Once Upon a Classroom: Fairy Tales in the Core Curriculum

Increased dissatisfaction with writing skills, development and application are evident across multiple disciplines, both at the university level and within the U.S. job market. Anecdotal evidence from professors across disciplines and universities has suggested again and again that writing skills are deteriorating, or at the very least remaining stagnate. To address this concern about writing and to modernise our own programme, my institution of Misericordia University (based in Pennsylvania) created a three-tiered writing system, whereby undergraduate students take an introductory writing course in the English Department (English 151, although other departments can teach this course). This course is capped at twenty students and includes two writing-intensive courses that focus on developing skills learned in the 151 course and required writing tasks within all individual degree programmes.

The English 151 module sets out to teach students the basics of good writing in four main categories: summary, synthesis, analysis and evaluation. The course also refines students’ critical reading skills of both primary and secondary sources. The justification for these particular areas of writing is that they are the cornerstones of good writing and are universal to all disciplines. Each professor teaching the course develops his/her own reading list, while adhering to the course objectives and learning outcomes. For my particular section, I have used fairy tales as my content focus. My rationale is three-fold: fairy tales are more accessible as many (though not all) are familiar to the students, thereby engaging students who might otherwise resent the required course or dislike reading; fairy tales are a natural fit for the writing components of the course, specifically synthesis and analysis; finally, fairy tales allow students to engage with complicated ideas and systems in their own words.

In my course I limit our discussion to six popular fairy-tale types: ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Bluebeard’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, and ‘Hansel and Gretel’. The practical reason is simply that Maria Tatar’s collection, The Classic Fairy Tales, has multiple versions of each of these stories, making the course inexpensive. In terms of accessibility, this list represents the familiar Disney tales (‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White’, and ‘Beauty and the Beast’), the familiar from childhood (‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel’), and the less familiar (‘Bluebeard’). An informal survey at the start of the semester indicated that 100% of students were familiar with ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, 80% with ‘Snow White’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, 30% with ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and none with ‘Bluebeard’. I had anticipated figures similar to this and organised our reading to move from the most familiar to the less familiar texts.

This allows students to feel comfortable with the initial discussions and develop their comfort with literary analysis and discussion as we move to the less familiar texts. These classes produce the highest rate of participation in any of my classes to date: on average, 80% of students actively participate in a session. While this may have more to do with the quality of students than the content, I do think the familiarity of the material has helped in this area.

Fairy tales offer the opportunity not only to teach the genre but also to delve into comparative literature and global cultures

While the general tale-types are largely familiar to students, most of the variations are not, particularly non-Western variations. This unfamiliarity is, in many ways, as useful as the tales’ familiarity since fairy tales offer the opportunity not only to teach the genre but also to delve into comparative literature and global cultures. A particularly useful tale for this approach is ‘Cinderella,’ which has many cultural variations. In order to prepare for these different versions, including Chinese, Indian and Egyptian variations, students are required to conduct introductory research on the culture and time period as preparation for the class discussion. Students respond very well to these stories; they are largely surprised by how universal ‘Cinderella’ is (and, indeed, fairy tales in general) and are interested in researching these cultures. In an informal survey conducted midway through the 2013 spring semester, students indicated a particular appreciation for the course’s texts. 83% of students indicated their favourite aspect of class was the fairy tales and/or the discussion of the fairy tales. Again, this data is not without its flaws— these students might just like fairy tales— but given their discipline backgrounds (58% health science, 22% business, 15% professional studies, and only 5% humanities/undeclared), this is a reflection of strong interest in the reading material, which can translate to better student engagement and writing.

My main reason in selecting fairy tales, however, is their fit with our required writing assignments. While any sources could work well for the different types of writing, fairy tales prove particularly useful for the writing requirements of the course. While there are three other writing assignments in my course— summary, evaluative, and research— I will focus on the synthesis and analysis assignments, as fairy tales are particularly useful for these assignments.

As there are many variations of each fairy-tale type, fairy tales are a valuable genre for a synthesis assignment.  While there are certainly related texts in other genres— and even revisionist literature in general would serve well for this assignment— fairy tales provide a range of sources that students can use. Because of their accessibility and familiarity, fairy tales also offer students more to work with, since the pitfall of a synthesis assignment is that students fall back on simple comparison-contrast arguments (e.g. ‘these two authors are similar yet different’). The problem is often that they do not fully understand one or both author’s work and therefore rely on surface similarities and differences without considering deeper critical thinking and, more importantly, the relationship between the two texts. While students studying fairy tales can still commit this error in synthesis, this is less likely because they understand the stories better and therefore cannot rely on superficial plot differences for their argument.

What is refreshing about teaching fairy tales to a first-year class is the opportunity to pair the stories with critical approaches

For the synthesis assignment, students are asked to look at two versions of the same fairy tale, either ‘Cinderella’ or ‘Snow White’. I select these two stories because they are among the most familiar fairy tales for North American students and they have several variations that are ripe for synthesis, both cultural and revisionist. As the students understand the basic tale structure— we spend time on the Aarne-Thompson tale-type system designed to help folklorists identify recurring patterns in traditional narratives at the beginning of the semester— they already comprehend the basic relationship between the texts. They can then turn critically to the differences and the relationship between the texts as viewed through their differences. One of the strongest papers considers the function of patriarchy in Charles Perrault’s ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Donkeyskin’, concluding that the absence of ‘Donkeyskin’ in modern collections is not because of the incest plotline but rather because Donkeyskin disobeys her father and therefore patriarchal order. As a whole, students are less inclined to provide surface readings of the texts— and therefore neglect the relationship between them— because they can easily perceive a relationship between the texts and can therefore be more critical of the tales.

