Learning about World Cultures through Folktales

Carol J. Fuhler, Pamela J. Farris, and Lynda Hatch
Folktales of different cultures have an important place in the social studies classroom. By quickening curiosity about other cultures, folktales can help students to appreciate the reality of human diversity.1 At the same time, the common elements in folktales may serve to increase children's empathy with people of other cultures.
From time immemorial, storytellers have passed down tales to be shared by the members of a community-some purely for entertainment and others used to transmit a society's customs, attitudes, values, and even philosophies of life, to the next generation.2 Folktales "allow students to experience one of the ways a society develops a sense of moral behavior in its children."3 Children today can learn from this rich literary heritage, which provides both a window into other cultures, and a mirror that allows viewers to reflect more clearly on aspects of their own culture.

This article looks at folktales from three countries or regions of the world-China, Africa, and Russia-and suggests ways to use them in the classroom. However, when using folktales in the social studies, it is important to make clear that they represent the traditional culture of a region or nation, and do not bear a one-to-one relationship with present-day societies. Before introducing their students to folktales, teachers may wish to consult a resource such as Bernson's recent Social Education article, "Asia in the Classroom: How to Choose and Use Children's Literature," for a detailed discussion of this issue.4

Traditional Chinese Folktales
You could begin this activity by helping students to place China on a world map. Point out some of its main geographic features, with special reference to any that have a bearing on the stories to be discussed. You may want to use a travel video to bring these features to life. Students could also look for pictures that represent various aspects of traditional and modern Chinese culture for a bulletin board display.
An amusing trickster tale, The Seven Chinese Brothers, makes a good opening for the discussion of Chinese folk literature. Read the story once so that students can form initial impressions. Do they think it's funny? If so, why? Students may point to exaggeration as one source of humor in this tale. What other stories can they think of that use exaggeration for comic effect-an American "tall tale," for example? As a language arts activity, ask students to write a paragraph or story that uses this literary device.

Read the story a second time for details about the culture it represents. Have students make charts by dividing a piece of notebook paper into columns for recording information about different topics. These might include the landscape, people's occupations, family and social relations, the form of government, and attitudes or values revealed by the characters. Tell students to listen closely for clues about each topic as the story is read again. Then have the class discuss their findings and record their shared observations on a large chart in the front of the room.

Students can use the same process to study a second folktale, The Journey of Meng. Read the story once for students to gain an overall appreciation. Then read it again, asking students to note details about the culture it reflects. Have students add to the original chart, or create a second chart to record their observations. Are there any new topics to add to the original list? What similarities and differences do students find between the two tales?

Give students the opportunity to look closely at the illustrations that accompany these folktales. The modern editions of folktales often have illustrations that are closely based on historical knowledge. What do the pictures in these two folktales show about the traditional culture of China? Have students use historical resources, such as Fisher's The Great Wall of China, to learn more about ancient China.5

This activity could be expanded by having students in small groups report on other Chinese folktales. We recommend The Eyes of the Dragon, the story of a magistrate whose uncontrolled pride releases a dragon of such power that the wall protecting his village is completely destroyed. The Dragon's Pearl, about a mother's love for her child and the importance of work, also provides insights about the traditional use of walls to protect Chinese villages and the central importance of farming to Chinese culture.

After reading many tales and observing what they have in common, students may be prepared to offer some general statements about the culture reflected in traditional Chinese folktales. While the teacher should be open to their ideas, it is also essential to point out the limits of what they have read, and to correct any misconceptions about both traditional and modern China that may develop from this activity.6

Traditional African Folktales
African folktales are as rich in diversity as the continent itself. As with China, introduce this activity with a map of Africa, pointing to the countries or subregions where the tales to be used originated. Similarly, have students look for illustrations that show both traditional and modern aspects of these cultures. Students should chart their observations in the same way they did with Chinese folktales.
You might begin with another trickster tale-Gail Haley's rendition of A Story, a Story, which belongs to the West African cycle of Anansi tales. In this story, the spider man Ananse must be very clever to tell stories belonging only to the Sky God. Follow this with another Anansi tale, perhaps Anansi Goes Fishing, in which Turtle tricks Anansi into doing all of the work while he takes life easy.

The many tales of Anansi reflect both humor and societal values as the spider learns one lesson after another in trying to outwit his animal friends. As a contrast to this trickster cycle, read students The Orphan Boy, a Maasai tale from East Africa that explains why Kileken (the planet Venus) appears in the sky both in the morning and at night. Engage the class in a discussion of how these tales are similar and how they differ.

