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Tales as old as time

It should hardly come as a surprise to anyone that when it comes to the Disney princesses, I find myself identifying most with Belle, the brunette bookworm from Beauty and the Beast. The notion of a girl longing to escape her world through the pages of a story presented a strong parallel to my own adolescent years. I watched that movie until the tape in the VCR (remember those?) shredded from overuse.

You can only imagine the delight I had in going to see the “stage adaptation” on my thirteenth birthday. Settling into my seat, I couldn’t wait to observe how the tiny French village would come alive and hear the swish of that red rose petal as it drops onto the glass table. I was eager to hum along with the jaunty tune of “Be Our Guest.” Two hours later, I walked out of the theater in a bit of shock — this play had been set in modern day New York, our “Belle” was the daughter of a computer technician, and the rose that signals the end of the Beast’s life was now a clock tower connected to the library.

Yet what had actually shocked me was that I loved this play just as much as I had loved Disney’s classic! It was my first look into the wide world of adaptations, a critical layer of storytelling that allows students to both compare and contrast works of literature.

I mention this story because our class has now moved on from Ancient Egypt to Ancient Greece in our concept-based units. On the first day of our Greek reading groups, I held up Homer’s The Odyssey, the one translated by Robert Fagles and a staple in the syllabus of literature classes. The pages of my thick copy are a bit frayed and marked up with annotations. I watched ten pairs of eyes peer at the book, and I knew their thoughts were racing, “Is she really going to make us read that?” I let them sweat it out for a couple more minutes before I finally handed out their version — The Odyssey, courtesy of Wishbone classics. We laughed, but it served as an excellent backbone for what would become the key concept of this unit — that myths are told by different people in different ways, yet the heart or theme of the story resides in each one.

book of greek mythsThe third grade teaching team has utilized an abundance of mentor texts that allow students to make comparisons of mythological tales. We have used The Book of Greek Myths by Ingri D’Aulaire, as a core Read Aloud text — just long enough to maintain their interests, yet concise enough to keep students engaged in the tales of Persephone swallowing the pomegranate seeds, or Hera’s revenge on the women who sway the heart of Zeus.

wingsStudents have gained a lot of practice using Venn diagrams to compare the D’Aulaires text with that of picture books like Wings by Jane Yolen, graphic novels like The Olympians series by George O’Connor, and of course, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series that never sits on the bookshelf for even a night.

lightening thiefNot studying the ancient civilizations in your classroom? No worries! As the unit continues, students have gained more independence in making the connections amongst versions of stories outside of the Greek mythology realm. In fact, over the holidays, two of our students brought in different versions of The Gingerbread Man. We made the same comparisons that we had with the Greek stories, and had just as much fun!

What are some other adaptations you can bring into your classroom?

Editor’s note: for more on adaptations and transformations, check out the March/April 2015 Horn Book Magazine.

Stacy Tell About Stacy Tell

Stacy Tell received her undergraduate degree in Childhood/Special Education from New York University, and her master’s in Language & Literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is passionate about helping students to become lifelong readers and is currently teaching in a third grade classroom in Weston, Massachusetts.

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