Jeffrey Pflaum, blogger on BAM, is also hosting CREATIVELY SPEAKING on the network's new show, PULSE (category: "Classroom Innovation"). Please check out the 12-minute podcasts on creativity, creative and critical thinking, EI, social-and-emotional learning, and more.
COMPREHENDING AESOP: Fables that Enable
Aesop, an amazing human being, whose fables, allegories, and parables are as true today as they were in his day, yes, a scary thought, and if you don’t believe it, reflect on and think about some of the morals to his “contemporary” tales:
(1) Appearances are deceptive.
(2) Birds of a feather flock together.
(3) Revenge will hurt the avenger.
(4) Do not attempt too much at once.
(5) Whatever you do, do it with all your might.
(6) Necessity is the mother of invention.
(7) Little by little does the trick.
(8) Little friends may prove great friends.
(9) You can’t please everybody.
(10) Misery loves company.
(11) Look before you leap.
(12) We often despise what is most useful to us.
(13) The gods help those who help themselves.
(14) Every truth has two sides.
(15) The memory of a good deed lives.
(16) Fine feathers don’t make fine birds.
(17) Quality is better than quantity.
(18) Fair weather friends are not worth much.
I started teaching Aesop’s Fables through filmstrips once upon a long time ago when the filmstrip projector was part of the “audio-visual” programs in the schools. I showed my fourth grade class “The Ant and the Dove” and they loved the cartoon characters as well as the fable’s moral, “One good turn deserves another.” In the tale, the ant, in attempting to get a drink of water, fell in the spring and would have drowned if the dove hadn’t dropped a leaf as a lifeboat or lifesaver. But one day the ant saw that its newfound friend was about to be trapped by a hunter, and bit him, causing enough distraction for the dove to fly away to safety.
We went frame-by-frame (with the words printed at the bottom), read each sentence out loud while I asked whatever questions I could conjure up spontaneously about the story. That’s one key teaching skill: making up questions on-the-spot in a rapid-fire way, trying to jumpstart thinking and thought processes, to get children to reflect, to think about things, to scan-search their memories and experiences to find a connection related to the fable. And then there’s always the follow-up comments and questions made about the students’ responses, another discussion skill crucial to teaching and learning. How quick is your trigger finger?
From color filmstrips I went on to handing out fables for the kids to interpret, making it a reading comprehension exercise, and allowing an inquiry—question-and-answer—technique to make-it-real by humanizing the story’s events and circumstances. This was also an opportunity to develop my concept of the “mind’s magic reading theater,” where children were asked to visualize the fable, mind-picture by mind-picture, using the inner eye to view the story darting across an imaginary TV screen in the mind.
The approach gave students frameworks for reading, seeing, understanding, and enjoying a short, short story. It provided them with a method for creative and critical thinking, and for analyzing and synthesizing the facts and main ideas in a fable. I added thinking and feeling questions to the reading process: What does the story make you think about? What thoughts are triggered by the mind-pictures? What feelings are triggered by the images? What motives or reasons are behind the characters’ actions and behavior? The reading passages were less entertaining than filmstrips, but the beautiful artwork in the frames, as well as the incredible illustrations in books, have to be phased out somewhat in the fourth grade so kids can transition to chapter books, where “beauty” is created by the imagination.
I know tweens and teens like graphic novels. The drawings are great, but it prevents kids from thinking and visualizing: Why bother to read, create, imagine, feel, and experience things when it’s all done for you? My idealistic strategy is to develop reading as a three-dimensional, holographic, virtual reality with children becoming avatars navigating the inner landscapes of the mind and imagination. It’s something like entering Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, because you’re entering a writer’s imagination, foreign to yours, and then re-creating it in your mind. You, the reader, go through surreal, complex processes and worlds before interpreting what you read. This is one reason I call reading magical.
I made the fables into reading comprehension exercises/passages: students learned how to think and to think expansively, to see the whole picture and human story, and to realize morals and values autonomously and through student-created thinking, not teacher-imposed-thinking.
The “Aesop Comprehension Project” is also about values clarification and a trip into the world of common sense, “inner-sights,” compassion, empathy, self- and other-realization, self-discovery, self-motivation, and self-education. I want kids, from third to eighth grade, to bring the world to themselves by mindful inquiry, by answering questions, and in turn, by learning how to ask their own questions about what it means to be human, what gives meaning and direction to their lives—and to find answers. I stir up thoughts, feelings, and experiences, to get them into the rap, the debate, the argument about “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of life, and at the same time, to cross-fertilize and validate their ideas with classmates, to connect and see what’s happening inside and outside.
