A Fairy Tale Entry Event

Author: Audrey Lash, First Grade Teacher.

Our first grade team has just embarked upon a new inquiry based learning project. We set out to do it right by creating a thoughtful Understanding by Design plan for our fairy tales. We want our students to gain transfer understandings such as:

  • Analyze and evaluate the impact of differing story elements on a character, reader, and story.
  • Empathize and connect with differing (character) points of view.
  • Write fictional narratives that grab the attention of a chosen audience.

As planners, at first we ran into some snags. At our school, we try to make our inquiry more problem based. That means students are posed with real-world problems to fix or solve. We were finding it hard to frame a driving question in such a way that captured our transfers and also posed a problem. With much revision and continued tweaking to meet our students, our driving question ended up being, “How can we, as creators, revive and/or showcase fairy tales?” I will admit that revive was somewhat hard for our first graders as we introduced it on Friday. Many understood after defining and rephrasing “How can we bring fairy tales back to life?

And then, the next big hurdle was discovering what an entry event would look like to help us showcase and gain student excitement over fairy tales. We settled on an entry event with lots of student choice. Choose Your Own Fairy Tale —  Students were able to choose between 3 fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks, and Little Red Riding Hood). We have six first grade classes in our building. Two classes paired together to showcase the two sides or points of view of one fairy tale. For example, Mrs. Powers and I were showcasing Hansel and Gretel. Students that chose our fairy tale were divided equally among our classes. My classroom portrayal was the witch’s point of view. Her classroom was Hansel and Gretel’s point of view.

While in their chosen “fairy tale adventure,” students went to a well-decorated room and heard from one character’s (teacher) point of view. As the “wicked” witch from Hansel and Gretel, it was so entertaining to play up this part because I was able to give another side / another story to what really happened. I gave students a big sob story about how being a witch is lonely. I was only minding my own business when someone began destroying my house. “What would happen if someone broke into your house?” I asked the children. In part of my act, students were shocked by the witch hastily throwing Hansel and Gretel’s version in the trash. “That’s a terrible version. You haven’t even heard my side!” Students then helped me rewrite the story to give me a happy ending as a shared writing. Then, my group was sent to Mrs. Powers’ class to hear Hansel and Gretel’s side. Kid investment is key to being engaged. The coolest part of this entry event was getting students so amped-up on fairy tales that they truly cared and believed in the story that the character (teacher) had just told. I had students leave my classroom on the witch’s side. When they saw Hansel and Gretel (Mrs. Powers), they were ready to defend the witch. And vice versa, I had students that heard her side first and then came to me and saying, “We’re not afraid of you!” All over the classes, students were getting the same experience with Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood, too. Each teacher ended with two new versions of their character’s story that could now be used as exemplars in writer’s workshop.

When students went back to their homeroom classrooms, we had a big discussion about what went on in their story and what new stories they wrote for each characters. My students said they loved: writing the stories, meeting the “characters,” hearing every characters’ story, looking at the decorations, and having their classrooms taken over!

Then, we posed our driving question: How can we revive and/or showcase fairy tales? “The teachers had found that fairy tales needed to be put back on display for kids. We needed to get more people interested in them.” We began to brainstorm what we know about doing this and what we wonder. We knew we could read fairy tales, give people more fairy tales, and write our own. Our class knew that there were classics and new versions of fairy tales. We wondered:

  • Why do we need fairy tales?
  • How do we tackle reviving fairy tales as first graders?
  • Why do some people like/hate the classics?
  • How can we get people to like fairy tales?
  • Is there such a thing as a boy version and a girl version?
  • How do you write fairy tales? How do we fix fairy tales?

On an exit slip, I had my students write down one idea they had about reviving a fairy tale. Students thought of bringing fairy tales into scripts, songs, dances, games, new stories,  and even reading to other kids. I can’t wait to see how students bring these fairy tales back to life!

Some classroom decorations:

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Folktale UbD and Evidence

Our main transfer goals in this Folktale/ Culture unit were for students to be able to independently…

  • Write well-elaborated fictional stories
  • Recognize how the traits of a culture affect its people and its stories
  • Gain an understanding and appreciation of cultures around the world and our own.

Some picture evidence of cultural learning.

  •  Our cultural poster and initial ideas from our entry event. (poster)
  • Our enter/exit slip or learning. Left side is what we thought we knew in the beginning. Right side is learning after the project. (learning slips)
  • Our reading cultural passports. As we read a folktale from a new country, we logged our stories and their culture. (reading passports)
  • Exemplar – Student written folktale after researching French culture. (France)
  • Exemplar – Student written folktale after researching Australian culture (unfinished before break – underconstruction) (Australia)
  • Exemplar – Student written folktale adter researching Chinese culture. “Move Mountain Move” (China)

More exemplars to come from the rest of the grade level!

