My story begins about a year ago when my 21st Century Skills PLC (professional learning community) embarked on a reflective journey: What does the teaching of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity look like in practice? As a kindergarten teacher, I recognize the importance of phonics and reading strategies to boost my students’ literacy skills, and I wondered: How can I integrate all these skills meaningfully? In my context, definitely play-based!
During one of our library sessions, after reading We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen, one of my students questioned why the family had run away from the bear: “What if he just wanted to make friends?” Their creativity and critical thinking were my idea generator. What if I were to use the wonders of storytelling to foster 21st-century skills and support the students’ language development?
Storytelling is well-known for its role in education: Not only does it inspire imagination, but also it’s highly engaging. Fun aside, it’s an incredible language booster: It exposes students to new vocabulary and sentence structures, supports students to follow the sequence of events and make predictions, and strengthens students’ memory skills as they try to recall characters and the dramatic parts in the story. For my mission, I specifically opted for fairy tales because of the magic they bring and because I could make my lessons more culturally responsive, which I will describe below.
Create an Engaging Show for Students
Setting the scene does not require much preparation, but I highly recommend the use of add-ons, using lighting, puppets, body language, simple props, and an animated voice to create a more mysterious and captivating atmosphere. My students were in shock when Jack’s mother threw the beans out of the window—me, in this case—and one brought me a tissue when I pretended to be Baby Bear, upset when he saw his broken chair.
Creating mental pictures is another powerful strategy to capture the students’ interest and foster creativity. Somewhere in the story, I ask my students to close their eyes and imagine, for instance, what the setting looks like: the smell and temperature of the place or the sounds they can hear. One of my students said that the clouds in front of the Giant’s castle in “Jack and the Beanstalk” tasted like cotton candy, while another insisted they were salty.
Movement throughout our fairy tale moments is never too much, and I get my students physically engaged. For example, they all looked up at the beanstalk to wonder how high it went, and they all climbed it together, making sure not to slip and fall. I also like to get my students outside of the classroom for a walk and read—everyone gets engaged in the story. For example, when escaping the oven and running away from Little Old Woman, my little Gingerbread Men skipped in the corridors, chanting, smiling, and holding the hands of those who truly felt chased.
Chanting has proved to be a wonderful approach to boosting my English as a second language (ESL) students’ confidence to communicate and learn new vocabulary. The repetition that is so often found in children’s books has proved to be a useful approach to boosting my ESL students’ confidence to communicate and learn new vocabulary. I’ve seen that chanting helps my students grasp new words and consolidate some sentence structures in context.
Encourage Critical Thinking and Discussion After the Story
When the fairy tale is over, our focus is on the characters’ actions for some critical thinking and communication development. We engage in whole or small group discussions about why the characters behaved in a certain way. For instance, when asked if Goldilocks had been a risk-taker, the answer was unanimous: “No!” However, after talking about it, my students realized that being a risk-taker isn’t always positive and might involve risks they don’t want to take.
Other examples of this were our discussions about what would have happened if Fox and Gingerbread Man had become good friends, and if Wolf was so hungry, what would have been more principled than eating Grandma?
For the follow-up after the class discussion, I divide my students into smaller, mixed-ability groups to support collaboration and learning from each other. They’ve engaged in acting out their favorite scenes, making puppets, writing speech bubbles, creating collective displays by drawing or painting their favorite parts of the fairy tales, and (my favorite) changing the ending. We all agreed that Jack and the Giant should have become friends and that Goldilocks should have knocked on the door and come back later.
Keep Inclusivity in Mind
Acknowledging today’s increasingly multicultural classrooms involves more than acceptance and respect. In my classroom, I’ve made sure that fairy tale learning engagements are also culturally responsive and inclusive. Including fairy tales from my students’ countries and backgrounds has surprised them and encouraged conversations with their families back home.
My Indonesian students appreciated the story of Timun Mas and the monster Butho Ijo; my Chinese students felt proud to learn about Lon Po Po—a Chinese version of Little Red Riding Hood. They also found it amusing to hear about the Giant Water Lily, a fairy tale from Brazil, where I am proudly from.
Apart from all the excitement and engagement from everyone in the group, I’ve witnessed my students’ growing confidence to share creative ideas and work collaboratively. When acting out different stories, they take turns to role-play their favorite characters and suggest innovative endings for them. When illustrating, they discuss what colors to use, what to draw, and the captions that should go with their work.
My favorite memory is when my student who struggled with phonics was supported by his peers, who held the alphabet card in front of him and pointed at the letters that represented the sounds he did not recognize. Not only did this show language skill practice, but also it was a sign of community building.
As a final spark, my students bring up the lessons they learned through fairy tales when solving minor conflicts or making decisions. When choosing a book to read, they always remember the Goldilocks rule; when winning, they remind each other not to boast like Gingerbread Man; when disappointed, they are reminded of the potential of magic beans.