Students can learn more about the values rooted in traditional African cultures as small groups read other tales and the class discusses them. For example, the value of generosity as opposed to the detrimental effects of greed is clearly demonstrated in John Steptoe's version of a Zimbabwe story, Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale.

African folktales do not always spell out their message, but may leave the ending for the audience to interpret. For instance, in Young Mouse and Elephant: An East African Folktale, Young Mouse is convinced that he is the strongest animal on the savannah. Although the experience of challenging Elephant-and being tumbled unconscious across the savannah in a spray of water-should teach otherwise, Young Mouse awakens to observe that it must have "rained" and washed Elephant away. The story ends with Young Mouse's reflection: "And in that case, she should consider herself fortunate, for I would have broken her apart and stomped her to bits."

Geography and language arts can work together as students trace the roots of African folktales. Have students in groups prepare an index card about the story they have read which includes: (1) its title, (2) a one-line summary, and (3) one thing it suggests about its culture of origin. Students should place the index cards on the map, or so as to encircle the map, attaching them to the proper location with yarn and pushpins.

Folktales can also be good vehicles to bring creative dramatics into the classroom. Students can work in small groups to perform their favorite stories. They might make simple tagboard masks for use with a few other props to highlight the action. The audience's imaginations will fill in the background as the actors bring folktales to life.

Traditional Russian Folktales
Help students locate Russia on an up-to-date map. Explain how the shape of Russia has changed since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and point out the countries that have been newly created (e.g., Ukraine, Armenia, or Kazakhstan) or restored (i.e., the Baltic states) over the past decade. This is a necessary background for creating a bulletin board display, since the pictures that students bring in to show "Russia" may in fact illustrate what has become another nation. Again, have students prepare charts to note their observations about the stories to be read.
As with other folklore traditions, Russian folktales have characteristic patterns of action and behavior. However, Russian tales are often longer and more complicated than those from other countries, so that children's books sometimes tell just part of a story, or have one story weave into another.

A good beginning is the tale of Baba Yaga as told by Katya Arnold. In this story, the witch Baba Yaga captures a young boy who only escapes being eaten by using his wits and accepting the help of a goose. Follow it with another witch tale, Polacco's Babushka Baba Yaga, and ask students to compare and contrast their observations about the two folktales.

As a language and art activity, students might write and illustrate their own story of Baba Yaga using elements of the stories they have read, such as good and bad characters, tasks and rewards, the use of magic, and the effect of repetition. The illustrations for Arnold's book were inspired by "lubok" pictures, a type of Russian folk art involving hand-colored woodcuts that dates from the 17th century. This printing technique can be adapted to the classroom using linoleum-cut, styrofoam, or potato printing.

A story that offers a wealth of detail about traditional Russian culture is told in Denise's The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship. In this story, more properly classified as a fairy tale, the tsar of Russia proclaims that he will marry his daughter to the man who brings him a flying ship. The Fool of the World sets out to try his "luck," which consists of using the skills of people he gathers along the way to complete the tasks set for him by the tsar. This story appears in many versions, and students might compare this version with the "The Flying Ship" in Virginia Haviland's Favorite Fairy Tales Told in Russia. Have students look for what is similar and different in the two retellings, and what each suggests about the traditional Russian culture it reflects.

Like the folk literature of other cultures, Russian tales embody human attitudes and values, although all folktales of the same culture may not reflect the same things. In a tale of friendship, Rechenka's Eggs, a young girl rescues an injured goose. After the goose accidentally breaks the eggs she has painted for the Easter Festival in Moscow, it lays thirteen beautifully-decorated eggs to replace them, and leaves behind a miracle egg that hatches into a baby goose.

Students could explore the significance of eggs in the Russian Orthodox celebration of Easter, and how much this cultural tradition persists in Russia today. This could begin a discussion of Russia's historical transformation from tsarist state to Soviet Union to fledgling democracy. Students who are old enough might explore the question: What aspects of their cultural past do (and don't) modern Russians want to preserve or restore?

