Oral Traditions: Swapping Stories
Lesson 4 Tall Tales and Urban Legends
I want to tell you a story about some cold weather we had up there one time--about two years ago it got real cold. A fellow had a pond right close to his house there and late that evening--it was a real cold day--a flock of geese come over and stopped in his pond to spend the night, and it got real cold that night and everything froze over, and this fellow decided he would go down there the next morning and shoot a few of them geese. He got down there and their feet was froze in that pond and they couldn't fly. They got to flopping their wings, and he got to shooting them, and they finally go to flapping their wings together and they flew off with his pond.
--Lonny Gray, Union Parish
English Language Arts, Social Studies
Purpose of Lesson
Lesson Objectives/Louisiana Content Standards, Benchmarks, and Foundation Skills
1. Students learn definitions and examples of tall tales, urban legends, and cyberlore.
ELA-5-E3 Locating, gathering, and selecting information using graphic organizers, simple outlining, note taking, and summarizing to produce texts and graphics. (1, 3, 4)
CL-1-D5 Demonstrating an understanding of the cultural connotations of common words, phrases, and idioms. (1)
2. Students find tall tales, urban legends, or cyberlore in their own lives.
ELA-1-E6 Interpreting texts to generate connections to real-life situations. (1, 2, 4)
ELA-7-M1 Using comprehension strategies (e.g., sequencing, predicting, drawing conclusions, comparing and contrasting, making inferences, determining main ideas, summarizing, recognizing literary devices, paraphrasing) in contexts. (1, 2, 4)
3. Students practice listening to and telling tall tales, urban legends, or cyberlore.
ELA-5-M4 Speaking and listening for a variety of audiences (e.g., classroom, real-life, workplace) and purposes (e.g., awareness, concentration, enjoyment, information, problem solving). (1, 2, 4, 5)
4. Students explore why people tell such stories.
H-1C-E4 Recognizing how folklore and other cultural elements have contributed to our local, state, and national heritage. (1, 3, 4)
2-5 class periods
Swapping Stories video. Print out and duplicate any stories, worksheets, or rubrics that you will be using.
Background Information for the Teacher
Tall tales have been prevalent in American tradition since colonial and frontier days. Many relay a triumph of some sort over nature, a theme that is understandable considering the formidable natural elements this continent presented settlers. For those living on the edge of wilderness or in the midst of challenging environments, tall tales helped reduce anxiety by making fun of the challenge itself and by making a hero of the protagonist.
Carl Lindahl writes in his Louisiana's Folktale Traditions: An Introduction to Swapping Stories, "Newcomers to America often left behind crowded quarters and limited opportunities. Arriving in a region with seemingly inexhaustible land and possibilities, they may well have felt that they had entered a world where magic and reality came together, just as they do in the tall tale."
Although the tall tale teller does not believe the tale, he or she most often presents it as true and tends to begin it in a realistic setting with plausible episodes. As the tale progresses, more and more fantastic elements come into play, and the audience begins to perceive that the truth is being stretched, even as the tellers themselves continue to insist, "This is the dying truth," or "If I'm lying, I'm dying." Men usually tell these stories, often around themes of hunting, fishing, working, and horse racing.
Exaggeration of staggering proportions often characterizes tall tales, and Louisianians are full of such stories. Find several examples in Swapping Stories, for example: It Was So Cold, It Was So Hot, Another Big Fish Story, Mosquitoes Save a Life, A Tale About a Catfish, Does He Drive, Too?, and The Alligator Peach Tree. A slightly different version of "The Alligator Peach Tree" is also on the Swapping Stories video.
In contrast, contemporary legends, often called urban legends, are more often believed to be true by tellers and listeners. All ages, both male and female, tell urban legends. They may also be told like tall tales, starting with a plausible element but growing fantastic. The stories express unspoken cultural anxieties about the rapidly changing mores and technology that are today's wildernesses. Swapping Stories does not offer examples of urban legends, but mention missing kidneys, microwaved poodles, or the secret Niemann Marcus cookie recipe, and several students--especially 8th graders--will offer variations of these urban legends, inspiring other students to add other legends. Today many students tell urban legends and share them on the Internet in the manner that their parents or grandparents tell tall tales--to test the gullibility of their listeners. Interestingly, the Internet and other popular culture media have educated wider audiences about urban legends, thus some may no longer be passed as truth but as exaggerated fiction.
Cyberlore is another contemporary folklife genre that is anonymous and passed on by word of mouth and imitation as well as in email and social media. Phony computer virus warnings are one form of cyberlore. They have a formulaic beginning that sounds very realistic, official, and threatening, "The Department of the Army has issued a virus warning. Whatever you do, do not open a message with the subject line 'Happy Days' or you will corrupt your hard drive." Yet the gullibility test always catches some novices who believe the latest virus warning or computer hoax. Outbreaks of real computer viruses reinforce concerns and make cyberlore more believable. Again, 8th graders are a better audience for cyberlore, and those who are active on the Internet will know examples of such lore. Chain letters, tales of teen car accidents, and fortune-telling devices are other prolific genres that teenagers pass on via the Internet.
