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Lesson Plan:Critical Theory and Fairy Tales

Paul Klee "Fairy Tale" (1929)

This is a lesson that can be done over the course of 2 days to a week depending on the level. It's geared toward first and second year college students but may also be appropriate for masters level.

For this lesson I owe a huge debt to the work of Jenna Gardner who has adapted Little Red Riding Hood into a side-by-side chart with critical/literary theory approaches. I also should note my professor, Moe Folk, introduced us to this document in his 2015 class The Rhetoric of Style. Not all critical/literary theories are used here, but it gives students enough to work through the process of applying a critical theory to a text.

To explain the process for this lesson I will reveal the "ends"--the culminating assignment:

Students are given the option to...

create a new fairy tale with a modern moral


analyze an existing fairy tale with a critical theory

In my classroom, as I discuss in the warm-up assignment post I've provided, we grapple with critical theories because they help students practice critical reading and engagement with the culture surrounding them. After we have already taken a look at a list of critical theories and had some practice applying these theories as a lens in our daily warm-ups students should be able to make more enthusiastic contact with this lesson and enjoy participation.

First Class Session

Pull up the work of Jenna Gardner, "Little Red Riding Hood: A Critical Theory Approach," and forecast the assignment for students. Show them the story panels and illustrations to acclimate them to the document. Explain the rationale: getting them comfortable with analyzing artistic and cultural works through a lens eloquently and effectively.

As they will notice, not all critical theories are utilized in the document. Students will find: pre-critical, formalism, mythological/archetypal, psychological & Jungian, feminist, Marxist, historical, and reader response. Depending on the feeling/comfort level of the class, encourage them to utilize other theories of their choice during the process.

For the first run through: read all the interpretive lenses Gardener has provided for us. Usually I point out theories can have shortcomings and for this I highlight the archetypal/mythological theory. The problematics with archetypal/mythological theory has to do with cultural considerations which connect to postcolonial theory. Not every culture will recognize the same archetypes or regard them with the same connotations, so it's unfair to frame these elements as "universal."

Next is the fun part: we look through the story panels and read Gardner's interpretations of them using theories. These can be long-winded moments akin to lecturing, so keep in mind you want to do about 3 guidance-based panels and then move on to a panel sans interpretation to encourage activity from students.


Provide a panel without interpretation. Give students the opportunity to choose 2 theories + a reader response interpretation. The theories may be from Gardner's list or from our class list of literary theories. Students will have 15 minutes to jot down a quick interpretation of the panel on their own in order to share with the class. When the time is up, allow the most eager students to share and be confident in their interpretive skills. If you'd like, you can also decide to collect all papers with interpretations at the end of class.

Second Class Session

In this session we have two goals to get us to the culminating assignments for students.

1) Share a different fairy tale for interpretation. My choice for several semesters now has been Hansel and Gretel. To introduce it I provide a cartoon/children's version in the form of a video.

The cartoon, short and topical, leaves out many of the brutal aspects included in the original Grimm's Fairy Tale version.

2) After watching the cartoon we discuss the theories students see present in the tale. This is a great time for extemporaneous practice and core engagement with classmates and material. This is a more creative time of the class as students experiment with their ideas.

3) We also talk about the elements of a fairy tale (while using this site as a valuable resource). For this portion I like to pull up the fairy tale in its original, written format. There are a few ways to approach this portion of the class, but whether you decide to have students read the partial story, full story, work solo or in groups/partners, be sure they see how a fairy tale is written out and worked through. They also tend to notice more inroads to theoretical interpretations during this portion of the class while the original text is being discussed.

Culminating Assignment

As I mentioned earlier in the post, the goal for students is to write a 3-5 page (can be modified) document reflecting their learning. They can:

create a new fairy tale with a modern moral


analyze an existing fairy tale with a critical theory

In both instances they are exploring theoretical discourse and cultural messages--whether it is in examining an existing story or creating their own. I find there is usually an even split between students who go the creative route versus students who enjoy examining an existing fairy tale. There is a lot of potential to mold this assignment and make it your own by deciding to limit time period, dictating a moral lesson, or stipulating certain character tropes be included.

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