There are many questions in each of the three upcoming fable lessons, but that is my aim as discussion leader: to keep injecting questions to motivate them and to get their attention, to keep them thinking, feeling, and reflecting about their inner and outer worlds. Let them use inner life as the backup and supporter of the elusive, speeding outside world, and follow their own hearts and instincts, which will, hopefully, send them in the best of possible directions in life, so that they have a compass coming from within to steer them.
General procedure: I played around with these Aesop’s Fables by adding my own twists and changes. The morals remain in tact. In a typical lesson, (1) the teacher reads a fable out loud and students answer the questions orally in a class discussion, or (2) the kids read the passage silently and write their answers to the questions and discuss the responses afterward. The writing part gives children more time to think, reflect, ruminate, recall, and visualize before responding to the questions, or, as Aesop might say, “Slow and steady wins the race” (“The Hare and the Tortoise”).
Introduction: To introduce Aesop’s Fables: (1) ask the class about some classic tales such as “The Hare and the Tortoise” and “The Fox and the Grapes.” Have students describe each fable and talk about what it tries to teach people about the ways they behave. (2) Define and discuss what the “moral” of a fable is, and also, the positive and negative values implied. Look up the words moral and value in a dictionary and have the definitions read out loud. Describe moral as the main idea or message communicated in the story. Ask students: Do they agree or disagree with the moral? Did they ever have a real life experience similar to the fable and its moral? Do they know or remember other Aesop’s Fables? (3) Explain what “values” are (in a very simple way): “Values are your ideas about what is important and what is not important; what is good and bad, and right and wrong. Values give meaning, direction, and motivation to your life.”
The Boy Who Couldn’t Walk
Jamie was the laziest boy on the planet, but would never admit it to anyone. As he walked to school it seemed as if his legs were collapsing in front of him. The more he walked, the lower to the ground his legs dropped. He couldn’t believe this was happening to him: Why did his legs feel like rubber? Why were they melting like ice cream on a summer day the further he walked?
“Oh no,” he cried to himself, “this can’t be. I can hardly walk. My legs don’t want to move. Can someone please help me?” A voice, coming from nowhere, yelled out to him: “Come on. Walk! What are you waiting for? Tell me, how are you going to get to school? Do you expect me to call-a-cab, ride you on a bike, lift you on my back, put you in a cart or a wheelbarrow and push you to school? Wouldn’t that look kind of silly with me dumping you in front of the other kids when we arrive? What’s the problem? Are you too tired or are you lazy?”
“Oh no, it’s not that at all,” the poor boy said. “Then, what is it, please tell me,” Mr. Voice called out. ”Oh, I don’t understand what’s making me this way, but I need your help. Help me, please.” Mr. Voice replied, “And this I say to you: Go to school, walk, walk, walk, yes, take one step-at-a-time. Yes, keep walking, pick up your feet, lift-move-step, that’s right, take a nice walk to school and you will soon arrive.”
Notes: “The Boy Who Couldn’t Walk” is my rendering of Aesop’s fable, “Hercules and the Wagoner.” The moral is: The gods help them that help themselves. This is about taking the responsibility for, and the initiative, for doing things, whatever they might be. If you’re not your own best advocate, who will be? Are you waiting for people (God) to do things for you? Do you think you’re entitled to things without putting in the effort, energy, and commitment? Some values alluded to in the fable are responsibility, self-reliance, self-respect, autonomy, and motivation.
- What is Jamie’s obvious problem?
- If you dig/think a little bit deeper, what else is stopping or hurting him?
- What funny mind-picture about Jamie can you visualize?
- What feelings do you get from and about Jamie?
- What thoughts come to mind about Jamie?
- Is it true that the boy doesn’t understand what “makes him this way?” How could he notknow what makes him move and not move?
- Why does Jamie cry for help? Does he need it?
- Do you think this is a sad tale? Why or why not?
- Who is the voice or Mr. Voice? Where do you think it is coming from? Explain.
- What is Mr. Voice’s advice? Is it good or bad? What is Mr. Voice trying to say?
- Will “taking-one-step-at-a-time” work to get Jamie to school and through life?
- Does he accept the help of Mr. Voice? Why?
- Will Jamie make it to school? What do you think? Why?
- Besides Mr. Voice, who will help the boy?
- Is his laziness or weariness all-in-the-mind? Explain.
