Finding Balance with engageNY: Teaching Fairness with Fairy Tales


My 1st Grade students at Tarkington School of Excellence participate in Classroom Champions, a free program where we receive monthly social-emotional lessons from a U. S. paralympian.  A fortunate byproduct of our involvement with this program is spending a lot of time with my students discussing differences between people and the importance of treating everyone fairly. The process has not only opened our classroom space to many important conversations about fairness, it has led to looking at different texts with a critical eye to learn lessons and to seek to understand more.

After completing the engageNY Listening and Learning unit Similar Stories and Different Lands, I saw a perfect opportunity to promote critical thinking skills as well as those lessons on fairness fostered by Classroom Champions.

In this engageNY unit, we read nine stories, each providing opportunities to discuss the traditional roles of boys and girls in fairy tales. Four of the stories featured young girls who are kidnapped by trickster male characters wishing to eat or marry them. In two of the stories, the girls are servants who clean, do laundry and marry a prince in the end. In three of the stories the male character is brave and defeats monsters and “gets to marry” the princess because he saved her life.  

As we studied these stories I wondered, “What subliminal messages did I just send the six and seven year-old boys and girls in my classroom?” Several students started to make comments, such as, “That’s just how girls are.” Other students said, “That’s what boys do, boys are brave.”

berman-booksIn order to help the students understand that books don’t always portray characters in an accurate light, we read The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs and The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. The students talked about how they first perceived the wolf and how their perceptions changed when we read different stories.

In a discussion, my students analyzed the characters and plots of the stories from the Similar Stories unit. Then they talked about how the girls and boys were portrayed in each story.

Most of my students considered boys as brave and necessary to defeat things. They thought girls had to clean, be scared and get captured. This moment really showed how much of an impact these stories have on our kids and it showed a need for balance in portrayals of boys and girls. 

Temperature Check: Closed-eyes Poll

At this time, I decided to take a closed eye poll.  I use closed-eyes polls frequently to gauge understanding, check for misconceptions, and before discussions where I anticipate strong opinions. Closed-eyes polls allow the students to see what the class is thinking as a whole without highlighting specific students. It also helps me determine the evidence they need to use so classmates can understand their point of view.  Closed-eyes polls also let me see what next steps I need to take in the moment or in future lessons. They also provide me with a reminder to never assume that everyone is thinking the same thing as the few students I heard in conversations.  

closedeyespoll-2When I asked if girls could be brave and defeat things, the initial response from most girls and boys was no. But in our closed-eye poll, more students (10 to 7) believed girls couldn’t be brave and defeat things.

Over the next week we began working to change their perception. We discussed the importance of what the stories taught us, and how we also need to look deeply into the stories we read.  She Persisted started our lessons about women who have had huge impacts on the world. Already students’ brains started spinning. One said, “I was wrong, I changed my mind. Girls are brave. Just because boys sometimes look stronger doesn’t mean they are. Girls are really brave too.”

Linking to Science and Thinking Critically

As a result of reading several books about women who worked to make the world a better, more accepting and innovative place, the students began to recognize a need for change, the importance of accepting differences and seeing what all people have to offer.  Our first quarter science unit was about animal adaptations, focusing mainly on how sea turtles survive. Several months later, a student saw a commercial at home about endangered sea turtles. The class decided to write letters and engineer designs to help save the sea turtles.

To extend their learning, students retold and created puppet shows (part of their end of unit science task on light and sound), with alternate endings to stories read aloud in class.  Students used the stories from Different Lands, Similar Stories and created endings that showed a female solving her own problem or with help from another female.  One group, had Cinderella attend school and graduate from college. Another group, created a female hunter that saved Little Red and her grandma.

Overall Impact

One of the big reasons why I love teaching 1st Grade is because of the changes that I see in my students everyday. As learners, citizens, thinkers–I love watching them grow and expand their curiosity about the world around them. Enhancing my ELA instruction with several stories featuring strong female protagonists (as well as our participation in Classroom Champions) provided some very clear development in my students’ thinking and choices around the works that they read.

  • My students became passionate about making a difference and social justice. They sought out more books about men and women who made changes in the world and analyzed their character traits. 
  • They were better equipped to identify stereotypes and the importance of not judging others.
  • My girls felt empowered and all of my students experienced some shift in their viewpoints on what it means to be a boy or girl.
  • I noticed more of my students seeking out books from our classroom library that featured female protagonists.

Students also made greater connections about stories and characters across engageNY reading units.  Below are examples of students using previous texts to support their arguments of why Hatshepsut (from Domain 4, Ancient Civilizations) should or should not have been allowed to be Pharaoh (click each to enlarge).

I’d like to know if your classroom made enhancements to engageNY units that transformed students’ thinking–let’s keep this conversation going in the comments below.


Christine is in her third year as a 1st Grade teacher and mentor at Tarkington School of Excellence. She previously taught 5th Grade math and science at Tarkington. She received her Masters Degree in Special Education from University of Illinois at Chicago.


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