will allow them to track the similarities and differences between the various adaptations of the story we explore. These charts will include things like the identities of the characters, Red’s relationship with her mother and the advice she gets, the items Red brings to her grandma, her first interaction with the wolf (or whatever other animal is chosen as the antagonist), symbols in the story, the outcome of the story, etc. (The Krisztina Szucs website listed in the bibliography below provides an interesting example of how the students could arrange the information graphically if they wish to develop something more exciting than a simple chart.)
Once I have guided them through the creation their charts, I’ll have my students fill in the set of spaces according to their current understanding of the story, leaving blanks where necessary. This will allow them to later identify which version (or versions) they were likely exposed to when they were younger. Then we will gather in a circle on the floor, and I will read the story aloud to them, stressing the appropriate roles for an attentive and invested audience (e.g. making the appropriate noises in response to the drama of the story). I often have my students sit in circles (even on the floor) to read or converse, so this shouldn’t present a problem for them (especially since I will remind them to dress appropriately for such activity prior to this class). If some students are unconvinced, I will offer that recent research suggests that reading aloud to students has benefits even for adolescents . . . and that sitting on the floor saves the custodians from having to sweep and mop it later – besides, their grades and my good mood depends on it.
The first reading is for fun and immersion in the story, but also to show them how to use their voices and pacing to make the story more engaging. After a first reading, we will read through the story a second time, passing the book around to give each student a chance to practice their dramatic reading skills. During their reading, I will offer a “think aloud” for the students to show them how my brain processes what it reads (and likewise how their brains should be processing the reading). This will entail interpretation and discussion of the various symbols and other narrative elements. Then we will reflect/discuss how it felt to be read to and how their individual brains react to a text when they read. We will also eventually fill in the charts, either during our second reading or shortly thereafter, identifying key elements and confirming our interpretations of symbols.
From here there are a few different options for how to proceed. In later years I may have my students find their own versions, pick their own groups for the completion of this unit, and come up with their own ideas about (or variations on) a summative assessment, but for my first attempt at implementing this unit, I will select the groups and the stories they will read to ensure maximum diversity. I will also give them limited options for a summative assessment so that I might end up with a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the overall assignment (and thereby improve it for future classes).
I will divide the class into groups of five students and give each group the same collection of six or so variations of the Little Red Riding Hood tale. The collection will offer a broad sampling of cultures, purposes, intended audiences, symbols, etc. Pending continued research I will probably use “Lon Po Po” (China), “Pretty Salma” (West Africa), “Kawoni’s Journey Across the Mountain” (Cherokee), “Petite Rouge” (Cajun), and “The Grandmother” (France), as well as the Grimm Brothers version of the tale. These and other adaptations are listed in the Reading List for Students – and if you or any of your students happen to be fluent in French or German or another language you will find there are plenty of non-English versions of the tale for your classes to study.
In their groups they will research (starting with materials I provide from the list below – such as “Dances with Wolves: Little Red Riding Hood's Long Walk in the Woods” by Catherine Orenstein and “The Path of Needles and Pins” by Terri Windling – and continuing with materials they find on their own) the cultural and temporal context of each story as well as interpretations of the symbolism. Then they will read the stories aloud, discuss them as was modeled during the reading of the first version, and fill in their charts for these adaptations.
When each group is done we will re-divide the groups so that each new group has at least one member from each of the former groups. The new groups will briefly share and compare what they discovered in the course of their research and readings/discussion/analysis. After that, I will lead the whole class as we highlight the major understandings we have developed in the course of our group work – focusing especially on commonalities and differences, why and for whom each version was written, and how that version represents the unique culture from which it came. In the end, my hope is that my students are able to identify the most obvious and common variations and explain the motives for these adaptations. How much of the socio-cultural history surrounding each version we delve into will depend on time and level of interest, but I want them to at least understand how fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood” reflect the social mores, behavioral expectations, or other motivations behind their creation.
Once they have this understanding of how different cultures and sub-cultures adapt the story to express their identity and serve specific social needs, the students will begin working on their own versions of the Red Riding Hood tale. I will have them begin by pairing up or working in small groups to pick a culture or sub-culture to which they belong – it can be in school, at home, or elsewhere. Then they have to imagine a version of the story that reflects the values, beliefs, and behaviors within that community, one that stresses an important lesson about growth and survival for the children of the community they have chosen. Before they start to write, I will have them fill out a section of their chart for this community and its likely adaptation. Then they will write (and help each other revise) a new incarnation of the fairy tale that they can then turn into a children’s book, a play, or a short video to later share with the class, kids in their family/neighborhood, and/or a younger students at a nearby school. The ultimate intent being to create bonds with each other and their communities through the creation and sharing of their own versions of the Little Red Riding Hood story.
Later, I will have them reflect on their experiences, on the impact of their presentations on others and themselves. My hope is that the overarching effect of this process is a burgeoning sense of nostalgic attachment to reading (and writing and storytelling) that perhaps has eluded them up until this moment in their lives.
As an extension activity, I could have students pick other childhood stories from the list generated at the beginning of the unit to research and adapt – this time with only minimal guidance from the teacher. If logistics allow, I may even have them partner with younger kids from a nearby grade school to work on the adaptations of these stories, further cementing the bond between them, their communities, and the power of literature.