The Oral Narratives Checklist can be used for helping the students learn the defining elements of each genre.
Choose some examples of tall tales from Swapping Stories titles listed in Technology Connections above, the video, or the website and study definitions of tall tales and urban legends. The latter work better with 8th graders. If you want 8th graders to explore cyberlore, identify some examples to share with them and get them started on a collection project.
4th and 8th Grade Activities
1. After modeling by reading or retelling a tall tale from Swapping Stories, ask students to volunteer to read or retell others you have chosen (see Technology Connections above). Provide aloud time for them to practice. Duplicate and review the Story Retelling Rubric and ask students to rate how effective the tellers are by scoring the rubric as they listen. Remind them that audience members must contribute feedback statements. See Unit 3 Lesson 1 for further details on how to use the rubric.
2. Discuss tall tales by exploring the following topics:
3. Local characters such as Pascal in Southwest Louisiana are often actors in tall tales (see Ancelet in Unit V Resources). Ask whether students know any tall tales. They may share in small groups or as a class. They might also collect them in a fieldwork project (see Unit V Lesson 7).
4. Students can refer to their Oral Narratives Checklist and add the names of some tall tales to the list.
5. In another class period, you or some students read other examples of tall tales aloud. As a class, list some elements of exaggeration students remember from the tales. Tall tales usually begin by sounding truthful. Discuss the point at which exaggeration becomes obvious in various tall tales. Does it change from story to story? What elements of style and content tip off listeners that the tall tale teller is putting them on?
Print and duplicate the Tall Tale Map Worksheet, and distribute it to students. Have them choose one of the tales that were read, and complete the map.
6. Using the Tall Tale Map Worksheet, ask students either to draw a cartoon strip of a tall tale plot or act it out for the class or in small groups. Students may work in pairs. Discuss how they might convey the point at which the straightforward beginning bends into the exaggeration of a tall tale.
Technology Option: Use a multimedia authoring program to make an electronic slide show with the drawings. Student drawings that were done on the computer can be imported and pasted on a card. Those that were hand-drawn can be scanned and then imported.
7. Invite a tall tale teller to the classroom. See Unit II Lesson 3 for guidance and ways to maximize this learning opportunity.
4th Grade Explorations and Extensions
1. Sometimes we hear sayings that exaggerate, for example, "crooked as a dog's hind leg," What sayings do you know? Interview adult family members and neighbors to collect more sayings. Create a class master list then write a short descriptive paragraph using at least three sayings.
2. Start a storytelling club with other students. Practice telling stories and help each other improve. Ask the school librarian or a teacher if your club may tell stories to younger students. The Story Retelling Rubric will help your storytelling.
8th Grade Activities
1. Introduce the concept of urban legends by telling a legend you know. Urban legends are usually told as truth, like other legends, but some are so fantastic they mirror the tall tale, for example, stories of a Mexican "goat-sucking monster, the chupacabra."
Among Louisiana urban legends are stories of construction workers whose bodies have been left in bridge pilings after falling into wet concrete during construction. Ask students to volunteer to share urban legends they know. Many may concern fast foods or new technology such as microwaves or organ transplants.
2. Discuss the truthfulness of urban legends; the anxieties they might be unconsciously expressing, such as new technology or the changing roles of women; and the context in which they are told (workplace, playground, Internet, dinner table).
4. Assign students to conduct fieldwork among teenagers or adults by taking notes, using recorders, or asking for examples on the Internet. Do any legends specific to Louisiana or your community arise? Do they differ from the legends told in other parts of the U.S.?
5. Individually, in small groups, or as a class, work with students to classify examples from Brunvand or students' fieldwork according to various criteria: subject matter, setting, alleged victim, teller, etc. Check the excerpt of the Swapping Stories Index of Motifs, above, to identify any motifs urban legends share with other folklife genres.
6. Ask students to choose one legend to present to the class and to describe why they think this legend is told.
7. Or ask students to produce a class recording of urban legends, a radio show of urban legends with student commentary, or an Internet survey to post to a class or school webpage or exchange with another class in the state.
8th Grade Extensions and Explorations
1. Study computer virus warnings that are part of the vast body of cyberlore. Like urban legends, these warnings are generated anonymously around new technology that may appear threatening as well as magical. Your media specialist may be able to help collect variations of computer virus warnings or refer to Snopes.com: Rumor Has It. You can:
2. Newspapers often report urban legends--sometimes as truth. Again, because of the popular culture craze for urban legends, the public and media are more aware of urban legends than ever today. For example, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate spurred reader response in February 1999 to the story of a construction worker buried in an I-10 bridge piling. Several people wrote that they had heard this legend about several bridges around the state. Others wrote of actual accidents that they felt might have contributed to the legend. Read Smiley Anders' The Advocate newspaper column. Do you or classmates know a similar legend? Discuss why such a story gets "recycled":