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Ideas for Teaching Tall Tales in the School Library

Ready to give it a try? Here are some ideas for teaching tall tales in your library…

1. Characteristics of Tall Tales

Read aloud any picture book tall tale to introduce the characteristics of tall tales. Be sure to include major characteristics like exaggeration, frontier settings, the conquering of nature, and the creation of major landforms.

Activity: You will need lots of tall tale picture books and this checklist of tall tales characteristics. In pairs, students select and read a tall tale. As they read, they should check off the tall tale elements that exist in the story. After the activity, students share their tall tale with the class and explain how it is, indeed, a tall tale.

2. Go beyond the story.

Reading the story aloud is a must for teaching tall tales. Before you read, make sure everyone has some basic background knowledge.

Let’s use Paul Bunyan as an example. Paul Bunyan was a giant lumberjack in the norther USA and Canada. He is said to have carved the Grand Canyon by dragging his axe behind him. His giant-sized blue ox Babe is said to have created the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota.

  • Do your students know what a lumberjack does? That lumberjacks currently have the #1 the most dangerous job in the USA?
  • Can they find the Grand Canyon on a map? Are there really 10,000 lakes in Minnesota?
  • Can an ox really be blue?
  • Was Paul Bunyan based on a real person?
  • Why does Paul Bunyan usually wear suspenders, a red flannel shirt, a hat, and heavy boots? Why does he have thick black hair and a bushy beard?
  • Did you know that there is a fashion trend called “Urban Lumberjack”? It’s true!

All of these can be fun discussions with your students, and they are needed for full understanding from the stories. When you go beyond the story, that’s where the authentic learning begins!

Activity: I am working on a series of library lessons for Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill, Mike Fink, John Henry, and…maybe Captain Stormalong? I’d love to include a female, but I worry schools will object to Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane due to their use of guns. We’ll see. You can see all my current tall tale lessons for Grades 2-4 here.

3. Teach hyperbole.

Tall tale heroes are by definition hyperbolic. John Henry may have been a real person who was very strong. But did he really compete–and win–against a machine? Did he really die immediately afterwards? While we may know some tall tale origins, the heroes of the stories always exhibit exaggerated strengths, abilities, and wits.

  • What is hyperbole?
  • What are some daily examples of hyperbole? (“That spider was as big as my hand!” or “The fish I caught was THIS BIG!”)
  • How does hyperbole make the story more entertaining?

Activity: Show photos of animals, weather phenomenon, landforms, and other natural occurrences. Ask students to write some hyperbolic descriptions of the photos. For example, a photo of a shark might describe his teeth as “so big and sharp that when the shark yawned, this teeth speared passing ships and didn’t let go.”

Tall tales pass down from generation to generation via the oral tradition. Because people tell the stories over and over, the heroes and events change over time. In tall tales, a story about a normal person with great strength may grow taller and stronger–and TALLER and STRONGER–each time the story is told. Before you know it, Paul Bunyan is a benevolent, axe-wielding giant and Pecos Bill literally lassoes a tornado.

5. Let them write!

In the face of standardized testing and research projects, creative writing sometimes goes by the wayside in schools. I know I personally did not write creatively–for school or otherwise–after about 5th grade, something that still saddens me today. Sure, I can write a research paper and write coherent responses to GRE essay questions, but balancing formal and creative writing is critical to educating the whole child.

Luckily, tall tales are fun to write, and students tend to be quite good at it!

Activity: Give students paper doll cutouts and let them create a visual of their character to go with their story. If your school has a di-cut machine, check to see if you have a paper doll di-cut. Or, you might like these 16″ paper doll cutouts from Amazon. Students should refer to the characteristics of a tall tale checklist to make sure the story they write contains most of the characteristics of a tall tale.


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