Engaged Literacy Travelers

“Change the conversation to student engagement and compliance becomes a non-issue.”

How can we engage our students more? My team is phenomenal. We came off a roller coaster pbl/unit a while back. Not all well crafted pbls work or lead to the results you wanted; especially if they’re too constrained. You have to let student engagement lead the learning or change the learning. We reflected midway through and found students weren’t engaged in what we had designed and we empowered each other to change our plans. So for our folktale unit, we were ready for more redemption. We wanted something powerful. We studied our standards, curriculum maps, and Understanding by Design by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. With the question “What is culture?” guiding our learning, our students have been entranced in literature from folktales around the world, research on real cultural facts, and brainstorming their own folktale. (Check out our entry event(s) in the previous post.)


Our student travelers have had passports to own the journey of reading. Their passports look real, but have subtle literacy differences. Behind the map and pictures, there’s a place to log the country, date, and story elements. Story elements are so connected to attributes of culture. Our characters can portray the people and the language of a culture. Dialogue often gives us subtle hints, too. The setting of a text drops clues about the weather and land. We’ve focused in on evidence of the dress, food, customs, and other celebrations. Students excitedly ask “where are we traveling next?” when we begin to read. That’s powerful to me! Fiction and nonfiction books open up places we’ve never been, but the passports have given students the key to imagining we really are traveling.  Maybe, we can’t physically travel there, but we feel like it. I put on my Australian “recess hat” and we open up our passports. We log our new country. Then, we watch a 2 min. “Trueflix” non-fiction video on the continent that we’re going to or even use Google Earth to feel like we’re flying there. This all spurs the excitement and the feeling that we’re going on a big adventure. We jump into a folktale and begin noticing parts of the culture. We have discussions and questioning along the way. We debate whether characters are tricksters. We debate if characters are worthy of becoming kings, queens, and emperors. We debate what type of folktale it is (fairytale, fable, pourquoi, and trickster). We debate the theme of the story. We laugh at the characters that fall for a “trickster” character’s trick. Students have even been known to applaud endings.


In guided reading, we travel through other folktales and informational books at their own level. We’ve had debates as to which characters we learn from the most. Do we learn better from the good character or the evil character? If a good character takes revenge or tricks people, is he or she still good? We ask and answer questions about the story elements and themes. In non-fiction books, we’ve looked at subtle nuances of culture. One of my reading groups read an informational book about castles. We asked ourselves, “How do castles represent culture?” Because this connected so well to our driving question, students blew me away with what they thought a castle represents. They understood deeper ideas of sociology and economics and brought up points about class systems – nobles and commoners. Castles showed us how some lived and how important some countries hold castles in their history and culture.


In writing, students chose a country and culture that they wanted to research. Some chose countries we’ve visited and others chose countries they like. Today was one of the highlights of our “travels” in writing. We looked across our fact finding and chose 3 elements of that culture that interested us. For example, I modeled looking at my Australian research and I chose a kangaroo, tea, and coral reef. I strategically tried to pick an animal, food, and part of land because I wanted to see show them they could pick more than people and animals. This was a magical lesson as we took these three things and we began to brainstorm. However, this wasn’t just any brainstorming list. We allowed our minds to ask questions instead. Questioning was our vehicle for creatively finding new ideas and creating a plot without even knowing it. (I had recently seen a fifth grade teacher in our building use the same type of lesson for her realistic fantasy writing. It was amazing to see her students rethink everyday objects and places that could be changed just by a question. I knew had to “steal” it for our second graders.) My class took these three research facts and spent the day asking “What if…” questions. It was a day focused on gaining ideas. Students were collaborative and creative with each other. What child doesn’t like asking questions? My own modeled writing brought us to questions like: What if the Kangaroo didn’t have a pouch? What if the Kangaroo couldn’t jump? What if the tea gave you super powers? What if the tea was poisonous? What if the coral reef could talk? What if the coral reef was stuck in a war? My students and I then actively engaged in trying this out with 3 pictures from National Geographics “photos of the day”. They were mesmerized by an owl stuck in a tree, fireworks that surrounded a couple mysteriously running away, and a line of hut-like storage areas under a vast sky. We talked about how the things we wonder and want to explain in the photo could lead to our “what if” questions. Finally, students went and practiced on their own country. My favorite two student questions of the day were: “What if the Great Wall of China wasn’t so great?” and “What if ‘bonjour’ actually meant ‘who cut the cheese’?” We hope to publish our very own folktales that have elements of our chosen culture and our own fictional ideas.

