Our fourth grade students had thoroughly studied slavery in the United States by the time we started their curriculum.  Ms. Mendez had shared stories with them such as “The People Could Fly” and the children understood the elements of folktales, including:  events that are larger than life; a hero/heroine; and events that occur in series of three or seven. For our first session together, I asked the children to act out events from “The People Could Fly” so that I could get a sense of their dramatic abilities. They loved creating dramatic tableaus, and so we decided that writing and presenting their own slavery folktale with drumming accompaniment would be their final project. The children also created African masks with a student teacher, Mr. Eric, which they will incorporate into their final performance. Students were asked to justify their choice of media by explaining what elements of African culture and environment their masks included, as well as to tell us what character traits their animal choices represented. Below, a student explains his mask.


Student #1

IMG_4324 Joseph, who has theatre experience, shows us the character of the Old Man from "The People Could Fly". Above, he explains his mask, which he created to represent his father. IMG_4792

Student #2

IMG_4851The students learned about African masks and chose animal elements to represent character traits in themselves. These masks will be used in their final performance; they have gifted the slaves in their folktale with various transformative animal powers which they use to escape from their masters. IMG_4817  

Student #3

IMG_5211 Here a student explains why she chose her materials/theme and how they represent aspects of African culture. IMG_4849



Before we began creating our folktale, I introduced the students to a West African folktale that I had read as a child (I lived in Monrovia, Liberia from 6-7 years of age). I thought that “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears” would give the students a sense of the stories that these peoples enjoyed prior to slavery, as well as reinforce a sense of narrative and a way in which animals play major characters. The students acted out scenes from the book in sequence. Our next activity was to write an essay entitled “A Day in the Life of a Slave,” in which I asked the students to write several paragraphs from the perspective of a slave. How hard was their life? What did they suffer? I wanted the students to truly understand why a slave would want to escape to set the stage for our original folktale. Ms. Mendez had taught them well, as their essays showed insight.


Students next began working with me to brainstorm their own original sequence of events to lead to a slave escape folktale. Using the elements of folktales as a checklist of things to include, we brainstormed a sequence of events on a timeline over a period of several class periods. Students decided that they wanted their characters to discover that they had animal powers that would enable them to transform, overpower their cruel masters, and escape the plantation to help other slaves. A talking drum would be used at key points in the action to add to their understanding of African culture and music.

20140404_094551Students wrote imaginative essays and drew pictures of themselves as their animals after we did theatre improvisations in class of our animal powers “discoveries”. I also asked them to consider how their animal abilities could be used in the context of an escape. Students had to choose animals that are native to the US South and some did extra credit essays on those animals.


Student #1


A student's "Day in the Life of a Slave" essay.


My animal superpowers emerge essay, and how to utilize the number 3, a folk element

Student #2


"Day in the Life of a Slave"


Student #3

IMG_6086My Animal; Powers Essay IMG_6121 Developing story line



Above, students refining dialogue for their folktale storyline with their classroom teacher, Ms. Mendez.  After identifying folktale elements and deciding what magical powers our characters would have, we spent some time improvising discovery scenarios: how would a slave gradually discover that they had a special power related to an animal? Next, we created a timeline and inserted events we wanted to happen in our story, adjusting for logical outcomes and incorporating elements of a song we were studying, “Follow the Drinking Gourd”. Lastly, we discussed the difference between narrative and dialogue, then gradually expanded the students’ outline into complete scenes using the students’ own words. Ms. Mendez and I have worked together to prompt students to inform their sentences with adverbs, adjectives, complex synonyms, and other expanded vocabulary.


The students each chose a scene from the completed folktale to illustrate, and their illustrations were bound into a book with their story. Students also acted out the folktale with some students playing roles, some narrating, and some providing punctuating drumming as the talking drum was a key element in the story, used by a slave to express his feelings, call others to meet, and to goad the master into leaving his cabin at night to be ambushed by slaves transformed into powerful, angry animals.

Student #1

IMG_6476 Joseph played the talking drum for the final performance. Students learned about African music and included the drum as an element of their story.

Student #2

video story development -- sequencing of events and logical outcomes IMG_6453 Michelle, who is ESL and showed great improvement in fluency during our time together, stood in for this lead role the day of the performance. She nailed it and could be heard clearly and understood throughout the auditorium -- an accomplishment for a child who speaks English as a second language. She played a slave who wakes up and discovers a latent animal power -- she is transforming into a spider.

Student #3

IMG_6466 Students wore their African Kuba, or spirit animal, masks for the final performance. Here Mario wears his. He also played a djembe.
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