“The Fisherman and His Wife” is a Grimms’ fairy tale, though it is also reported in much the same form in Russia and in Central Europe.
In the story, a poor fisherman catches a fish, usually a flounder, who claims to be an enchanted prince. The fisherman lets the fish go, but his wife tells him that he should have asked for something in return for his kindness in releasing the fish. She sends him back to ask for a better house, and the fish grants her wish. The fisherman suggests that they should now be contented, but his wife is not happy for long. The fisherman’s wife sends him back again and again, asking for more wealth and power. When at last she asks to be like God, the magical fish gets fed up and returns the fisherman and his wife to their original meager circumstances.
There are picture books of this story from some of our favorite authors, including Rachel Isadora and Rosemary Wells. Eric Blair has done a bilingual Spanish/English version. Rabbit Ears has done a terrific audio version.
Once the class is familiar with the story, have students act it out. Divide the story into segments — a good class discussion there — and give each to a group of students. Give them an opportunity to practice their presentations, and then have all the groups do their parts in order. This project could culminate with writing the story as a play, and perhaps presenting it to other classes. Scripts for Schools has a PDF sample script for a puppet play, for inspiration.
There are also several online choices:
- James Baldwin offers a simpler version with cool illustrations.
- Literacy Central has leveled reading passage versions.
- Fractured Fairy Tales is a fun alternative.
Compare these various versions of the story, using graphic organizers.
For young students, there are some special resources:
- First school has a collection of pages to go with this story, including a coloring page for F-fish and one for fisherman as a community helper.
- Rebecca Isbell and Shirley Raines, in their inspiring book Tell It Again! 2, give very specific suggestions for telling stories effectively. “The Fisherman and His Wife” is one of the stories they use. If you want to improve your skill at “doing the voices” and keeping the kids engaged while you tell stories, try out their suggestions. Isbell and Raines suggest making paper fish and practicing the phrase “Magic fish, magic fish, we have a wish!” as a chant. The book includes a good selection of stories, sorted into categories like “Rich and Poor” and “Learning from Mistakes.”
Time for cross-curricular connections.
- The fisherman has to call to the fish when he goes back to repeat his wife’s requests. The rhyme is different in different retellings of the story, but it usually involves a call to the flounder, and a way of saying that the fisherman himself doesn’t agree with the wife’s request. Collect and compare as many versions of the magic fish invocation as possible, and compare them. Which one is better poetry? Why might the various translators, authors, and storytellers have chosen the variations that they did?
- Many retellings of the story, including the one linked to at the beginning of this post, include very elaborate descriptions of the successive homes of the fisherman. Use these to study adjectives and descriptive phrases.
- This wordsearch includes a number of these special descriptive terms.
- Compare sentences from the story using lots of adjectives with those that rely on lively verbs or very specific nouns to see how both these descriptive techniques can be used effectively.
- At the beginning of the story, the fisherman and his wife live in “a miserable hovel,” “a shabby hut,” “a pig sty” or other insalubrious places. Have students draw the hovel, then the nice cottage, then the mansion and the palace. Let this make a lesson about the differences among different nouns in a single category; all of these words might be something close to “house” or “home,” but the meanings are very different.
- The fish in the story claims to be an enchanted prince, but he doesn’t choose to use his great powers to return to a human state. Challenge students to explain this. Is the fish perhaps a prince of fish? Did he like being a fish better than being a prince? Are his powers only available to him in fishy form? Write the story from the point of view of the fish.
- Study fish. Janice VanCleave’s Oceans for Every Kid has a wonderful selection of hands-on activities,including one about the migration of flat fishes’ eyes to one side (like flounders).
- Study the ocean. The Smithsonian’s Ocean Planet is an excellent resource for middle school. It takes some time to explore, but it’s worth the trouble.
- Secrets of the Ocean World is a PBS site with information and activities.
- This story is about greed and gratitude. It is also about recognizing when we have enough, a topic with plenty of relevance to modern kids’ lives. Put the pictures of the different homes and levels of power along a line on the bulletin board and have students put their names at the point at which they would have been satisfied. Use graphs to compare the numbers of students who would have been happy at each point. Have students compose a thank you letter to the magical fish, on behalf of the fisherman and his wife.
- The fisherman doesn’t ask for more and more; it is his wife. In many tellings of the story, he specifically tells the fish that his wife wants what he does not, or that she is behaving in ways he doesn’t like. Should he have stood up to her and refused to ask the fish? Students may have other suggestions for the fisherman.
- “Be happy with what you have” is often given as the moral of the story. Your students may often have been told to “be all they can be” or to “reach for the stars.” Challenge the students to reconcile the apparently conflicting pieces of advice in an essay, or have a debate between the two sides.
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