“Tut, tut, child,” said the Duchess. "Everything has a moral, if only you can find it."
I teach English, but I also love to integrate my class with 6th grade social studies, which at our school is Global Studies. We begin with prehistoric times, exploring storytelling through prehistoric rock art and work our way to World War II and the Holocaust. We travel the world learning about people and cultures through a literary lens. Fables are an introduction to my English curriculum. There is so much you can teach with fables, so I limit my focus. When my students finish the fable unit, I want them to understand that reading literature provides a window into the cultures of the world. I also want them to understand that modern authors often weave folklore into their storytelling. The activities are designed to help me meet these goals.
Fables of the World
Oh, the places we go with fables. The reading connection consists of reading various fables from many cultures. We start by exploring fables of India — the Panchatantra and Jataka, which are believed to be some of the earliest fables. From there, we learn about renowned fabulists from around the world: Aesop (Greece), Jean de la Fontaine (France), and Ivan Krylov (Russia). There is a plethora of online resources for fables. My favorites are listed on our class Web site. Student handouts and resources are posted on there as well. Please feel free to borrow and edit any materials to accommodate your needs and check out my Book Wizard List, "Fabulous Fables for Middle School," so you can include hard copy resources in your fable library.
I also aim to help students understand that similar tales exist across cultures, which suggests that humans, despite their cultural differences, share similar virtues and values. I introduce fables and review the elements of the genre, explaining that the allegorical tales may seem like simplistic stories, but under the surface, they are much more. My 6th grade students apply their understanding of fables to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for cultures that differ from their own.
One of my favorite fables, “The Swan, the Pike, and the Crab,” is found in The Cat and the Cook and Other Fables of Krylov. The three animals, all creatures of habit, share a common goal, pulling a cart. However, each animal is pulling in a different direction. The swan flies upward, the pike swims forward, and the crab pulls backward. They do not make progress and never reach their goal because they never learn to work together. I have fun with this. The fable depicts Russian values, yet it is applicable to my middle school students, who sometimes struggle with working productively in groups. We have gone full circle, around the world and now back to our classroom, demonstrating that fables are timeless.
The writing goal is to translate a classic fable into poetry, illustrate the fable, and publish it on our class Web site. I want them to understand that classic fables and folklore still influence storytellers today. I start by reading excerpts from Jane Yolen’s picture book, A Sip of Aesop, using Yolen's poetic translation of Aesop’s fables as a model. The first time that I did this project, I had students pick a fable from Aesop for translation, which you will see if you visit our class fables Web pages. Because I have learned to give my students choices, they can pick a fable from any of the fabulists we studied as long as the original format is prose. "The Crow and the Pitcher," shown here, was written by two 6th grade boys.
During Writers Workshop, I focus on Ideas and Word Choice traits, two of the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing. When students translate fables, they must maintain the meaning of the original fable while adhering to the literary elements of a fable. This is a challenge, as many student struggle to find synonyms that maintain meaning and create a rhyme scheme. They have to learn new words. My young fabulists learn how to use hard copy and electronic reference tools to find just the right word. Online, we use Dictionary.com, Thesaurus.com, and Rhyme Zone.
What resources have you found to teach fables? Post them in the comments.