How do our cultures shape the stories we tell? This was the starting question first graders in Emily Mitchell’s class explored when they read and dissected eighteen interpretations of the fairytale Cinderella from across the globe. In doing so, students had the opportunity to challenge traditional fairytale themes and ask themselves, “How would I tell the story differently?”
“For me it's about giving them something they know, which is the skeleton and bones of the Cinderella story, but giving them the freedom to take it where they want to go,” said Emily.
After reading Cinderella tales that emerged from countries as diverse as Turkey, China, Ireland, and the Philippines, students examined what was universal about these plots. They found that each story had a central character, a family, a major event, a magical element, a test for the protagonist to face (often in a time window), and a resolution. Beyond those elements, students found that the Cinderella story could be told many different ways.
For example, in The Irish Cinderlad, the protagonist is a young boy and it’s the princess who spends the story searching for the owner of a missing boot. In Sootface, a Native American interpretation of the story, nature is not just the backdrop but a theme woven throughout the story. In American author Rebecca Solnit’s feminist reinterpretation, Cinderella Liberator, Cinderella empowers people to be their authentic selves.
“Students have realized the original story is limited and narrow,” said Emily. “I love that students are feeling emboldened and empowered to bust it open.”
Avery F.-D. imagined a story that takes place in Africa, focused on a cheetah named Cheatahrella, who takes first place in a race, but misplaces her medal. The lion prince spends the story looking to return the medal because he is so impressed with Cheatahrella’s speed.
Ellie C. was inspired by seeing her own Chinese culture represented in the Cinderella-style tale, Yeh-Shen. When she wrote her own interpretation of the story, Ellie took inspiration from the Chinese fable and traded the anonymous fairy godmother we know from Disney’s “Cinderella” for the spirit of the protagonist’s mother.
Emily found that as students began to reimagine who could be at the center of the story, what can motivate the characters, and how the resolution can unfold, they naturally began to “debunk the stereotypical fairytale storylines.”
“Sometimes you can look beautiful, but not be beautiful on the inside,” said Annelise B., after Emily asked the class to reflect on what they learned about beauty from the different stories. “I liked the Egyptian Cinderella story because the prince wasn’t taken by her beauty first.”
In addition to reimagining characters and plotlines, Emily invited students to think about the ways they could infuse their own values into the morals of their stories.
For example, Laila v.-G., inspired by the nature themes in Sootface, centered her story on two black bear siblings who are orphaned after their mother bear is killed by a steel trap. She wanted readers to understand that human actions have an impact on animals.
“This type of project allows for a lot of low floors and high ceilings,” said Emily, meaning that every student has enough understanding to engage with the rewriting process, but each student can take the work as deep and as personalized as they want to.
Few examples demonstrate this as exuberantly as Faeren R.’s interpretation. He decided to infuse his love and extensive knowledge of the tennis world in his story, which centers on tennis star Rafael Nadal in the Cinderella role and other famous tennis stars as supporting characters. In the climax of the story, Rafael loses his magic tennis racket in the final set of the match and proves to himself that he can win on his own merit.
Students will share these Cinderella-inspired stories and more with their families during the first graders’ June culmination.