This same critical approach translates to their third assignment: the analysis paper. Of all the writing assignments in English 151, this is the one I have assigned the most in other classes. This is true of most English professors, since literary analysis is the backbone of our own work. Again, the advantage of using fairy tales for an analysis assignment is their familiarity. Good reading practices indicate we should read a text twice: once for plot/meaning and again for specific symbols, structure, rhetorical techniques, etc. Most students do not read texts twice; sometimes, they do not even read them once. Because fairy tales are short, there is a better chance of students reading the stories twice. More importantly— and more likely— because students already know the basic plots, they can focus on the symbols, structure, etc. in their first read-through.

The second advantage for the analysis assignment is that fairy tales are filled with symbols, cultural references, etc. This is not to suggest other genres neglect these elements, but the symbol-to-page-length ratio is much higher. I have found that with longer texts, students can identify symbols in their first usage but fail to identify their sustained use in the text— either because the symbol changes slightly or because of the number of pages they must recall. With fairy tales, students can visually see that a reference to a rose several times in one story must be significant. Because the genre has certain familiar features— the repeated use of the numbers three and seven, for instance— students can use recursive knowledge to identify how something we discussed in one story has reappeared in another and must be significant. By reading multiple version of the same tale, students can also discern how symbols function differently depending on the author’s intent. This recursive learning has been a particular interest for many of my students in reading feminist revisions of the tales.

For the analysis assignment, students are given the freedom to choose any story they have not used for their synthesis paper and can choose variations of ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or ‘Bluebeard’. This offers an effective mix of familiar and less familiar tales, and also ones that have similar themes between them (the development of the young girl, marriage, etc.). Students are provided prompts but are also allowed and encouraged to develop their own analytical approach. The response to this assignment is fairly diverse: although many students are interested in Angela Carter’s story, ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, as an example of female empowerment and rejection of male objectification of women, students also turn to lesser-known versions of these tale types. One of the strongest papers interprets Bluebeard’s chamber as a representation of the false power of patriarchy. Overall, the analysis in the papers is stronger because the students have become familiar with the meaning of certain symbols in other fairy tales we discuss in class. They can also understand how the fairy tales relate to their cultural environments, which helps them to comprehend the variations in symbols and meaning.

Because English 151 is geared toward writing instruction and development, the previous applications of fairy tales are the most important to the objective and learning outcomes of the course. However, what I value at an equal level is the cross-discipline and ‘real-world’ applications that fairy tales can provide. These applications can be divided into two major critical approaches: psychoanalytical and feminist. What is refreshing about teaching fairy tales to a first-year class is the opportunity to pair the stories with critical approaches. Critical theory is difficult even for some English majors; for first-year students majoring primarily in the health sciences and business, the task is even more daunting. However, because fairy tales have such obvious references to psychological development, power, economic issues and patriarchy, these two theories are easy and obvious fits for such courses.

I begin the course with ‘Snow White’ as this offers insight into these two major critical theories. With psychoanalysis, we can discuss how Snow White is in the process of developing from a young girl to a woman, particularly as seen with the Queen’s trial (the stays, the combs, and the apple). Here I can ask students to consider what each item symbolises— which anticipates the analysis assignment— and how they are related. In pairing the story with Anne Sexton’s revision, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, students are able to see how the stories deal with Snow White’s sexual development and why she is such a perceived threat to the Queen: this anticipates the synthesis assignment. We also turn to the miner dwarfs and their childlike appearance; with some coaxing, students realise how the dwarfs can represent Snow White’s unconscious. Pairing Snow White with selections from Bruno Bettelheim and his psychoanalytic readings of this genre help students further understand one way of interpreting the tale. Admittedly, psychoanalysis is sometimes a tough sell, but because many other fairy tales use young girls who are suddenly married at the end of the tale, students start to discern how the tales reflect a psychological development to match the literal and cultural elements of the tale.

Students are also drawn to notions of masculinity, hegemony and feminist criticism; this is in part because several revision stories we read are written by feminists, but also because fairy tales offer such literal instances of patriarchy. When teaching about feminist criticism, I focus on two major concepts: patriarchy and the male gaze— I find these are the foundations for many of the other components and issues of feminist criticism. Nearly all the fairy tales I teach offer a clear representation of a patriarchal figure by way of the king (or sometimes prince) and the father. Even in fairy tales with absent fathers, the father’s presence is evident in other characters and items. Fairy tales not only demonstrate the male-controlled societies, but also show how patriarchy is the opposite of democracy, which is sometimes neglected when discussing patriarchy. Thus, we can see how the patriarch dictates the terms of the story rather than allowing the characters a voice— Bluebeard does it with his demands on his wife, for instance. I can also translate this very easily to a discussion of the male gaze— the Grimms’ ‘Snow White’ is the obvious and easy choice for this discussion. Students can read a literal instance of this in the prince’s gaze upon Snow White in her glass coffin. This then sets up a connection to the glass mirror and how the mirror can act as the patriarch and the male gaze: it observes and objectifies women while also dictating the terms of the tale. By beginning the semester with Snow White and this discussion of patriarchy, students are able to make the connection to the use of the male gaze in other stories, such as ‘Bluebeard’ and his key/egg. Students become very attuned to this approach because they can see its obvious usage; this translates to an application to their worldview. In a discussion of Perrault’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ earlier this year, students equated Perrault’s moral to the social-media backlash against the rape victim in the Stuebenville, Ohio case. They argued that Perrault’s moral was the dangerous notion of patriarchal control of women by objectifying them and teaching them that rape is, in part, their fault. This sort of classroom application to current events is one of the greatest achievements for a teacher and a testament to the power of fairy tales.