Folk and fairy tales are suggested in our state frameworks for students from kindergarten through middle school. They are a good example of a literary form, great for studying story elements, and always bring up interesting character points. One fairy tale that’s well suited to multiple grade levels is Jack and the Beanstalk.
The basic story here is of Jack, the son of a poor widow, who trades the cow that is their last valuable possession for a handful of magic beans. The beans grow into a gigantic beanstalk, which leads Jack to the home of a giant. Jack makes off with the giant’s treasures, barely escapes with his life, and chops down the beanstalk before the giant can climb down. In the original story, the giant falls and dies, but picture book retellings often leave this out.
With any fairy tale, we have a great opportunity for learning and retelling a story, for sequencing events in the story to recognize the beginning, middle, and end, and for analyzing narrative structure. When we work with older students, who will be familiar with the story, we like to start by having them retell it, and then move on to read and analyze the story and study vocabulary.
For the little ones, read a good picture book first, and then retell the story.
We like Paul Galdone‘s tellings of traditional fairy tales for their balance of faithfulness to the original story and appropriateness for modern children, but Stephen Kellogg and Carol Ottolenghi have both also done wonderful picture books of this story. You can find the story online, too, though this version is more challenging. Brownielocks has a Fractured Fairytale version.
Then you might want to use finger puppets for the retelling. Having students make masks and act out the story is another option. Sparklebox has masks to download and cut out, but having kids design their own with paper plates is a creative way to help them think about the characters. We like to present or retell the story every day during our study, in different ways.
Once the story is established, you can carry it beyond reading to the other subject areas. I’ve put some cross-curricular ideas together for you — you’ll find something for every grade level.
- “Jack and the Beanstalk” is a traditional English story, and includes the words “I smell the blood of an Englishman!” This could be a very good time to study about England. The BBC offers a PDF file that shows the very English food, Beans on Toast. Chances are the kids in your class have never heard of this exotic dish, even though we in the United States have a lot in common with our English cousins.
- Sur la Lune has a list of similar stories from other cultures. While there are links to online versions of a number of these stories, they are generally fairly advanced reading. Have your middle school students divide these up and read them, and then retell their version to the class, perhaps with some background information on the culture it came from.
- This story was first written down in the 18th century. Discuss the hardship the poor widow faced, and what resources might be available to someone in a similar situation now. What career choices did a woman have in those days, compared with the 21st century? Who would be expected to take care of her, then and now? In some versions of the story, Jack is too lazy to support himself and his mother, while in others he is too young. How have ideas about child labor changed? Middle school classes will find that they can cover much of their “responsibilities of government” and “rights and responsibilities of citizens” frameworks here.
- EConed has a lesson plan on barter and trade using “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
- Jack and the Beanstalk makes a great mock trial subject. Divide students into prosecution, defense, and jury. Give them time to research the crimes Jack might have committed (theft, for example, or perhaps kidnapping, if the singing harp is a sentient being). As a class, research how trials are arranged and conducted, and try to recreate a trial scene with as much accuracy as possible. You could also add a judge, reporters, witnesses, and police officers.
- Is Jack in this story the same Jack found in stories like “Jack the Giant Killer” and “Foolish Jack”? Experts are divided on this point. Compare three types of fairy tale heroes with a Venn diagram activity and see what you think. This is a great way to introduce notions of character development and critical reading.
- Sparklebox has a set of simple character description worksheets for the people in the story.
- Use the Showing Evidence Tool to evaluate evidence on either side of the question, “Is Jack a hero?” This is a great way to start getting across the difficult idea that we have to support our claims when we write.
- Here is a very cute PDF for a reproducible 1-10 counting page for “Jack in the Beanstalk” from the British council. The illustrations would be fun to blow up for the bulletin board, too.
- From the same source, a measuring activity with reproducible growth chart. They have a leaf pattern to cut out, but we would definitely save time by using the Carson-Dellosa green leaves cut-outs.
- Measurement is a natural for “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Read Jim and the Beanstalk by Raymond Briggs for inspiration. In this story, Jim cheers up the giant by giving him glasses, false teeth, and a wig. Naturally, he has to do some measuring to make sure these gifts are the right size. Bring out tape measures or Mavalus measuring tape and let the story inspire some measuring!
- Our Jack and the Beanstalk Reproducible Unit has worksheets and manipulatives for measurement, too.
- This estimation lesson uses dried beans as manipulatives.
- For kindergarten in particular, since plant development and growth is one of the required science topics, this is just the right time to plant some beans. Our Jack and the Beanstalk Reproducible Unit has worksheets and manipulatives to go with this activity.
- The Sprout and Grow Window lets you see the development of the beans directly. If you prefer to let each child have his or her own bean seeds, you can use paper cups. Let each student put a bean seed or two into a wet paper towel, checking on the seed each day till it sprouts. Then plant the seed in a cup of soil and set it on a sunny windowsill. Practice observation skills and charting by keeping track of progress each day and marking the days until the plants show above the soil. Have students draw the seeds and the plants at different stages and post the drawings. If measurement is in your plans, continue the chart by measuring the progress of the beanstalks every day. Once the “beanstalk” is tall enough, or at the end of the study, let students draw Jack and cut him out. Glue him to a craft stick and push it into the cup so he seems to be climbing the beanstalk. If you prefer, our Jack and the Beanstalk Reproducible Unit has Jack climbing and ready to cut out, along with a usable ruler for measuring the bean plants.
- Beans are such a natural for science connections here that older students might have done something like this several times before. If you need a new science connection, think about the goose with the golden eggs. Here is basic chemical information on gold for the older students. Once you have studied gold, consider its pros and cons as a material for eggs.
- There are lots of film and cartoon versions of this story. Consider watching a single scene that takes place in a number of different movies and comparing them for artistic qualities. How did each decide to portray the giant, for example? What kind of music did each choose for the Singing Harp? Here are a few DVD options:
- For older students, Sur la Lune has a collection of illustrations of the story which could lead to an excellent lesson on varying styles of illustration. Well-known artists such as Maxfield Parrish and Arthur Rackham are included in the lesson, with links to more of their work. The illustrations are in different media, too.
- The giant’s “Fee! Fi! Fo! Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman! Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!” is probably one of the best-known poems for children, but is also often changed or left out of modern retellings of the story. Have students change it up and perform their new poems for the class.
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