- What are the positive and negative values shown by Jamie’s behavior?
- What value(s) does he need to learn and to practice to improve his life?
- What would Jamie see if he looked at his reflection in a real, glass mirror?
- What would Jamie see if he looked inside at the imaginary mirror in his mind?
- What is the moral to this tale? What does it attempt to teach you? Do you agree? Why?
- What would you tell Jamie to get him moving and motivated again? Why?
- Who is really Jamie’s “best friend” in the end? Why?
- Who is really your “best friend” in the end? Why?
- What values can you take from the fable and use in your life? Why?
- Draw a quick-pencil sketch of a mind-picture you visualize from the fable.
Listen to Me
Tony did not do too well on his big reading exam, and it was definitely going to happen: he would not pass to the next grade because he had failed. He was mad, and because he didn’t like to be angry, he erased that feeling by saying to himself: “Hey, so what, you did lousy on the exam, big deal. Reading sucks anyway, it’s boring, and man, it’s so slow, like I feel like I’m walking in mud whenever I read. Oh yeah, there’s too much thinking and I hate that. I’m always thinking about other things like having fun.”
And one thing about Tony, whatever happens to Tony, he likes to tweet to his buddies to let them know “The World According to Tony.” And that’s just what he did; he let his friends in on his secrets one day when his whole crew was online. Tweet #1: “Listen to me…Reading is nowhere. Think about it. Look at yourselves. Where do you think reading will get you? Tweet #2: We could be skateboarding by the tracks or hanging out and having fun. What buzz do you get from reading a book? It’s better to watch TV or listen to music. Tweet #3: Man, there’s so much more to do in life than READING! My message: Reading—GIVE IT UP. Find the cool things you like, not the things school and your parents want you to do.”
Tony was the leader: when he tweeted, his friends followed. But no one tweeted back to Tony. It seemed like everyone was a little scared to tweet up, until one kid hit the keyboard, scared out of his wits, and tweeted: “Hey Tony, they said you failed the big reading test and you’re going to get left back. Why are you telling us to give up on reading? I don’t get it.” In his second tweet, he typed: “I like to read because it’s fun. Don’t you have any fun reading? The minute I open a book and see the first word, I forget about the world and drift into my own world. What’s your world like?”
Tony had nothing to tweet…
Notes: This story is my rendering of the Aesop fable, “The Fox Without a Tail.” The morals are: (1) Misery loves company and (2) Be wary of advice prompted by selfishness. Kids like to follow Tony, the leader, but they really need to listen to what he is saying, think and reflect on it, and decide what is right—for them. When a leader’s or a friend’s reasons for saying something is motivated by self-interest, children have to recognize that and think twice about what is being said and following it. Some values expressed: awareness, mindfulness, thinking, and reflection.
- What is Tony’s story? What do you learn about him and his life?
- How does he deal with negative feelings and things that happen to him?
- How does Tony use his “tweet power” as leader of the group?
- Besides feeling angry, what other feelings is Tony experiencing? Why?
- If you could see inside his head, what would his self-talk or “self-tweets” sound like?
- Try to get a picture in your mind of what Tony looks like. Draw a quick sketch of him.
- What is wrong with reading according to him? Do you agree or disagree? Why?
- How does Tony try to convince his friends to go along with his ideas and point of view?
- Do you think his argument is convincing enough? Why or why not?
- Why is it so important for Tony to persuade his buddies to believe him?
- What are his motives or reasons for tweeting to his friends?
- What is the little kid’s argument against Tony’s ideas about reading?
- Does the kid’s tweet about reading make sense to you? Is it true-for-you? Why?
- What conflicts do you think Tony has?
- Can he resolve them? What must he do? Will he figure it out? Why or why not?
- Can you see a positive value in Tony’s behavior at the end of the story?
- What negative value(s) is/are shown by Tony’s tweeting?
- What value(s) does he need to realize before he can improve his life?
- What is the opposite or an antonym for “selfishness”? What is its definition?
- Why does Tony have “nothing to say” at the end? What does it mean?
- What is the moral or main idea of the tale? What is it trying to communicate to you?
- Draw a pencil-sketch of Tony as the “Tweet King.”
- There would be sad consequences if Tony’s friends followed his tweets and values. How could his friends prevent that from happening? What would they have to do?
- Do you believe everything you hear, read, or see on the Internet, television, or in the newspapers and magazines? Do you believe everything that friends, parents, teachers, brothers, sisters, and relatives tell or tweet to you? Why or why not?
