May 18, 2023
What can our students learn from stories that reflect diverse cultural worldviews about human behavior and lived experiences? Fables and myths are two ways that people have traditionally passed down and retold stories about their collective knowledge, experience, and understanding of our world. When we retell stories, it is “to tell again or in another form” (Merriam-Webster, 2023). By retelling these old stories in another form, students have additional opportunities to develop empathy, cultivate their imagination, and explore the human experience over time and through space. However, it is important to be aware and respectful when we retell stories. For some people and communities, their old stories may be part of their living culture and way of life. So be considerate and sensitive to the cultural backgrounds of your students.
Let’s look more closely at fables and myths. What is a fable, and what is its purpose? A fable is a brief narrative story with a moral or lesson that usually has animals with human behaviors and qualities such as speech. “In these narratives, the animal characters have all the physical features of animals. Yet, everything else about them is anthropomorphic; they certainly behave like human beings. Thus they are regarded as masks for making social comments on contemporary issues” (Obiora & Eke).
There are many compelling reasons for including the teaching of fables in our schools, and many of you are already using these with great effect not only in elementary school but also in middle school. Fables teach personification, moral dilemmas, cultural values, and traditions and inspire interdisciplinary lessons or units. Fables from different cultures include: The King of the Forest (Chinese), Buri and the Marrow (Bengali), The Enormous Turnip (Russian), and The Hare’s Revenge (Malaysian). This last fable teaches children perseverance and cooperation. It features a clever hare that exploits the lion’s jealousy and vanity to trick the latter and escape.
While a fable often reflects human behavior and dynamics, a myth, on the other hand, is defined as “a powerful traditional story that a culture uses to unfold its own worldview and beliefs, or its explanation for natural phenomena” (Merriam-Webster, 2023). Myths can be used in the classroom to explore stories behind the occurrence of natural phenomena, such as the reason we have seasons; students could consider what a myth about the climate emergency might look like. We often think of myths as exploring human characteristics in the form of gods and goddesses, and how the gods’ personal struggles influence the world in their construct. Are the issues of power, ego, and leadership different today as compared to those in mythic times?
Ways of retelling mythic stories include changing the time frame characters inhabit eg. bringing characters into contemporary settings, as in Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel American Gods, which is inspired by Norse mythology. Many contemporary twisted retellings for young adults of our childhood stories take us back to the darker, original stories, as told by the Brothers Grimm. Changing the happily ever after ending is another way of retelling. For instance: Is there a happily ever after, who gets the happily ever after, and what would the happily ever after look like today? How does disrupting the narrative change the lesson of a fable? What message would we be conveying about today’s society if the hare beat the tortoise in Aesop’s fable?
Another form stories can take is changing the perspective from which the story is told—essentially telling the story from a different character’s point of view. One example of this is Circe by Madeline Miller. In Greek mythology, although goddesses are powerful, women are often sidelined. Miller depicts Circe (traditionally portrayed as a dangerous enchantress) as an exiled daughter and vulnerable woman protecting herself and her home. Incorporating humor, as in the case of Stephen Fry’s Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold, can also add another dimension to the original story.
We developed the graphic below to encourage your students to practice retelling old stories:
Perspective: Students can identify the point of view the story is told from and consider how the story might change if the point of view is different. Would they feel more empathetic towards villains if they had a deeper understanding of their lives?
Time Travel: Students can identify the time the story was set in and imagine how characters might behave differently if the time the story was set in changed. How would this impact social and cultural expectations?
Human Values and Relationships: Students can reflect on the lessons and values explored in the story. Can they transfer their understanding of these to the learning environment/culture of their classroom and to real-world issues? Can they apply the insights and self-awareness characters develop to their own lives and relationships?
If we interpret retelling in a broader context and with a more contemporary approach using technology, it can align with the ISTE Creative Communicator standard in which “Students create original works or responsibly repurpose or remix digital resources into new creations” (1.6b). ISTE defines how to repurpose or remix responsibly: “Changing the way something was originally used or combining original assets in a unique way and as needed, seeking permission to use content from the author/creator and using proper attribution.” Repurposing and remixing could also be applied to graphic images, music, video, or film.
Retelling also meets the Common Core State Standards for ELA in Reading Standards for Literature K-5, Writing Standards K-5, and Speaking and Listening Standards K-5. All of which include how to “recount or retell fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures.” As students advance, CCSS expands: To “determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text highlight the opportunities for critical and creative thinking that retelling can offer your students.”
When retelling old stories from new perspectives, what do we gain, what do we lose? Cultural expectations may change over time, but what about human expectations? How can we be inspired by fables and the retelling of myths to examine issues and develop a respectful and open-minded culture of learning in our classrooms? If retelling stories can inspire empathy in our students for characters whose choices are challenging to understand, perhaps they can extend this to their interactions in the real world.
Obika, A. N., & Eke, O. A. (2016). The talking animals of folktales. International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities Reviews, 6(1), 19-26. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349571189_THE_TALKING_ANIMALS_OF_FOLKTALES
Atwood, M. (1996). The handmaid’s tale. Vintage.
Fry, S. (2018). Mythos. Penguin Books.
Gaiman, N. (2010). American gods (Nachdr. ed.). Morrow.
Miller, M. (2018). Circe. Bloomsbury.
Web sites, e-sources
International Society for Technology in Education (Ed.). (2023). ISTE standards :students. ISTE.org. Retrieved May 3, 2023, from https://www.iste.org/standards/iste-standards-for-studentsMerriam-Webster (Ed.). (2023). Retell definition and meaning. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved May 3, 2023, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/retell
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Harbord & Khan for Intrepid Ed News.