Monday, April 19, 2010

Fairy Tales in the Classroom Week: Q&A with Veronika Martenova Charles

Earlier today I posted about Fairy Tales in the Classroom: Teaching Students to Write Stories with Meaning Through Traditional Tales by Veronika Martenova Charles. The following is a short Q&A with Charles for SurLaLune about her new book discussing her inspiration and personal philosophy of using fairy tales in the classoom.

Q: How did the book come about?

A: I often go to schools as a visiting author and invariably the first question that the children ask is, “Where do you get your ideas from?”

So I tell them the truth: “I read tons of fairy tales when I was a kid. And I daydream a lot.” “What’s daydreaming?” is the students’ next question.

That made me curious: Would children today have the time and the patience to read and reflect on those old tales? So many of them are text-heavy and filled with dated imagery. Was there a way to connect them with those stories?

So I set on a journey to find out. And that became the starting point of the research for a graduate thesis. My newest book is about the many surprising discoveries made along the way. I was amazed how easily and fast children could create stories if they got involved in the stories personally and how much writing they would do afterwards.

Q: What is your philosophy about using fairy tales in schools?

A: Look, anytime fairy tales are used in a classroom it is a good thing. And there are many lesson plans available if one searches the Internet. I think using fairy tales as an entry point to teaching a history lesson would be great: to talk about social mores of the particular time, professions people had, to research the period clothing, housing, agriculture, etc. But, there is so much more that can be accomplished with those stories!

They can provide children with emotional guidance; they introduce them to the essence of the story; they help them to think outside the box and become independent and creative thinkers.

Children of the 21st century are visual learners. They are wired differently. So to reach them, I used in my research an interactive approach with elements of play that I describe in the book. The point is to involve the children with the stories, to draw them in, to let them play inside of those tales.

I chose to work mainly with grades 2 and 3 because that is the age when children are interested in fairy tales the most and when they can easily and subconsciously absorb the narrative bases.

What is different and radical in my method is that the class activity is student-driven. This means that during the creation of the story, the teacher hands over the authority to the students and she/he becomes the listener and the guide, asking children for their ideas and steering them in the direction they want to go. Children have the freedom to alter the text, to invent the characters and setting of the story. They are in charge of the story and the images supplied for the new tale come from them.

That is very empowering for the kids and the classroom can become quite noisy, as many students want to participate. For the teacher, it provides a glimpse of how the children see the world and what is important to them. The story-inventing activity becomes an adventure both for the kids and the teacher because the story can develop in many different ways.

I was surprised at how much technology and pop culture found their way into the stories. Even though the children knew they were creating a fairy tale, their hero for example, instead of looking for a diamond or a ring, was searching for his stolen iPod and communicating with a police using his cell phone.

Another surprise was the fact that the children at that age were not interested in a generic “happily ever after” ending in the stories. They would bypass the girl/boy union altogether and were interested in justice being done instead.

I worked with hundreds of students in different schools and various demographics. In each class, the students would create their own amazing stories, reflecting places and communities they lived in, and what mattered to them. Even the difficult-to-reach students, such as those with autism, were drawn in and participated.

Q: Then what, after the children create their story?

A: Well, now the teacher regains her/his authority. She/he can show the students what they had accomplished in their story - that they created characters, setting and so on. That can move them into language arts and they can start to work on descriptions, metaphors, search the Internet for images, and use Smart Board technologies for example. The point here is that it becomes much easier when the children write from images they created in their heads. Oh, I could go on forever about this …

Now, research had shown that knowledge tied to a story is remembered better. Some teachers and librarians successfully use a traditional fairy tale as a base story from which they branch out into knowledge acquisition in teaching social science, geography, etc.

In my research, I discovered children remembered twice as many details from the stories they participated in and worked with hands on, than from the story I merely read to them. They were also more enthusiastic to talk about their stories and remembered them longer.

My overall philosophy is that if knowledge is attached to those stories that children make and own, they can remember it better for a longer time.


Thanks for sharing, Veronika!

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