- Tony has negative thoughts about reading and other things. Draw Eddie’s head and show the different thoughts, thinking, feelings, and mind-pictures moving around inside it. What does the inside of his head look like to you? What do you see?
- Everyone gets into negative thinking at times. We think harmful, damaging, self-destructive thoughts and can’t seem to shake them. How do you change negative thinking if it happens to you?
The Tennis Star
Alice loved to play tennis. She learned how to play at school in gym. The teacher told her:“You’ll be a good player. Keep practicing, hit the ball against the schoolyard wall, hit the forehand, backhand, work on your serving motion, get it down right, just keep repeating it and you’ll learn how to hit a fast serve.”
The young tennis player practiced whenever she had a chance, hitting shot after shot, stroke after stroke against the handball court wall and found herself getting better and better. She felt proud that her game was improving and continued to practice tennis for hours after school. Alice thought she was so good that she had dreams of playing and beating the best players in the world in all the greatest tennis tournaments. After her victories she waved the racquet at admiring fans cheering and calling out her name. Alice was truly in wonderland in her dreams.
One day the gym teacher announced a local park tournament for girls and asked Alice if she wanted to participate. She grabbed at the chance and went to the park to play her first match. She looked at the tennis court and it seemed different. “Yes,” she thought, “this will not be the same as hitting the ball against the wall,” where she never lost an imaginary match in her mind, the same wall where she heard all the cheers for her victories.
Now, with racquet in hand, she began play, and served first. She tossed the ball in the air and barely could see it. She swung and the ball hit the rim of the racquet. It never went over the net—it wasn’t even close. Alice lost her serve and her nerve. When her opponent hit the ball to her, she still had trouble seeing it. Her vision became blurry and she hit the ball into the net over and over again. If she did hit the ball over the net, it went flying way out of bounds and she lost the point, in fact, point after point, it was either into the net or a home run, and the ball went out of the park. “This is SO embarrassing,” she thought, and, with her friends from school and the gym teacher watching the fiasco.
Alice lost the game, set, and match and disappeared in the never-never land of her mind...
Notes: This story is rendered from the Aesop fable, “The Milkmaid and Her Pail.” The moral is: Do not count your chickens before they are hatched. Alice got ahead of herself after practicing and improving her tennis by fantasizing that she could beat the best players in the world. When the worlds of fantasy and reality collide in the park tennis tournament (with a live opponent), everything caves in on her: Alice could barely see and hit the ball she was so nervous. She might have taken a hint from the moral of “The Hare and the Tortoise”: Slow and steady wins the race. It takes a long time to learn the game of tennis well. Alice lost herself in a fantasy world. The park tennis match was a reality check for her. Some positive values expressed in this fable are: passion, motivation, desire, determination, optimism, ambition, and activeness.
- Why was Alice motivated to learn and play tennis?
- What were the keys to improving her tennis game?
- According to Alice, did she improve her ability to play tennis?
- What was her proof? How did she know she was getting better? Describe it.
- What mind-pictures does the tale trigger? Draw a pencil sketch of one image.
- What feelings and thoughts are triggered by the mind-pictures?
- Describe Alice’s tennis life.
- Where was Alice’s tennis life happening: on the court, in her mind, or both? Explain.
- Was Alice in the real world or a fantasy world when it comes to her tennis? Why?
- What problems did she have playing in the park match?
- Visualize a movie of Alice’s tennis match: Describe the mind-pictures you see.
- Why do you think these problems were happening?
- If you were Alice’s coach, what would you have told her during the tennis match?
- Was Alice deceiving or fooling herself? Is it wrong to dream big dreams in the mind?
- What is the difference between practicing a sport and playing it in a real game?
- What positive values does Alice show us in the fable?
- What negative value affects the park tennis match?
- How can Alice change this negative value to a positive one?
- In any sport, what mental skill must a player develop before she can be successful at it?
- Why did Alice have trouble seeing the ball after all that practicing? Where was she?
- If practice makes perfect, what happened in this tennis tragedy?
- What does it mean that she “lost her nerve”?
- The fable ends with Alice “disappearing in the never-never land of her mind.” Explain what happened to her.
- What is the moral of the story? What is it trying to teach us? Do you agree? Why?
- Should we fantasize or dream about things, our lives, and futures? What do you think?
- In what world do you live: the real world, a fantasy world, or both? Explain.
- Draw Alice in her wonderland and Alice in the never-never land of her mind.