Connected. Our literacy block is an adventure whether we’re exploring worlds that authors made or beginning to create a world of our own. 

As a second grade team, the greatest part about this unit has been that our travelers can travel at their own pace. Yes, we’re all learning about folktales and cultures, but we may be in different phases of our learning. We let our travelers guide our teaching and we create a tour that fits our class! Students and teachers have both been empowered. What is culture to you? I can’t wait to see how students answer our driving question at the very end. This is a question that will surely come up throughout the year, too.

What is culture?

Our students need more experiences exploring questions. Many times, as teachers, we give the answers too quickly. We need higher expectations for the deeper questions. A good question is not answered right away or even in one day. It’s explorable and revisited constantly just like our math pbl (see previous posts). We’re told to ask higher level questions, but we don’t think about the risks and wait time that comes with these questions.

My team and I just started a big cultural unit about folktales and writing fictional stories. Folktales are stories passed down from generation to generation. Our big transfer goals consist of students writing well-elaborated stories, appreciating culture, and making inferences about characters, plot, and morals of a story. In other words, we’re asking our students to read for meaning and create meaning in stories. The thread that holds this together is the fact that folktales are influenced by the culture of a country. So, we set out to answer the question of What is culture? What a grand question to ask? Did we even know what our own culture was as teachers? Culture is a very long definition on most websites. It results with lists upon lists of things, but ultimately it’s our way of life. We knew for students to discover culture in stories they first had to discover their own culture. Many of us nervously wanted to give the students the definition of culture right away. Isn’t that the answer to the question? Give the questions – memorize an answer?? For true inquiry, we needed to see that this question wasn’t defined in the beginning. It’s such a big definition anyways. Why not allow students different learning experiences to explore the question? This was an amazing “AHA” moment for me. Allow the students to discover the question! Let go…

What is culture?

Learning event #1: I asked my students this question. They stared at me and I panicked for a brief second. No answer. Cricket sounds. I then went to my planned explorations. Like an entry event, I showed students appropriate pictures from National Geographics Photo of the Day. Pictures from across the world and various cultures were shown in a slide show way. What is culture? I asked. As each picture scrolled through, students began shouting and listing things they thought. (jobs, music, clothes, weather, food, holidays…) It was that easy! They were glued to each picture because it was something that they had never seen. Students then were able to explore touchable artifacts like books about other countries, dolls my grandmother had collected from each country she went to, and maps from around the world. Still students were grasping small nuances that made culture, but they weren’t quite sure about this word culture. They were catching on that it made us different and the same. I wondered, “Is this the right question?” I still worried because they didn’t have all the answers.

I decided to take a quick sample “enter slip” or anticipatory guide of what they knew. On a folded slip of paper, they wrote what they thought the answer was on the first half. What is culture? They wrote some cute things like: “different and the same” or “your own way.” They’re on to something for sure! I will take this same sheet at the end of our time and ask the same question. They will write it on the other half of the paper. I hope to show the learning and understanding we’ve gained by comparing both sides.

What is culture?

Learning event #2. As teachers, we brought in a box of 5 items that showed our own culture; a culture box if you will. Some items included family pictures, school artifacts, travel memories, and more! We then asked students to bring in their own culture box. We gave parents a list of  things they could include. A list quite like the list we had made looking at the pictures from event #1.  Students shared boxes of sports items, toys, family memories, holiday artifacts, and more. It was so neat to see each student’s box. One student brought in a “G” that represented his last name, but also the hallway where his family shares the highs and lows of the day. After each box, we asked ourselves, What is culture? What do we know about culture from “Johnny’s box”? Students quickly listed great things. It’s who we are… something passed down… it’s what we wear and the way we live. It’s family, jobs, hobbies, clothing, food, celebrations, and school.

What is culture?

Well, in reading, it’s a lot like what we ask students to look for when we talk about story elements. The characters of a story can portray the people of a culture. The setting gives us hints to the weather and land of a culture. The plot could give us hints to themes or lessons from a culture. It’s all connected. As my students hear each new folktale, we travel with our passports. We log the country, date, and story elements/culture of the story. We try to think about what would be in that character’s culture box. In writing, it helps us create our very own story elements. Our ideas for small moments stem from our own culture. After break, we’ll study a culture that they’d like to incorporate into a folktale of their own. This is one of those units that you fall in love with as a teacher . Everything is connected and meaningful. It was a perfect time to include this cultural unit as we share in some of the biggest holidays and family gatherings of the season. During these holidays, think about your own culture. What is culture to you? What defines your culture? How does your culture define who you are?