In 1994, I was given a grant from my school to study the genre of tall tales. I was interested in finding a way of creating an interdisciplinary unit that would trace the growth and development of America through the use of tales. I spent the summer knee-deep in different tall tale volumes. From that study, I found three volumes that I thought had the best collections of stories at a level that was readable for my fourth grade students. These books include Cut From the Same Cloth by Robert San Souci ( each tale features a woman as the main character), American Tall Tales by Mary Pope Osborne, and From Sea to Shining Sea compiled by Amy Cohn. In addition, I comb bookstores to find tall tale picture books that I place all over the room. Some of those titles are mentioned in the general handout guide.
My next step was to create activities that would allow students to read and comprehend specific information, as well as react to the material they've read. I tried to include a lot of writing that would make my students take a point of view and support it. I also wanted them to create some art work, study geography, relate what they were reading to what was actually taking place in America between the years 1820 and 1860, and to have fun.
For each story that children read, they had to fill out a Tall Tale Rating Sheet which made them summarize the story, critique it, select an outstanding example of exaggeration, and pick a simile they thought was particularly good. They also had to keep their United States map up to date, creating a key symbol for each of the stories that they read. Each story had two or three projects that had to be completed. While I assigned them the story to read on a particular night, the assignments (American Tall Tales and Cut from the Same Cloth) that the children were required to do were done more independently. A final project date was due for each story, but how and when the children did the work was up to them. Since this unit was during late January and February, the children had established enough independence to work on their own. This was an exciting part of the project for me, because I could see the change in most children from being quite dependent on the teacher to being quite independent in their work habits.
These teacher resource pages include the actual hand-outs that my children received. First, they were given the Introduction to Tall Tales. This gives some background on the genre. Since we had just finished a two week unit based on the stories from The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton, they were familiar with tales. Half the class was assigned to American Tall Tales, and half was assigned to Cut from the Same Cloth and were given the assignment pages and a check off sheet. We switched midway through the project, so children were able to read from both books. At the same time, children were given a general assignment that they had to work on individually.
The culminating activity has varied from year to year. Usually the children decide to make a newscast which includes the headlines- "Pecos Bill Lassoes a Tornado", "Annie Christmas Saves A Boat and Its Passengers in New Orleans"; sports - "Bess Call Wins Wrestling Match", "Stormalong Fights the Squid"; weather -"A Blue Snow Falls in Minnesota", "Sweet Betsey Hits a Drought on the Oregon Trail." Children also include other features. We generally tape this and have a great time looking back at our work.
By the end of the unit, my children have become experts on tall tales. They often (although not this year) write a story that features each of them as the tall tale hero or heroine. The tales are a wonderful way to study history (herstory.) I hope you enjoy trying some of these activities. Please let me know how they work out. Also, I'd love to hear about some of your projects. Next year, I hope to expand this page. Please let me know what you'd like to see.
This unit was created by Emily Rubinfield, with technical assistance from Carol Siwinski, for use in the fourth grade at Germantown Academy