- What positive values can you take away from Alice’s behavior?
The above lessons go deeper into human nature, the way we act, behave, and present ourselves to others and to ourselves. It isn’t always pleasant because there’s a lot of self-deception involved, however, the stories with their morals and values still give us an old time compass to direct us, a compass that is contemporary.
Notes: For the most expedient results for teaching the fables of Aesop, especially with the limited time in school schedules, read them out loud, and question the kids about the basic facts and the main idea/moral/message, and values conveyed. Read one fable a week for the duration of the school year, occasionally trying a longer, more in-depth lesson as demonstrated by my samples. The fables conjure up many ideas, thoughts, feelings, memories, mind-pictures, and experiences from the kids’ lives. The stories may seem “obvious” to older children (middle and beginning school), but you can dig deeper via your questioning to bring it to their levels.
In a world of spin and speed, where nothing seems real, children, and adults as well, need time to pause, reflect, recall, visualize, contemplate, and meditate on the constantly changing reality outside and inside them. Through an inquiry based approach and discussion, kids can figure out the morals/values of Aesop’s Fables, however, the main purpose of the “Aesop Comprehension Project” is to learn more about the “stick-figure” humans’, animals’, and objects’ motivations. Expose kids, via literature, to the various triggers that initiate and prompt behavior. Let students become mindful, aware, and attentive to the “whole world” so they can choose the values and morals that will affect their everyday and future lives (“Look before you leap,” from the Aesop Fable, “The Fox and the Goat”).
For more information and resources on projects related to this post, and also, about Aesop’s Fables, check out the following:
BAM POSTS at www.bamradionetwork.com by Jeffrey Pflaum (author):
- “Reading as a Three-Dimensional, Holographic, Virtual Reality” (12/11/11)
- “Silent Reading” (12/27/11)
- “Experiences, Reflections, and Insights: A Project in Reading and Emotional Intelligence” (1/14/12)
- “A Novel EI Reading Experience for Adolescents: Jonathan Livingston Seagull” (2/5/12)
- “Motivating Ideas to Pump Up Adolescent Readers” (10/2/12)
- “Inner Reading” (11/15/12)
- “A Penny for Your Thoughts” (2/12/13)
- Motivating Teen and Preteen Readers: How Teachers and Parents Can Lead the Way by Jeffrey Pflaum (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011)
- “Book Inspires Reading in Cyber Age” by Ross Barkan in Queens Tribune (3/3/12)
- “Local Educator’s Book: Love of Reading from the Inside-Out” by Greg Hanson in Greenline: The North Brooklyn Community News (February 1 – 29, 2012)
EDUTOPIA GUEST BLOG POSTS at www.edutopia.org by the author:
- “Using ‘Music Writing’ to Trigger Creativity, Awareness and Motivation” (4/2/12): http://www.edutopia.org/blog/music-writing-trigger-creativity-jeffrey-pflaum.
- “Build Reading and Writing Skills with Music” (6/6/12): http://www.edutopia.org/blog/reading-skills-music-writing-jeffrey-pflaum.
BOOKS OF AESOP’S FABLES
- Aesop: The Complete Fables Translated by Olivia and Robert Temple (Penguin Books, 1998, paperback)
- Aesop’s Fables Selected and Adapted by Jack Zipes (Signet Classic, 1992, paperback)
- Aesop: Fables Translated by Sir Roger L’Estrange With Illustrations by Stephen Gooden (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992, hardback)
- Aesop’s Fables Illustrated Junior Library with drawings by Fritz Kredel (Grosset & Dunlap, 1975, hardback)
- Aesop’s Fables Jerry Pinkney (SeaStar Books, 2000, hardback)
- Aesop’s Fables Introduction and Notes by D.L. Ashliman/Translated by V.S. Vernon Jones (Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003, paperback)
- Aesop’s Fables Magnum Easy Eye Books (Lancer Books, 1968, paperback)
- The Fables of Aesop Edited by Joseph Jacobs and Illustrated by Richard Heighway (MacMillan, 1979, hardback)
- Aesop’s Fables Translated by S.A. Handford (Puffin Classics, 1994, paperback)
- Aesop’s Fables Translated by V.S. Vernon Jones and Illustrated by Arthur Rackham (Wordsworth Classics, 1994, paperback)
Check out author’s website at www.JeffreyPflaum.com for more information and resources about his book, various published articles, Internet radio show interviews, and blog posts on the BAM Radio Network and Edutopia.