Folktales can be a wonderful resource for illuminating the traditional values and lifestyles of a culture-either another culture or one's own. Children can observe what is alike and what is different about folktales that belong to the same cultural tradition. Likewise, they may discern both common and distinctive features in the folktales of different cultures. While folktales can enrich the study of a society's past, what they tell us about the present is more problematic. Perhaps the best index to their meaning is the persistence of their popularity in a world so far removed from their origins.

1. R. Bishop, Kaleidoscope: A Multicultural Booklist for Grades K-7 (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994).
2. C. S. Huck, S. Hepler, and J. Hickman, Children's Literature in the Elementary School, 5th ed. (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993).
3. Myra Zarnowski and Arlene F. Gallagher, eds., Children's Literature and Social Studies: Selecting and Using Notable Books in the Classroom (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1993), 9.
4. Mary Hammond Bernson, "Asia in the Classroom: How to Choose and Use Children's Literature," Social Education 62, No. 4 (April/May 1998), M13.
5. L. E. Fisher, The Great Wall of China (New York: Aladdin, 1995).
6. M. Cai, "Can We Fly Across Cultural Gaps on the Wings of Imagination? Ethnicity, Experience, and Cultural Authenticity," The New Advocate 8, No. 1, 1-16.

Resources for Teachers
Alexander, L. The Fortune Tellers. Illus. by Trina Schart Hyman. New York: Dutton, 1992.
Koeller, S. "Multicultural Understanding through Literature." Social Education 60, No. 2 (1996): 99-103.
Norton, D. Through the Eyes of a Child, 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill, 1991.
Norton, D. "Teaching Multicultural Literature in the Reading Curriculum." The Reading Teacher, 44, No. 1 (1990): 28-40.
Olson, C. B., ed. Reading, Thinking, and Writing About Multicultural Literature. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman, 1996.
Reinhartz, D. and J. Reinhartz. Geography Across the Curriculum. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1990.

Children's Literature
Chinese Folktales
Hillerman, E. Min-Yo and the Moon Dragon. Illus. by John Wallner. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.
Lattimore, D. N. The Dragon's Robe. New York: HarperTrophy, 1990.
Lawson, J. The Dragon's Pearl. Illus. by Paul Morin. New York: Clarion, 1993.
Leaf, M. Eyes of the Dragon. Illus. by Ed Young. New York: Lothrop, 1987.
Mahy, M. The Seven Chinese Brothers. Illus. by Jean & Mou-sien Tseng. New York: Scholastic, 1990.
Pattison, D. The River Dragon. Illus. by Jean & Mou-sien Tseng. New York: Lothrop, 1991.
Rappaport, D. Journey of Meng. Illus. by Yang-ming Yi. New York: Dial, 1991.
Wang,R. C. The Fourth Question: A Chinese Tale. Illus. by Ju-Hong Chen. New York: Holiday, 1991.

African Folktales
Aardema, V. Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain. Illus. by Beatriz Vidal. New York: Dial, 1981.
Aardema, V. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears. Illus. by Leo and Diane Dillon. New York: Dial, 1976.
Farris, P. Young Mouse and Elephant: An East African Folktale. Illus. by Valerie Gorbachev. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Haley, G. A Story, A Story. New York: Atheneum, 1970.
Kimmel, E. Anansi Goes Fishing. Illus. by Janet Stevens. New York: Holiday House, 1993.
Kimmel, E. Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock. Illus. by Janet Stevens. New York: Holiday House, 1988.
McDermott, G. Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale From West Africa. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.
Mollel, TM. The Orphan Boy. Illus. by Paul Morin. New York: Clarion, 1990.
Steptoe, J. Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale. New York: Lothrop, 1987.

Russian Folktales
Arnold, K. Baba Yaga. New York: North-South Books, 1993.
Denise, C. The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship. New York: Philomel, 1994.
Haviland, V. "The Flying Ship" in Favorite Fairy Tales Told in Russia. New York: Beech Tree, 1995.
Kimmel, E. Baba Yaga. New York: Holiday House, 1991.
Marshak, S. The Month-Brothers. New York: William Morrow, 1983.
Polacco, P. Babushka Baba Yaga. New York: Philomel, 1993.
Polacco, P. Rechenka's Eggs. New York: Philomel, 1988.

About the Authors
Carol J. Fuhler is an assistant professor at the Center for Excellence in Education, Northern Arizona University. Pamela J. Farris is the Presidential Teaching Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Northern Illinois University. Lynda Hatch is an associate professor at the Center for Excellence in Education, Northern Arizona University.