Folktales from the Americas

9, 10, 11, 12

Using folktales from various American cultures, learners will determine which character traits are valued. They will also debate the advantages of "paying a debt forward" rather than "paying it back." Learners will also determine how stories move from one continent to another based on historical realities and they will describe how stories provide information to assist farmers to grow better crops.

PrintThree Fifty-Five Minute Class Periods

The learner will:

  • use the geographic themes of location, place and human-environment relations to describe the setting and culture represented in the folktale.
  • identify the type of folktales represented by the stories.
  • identify cultural aspects of a people as revealed in the stories.
  • analyze whether significant character development can occur after one event.
  • describe how Anansi stories moved to the New World.
  • define reciprocity and serial reciprocity and analyze whether one is more advantageous than the other.
  • describe why farmers plant corn, beans and squash together.
  • analyze whether an author’s technique for determining character perception in a story is effective.
Home Connection 

Interactive Parent / Student Homework:With their family members, learners will discuss the idea of "paying back" a favor vs. "paying it forward." They will borrow from the library or rent the DVD of the movie Pay It Forward (see Bibliographical References) and view it together. They will discuss this option of helping others.

  • "Anansi." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 23 October 2005, .
  • "The Boy and His Donkey." Rael, Juan B., Jose, Griego y Maestas, and Rudolfo A. Anaya. Cuentos: Tales from the Hispanic Southwest. Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, ©1980. Used with the permission of New Mexico Press.
  • Central Intelligence Agency. "Suriname." The World Fact Book. 
  • Formiga, Alice. "Celebrate the Three Sisters: Corn, Beans and Squash." Renee’s Garden Home Page. .
  • "Gratitude: The Hunter and the Antelope." Frobenius, Leo & Douglas C. Fox. African Genesis. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: The Telegraph Press, ©1937. pp. 163-64. Used with the permission of Stackpole Books.
  • "The Harvest Birds los pájaros de la cosecha." Mariscal, Blanca López de. The Harvest Birds/Los pájaros de la cosecha. Emeryville, California: Children’s Book Press, ©1995. Used with the permission of the publisher, Children’s Book Press, San Francisco, CA. The Harvest Birds/Los pájaros de la cosecha. Story copyright ©1995 by Blanca López de Mariscal. Art copyright ©1995 by Enrique Flores.
  • "The Hog." Rael, Juan B., Jose, Griego y Maestas, and Rudolfo A. Anaya. Cuentos Espanoles de Colorado y Nuevo Mexico: Spanish Folk Tales from Colorado and New Mexico. Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, ©1980. p. 628, Volume II Used with the permission of New Mexico Press.
  • Hyde, Catherine Ryan. Pay It Forward. Directed by Mimi Leder. 123 minutes. Warner Home Video, 2001. DVD. ASIN: B00005B4BI Rated: PG-13
  • Shaker, Genevieve. "Serial Reciprocity: Pay It Forward." Learning to Give. /resources/serial-reciprocity-pay-it-forward
  • "The Trouble With Helping Out." Abrahams, Roger. African-American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World. New York: Pantheon Books, ©1999. pp. 173-74. Used with the permission of the American Folklore Society.


  1. Anticipatory Set:

    Put the following statement on the board: "One good turn deserves another." Ask the learners what this expression means. When is it used in every day life?

  2. Explain that it is important to understand people and their environment when studying folktales. The first story, "The Trouble with Helping Out," is an African-American folktale from Suriname. On a map, locate Suriname’s absolute location (longitude and latitude) and relative location (general descriptors of where the place is located).

  3. In a brainstorming session, have the learners describe Suriname as a place by listing recognizable physical characteristics (landforms, water bodies, climate, soil, natural vegetation, animal life) and human characteristics (inhabitants, settlement patterns, languages, religions, how they make a living).

  4. In the story Hunter is helped by Anansi, the spider. Anansi myths originated in West Africa (Ghana) from the Ashanti people. Their stories spread to the Caribbean and South America. Discuss how and when it was possible that these stories spread to the New World (slave trade).

  5. Read the story together and identify what type of folktale it is (fairy tale, myth, legend/epic, tall tale, fable, religious story/parable). Identify the lesson(s) of the story. What does the title, "The Trouble with Helping Out," mean?

  6. In the story Hunter helps Snake who, at first, does not appreciate a kind act. Later, when Snake learns to appreciate Hunter’s generosity, he repays Hunter by saving his life while Hunter is in prison. This is an example of reciprocity, also known as "pay back" or "one good deed deserves another." Ask the learners to give every day examples of reciprocity.

  7. Explain that it is not always possible to repay a person’s generosity directly. Sometimes a different kind of reciprocity occurs, called serial reciprocity, in which persons do not pay back a kindness. Instead, they pay it forward, helping someone else other than the person who did the original kindness. From the Learning to Give Web site, have the learners read the briefing paper entitled"Serial Reciprocity: Pay It Forward." (See Bibliographical References.) Ask the learners if they agree with the idea that serial reciprocity is always better than reciprocity.

  8. Snake’s character makes a major change in the story. Is his character development believable? Can people change as a result of one incident in their lives?

  9. Read "Gratitude: The Hunter and the Antelope," an African story of the Nupe-speaking people of Niger and Nigeria. It is a folktale about an encounter between hunter, crocodile and mongoose. Compare and contrast this folktale with "The Trouble with Helping Out." Is it possible that they are variations of the same story?

  10. Explain that the next folktale, "The Harvest Birds," is a Mexican story related to farming. Ask the learners what they think of when they hear the expression, "the three sisters," related to crops. The term refers to corn, beans and squash which form a staple of Native American and Mesoamerican diets. They were also the crops which were eaten at the first Thanksgiving in this country.

  11. Read the story together and identify what type of folktale it is (fairy tale, myth, legend/epic, tall tale, fable, religious story/parable). Identify the lesson of the story.

  12. What clues are there in the story about how the other characters perceive Juan? Why don’t they take his dreams and requests seriously? How often in every day life are people’s perceptions of others’ wishes mistaken? Should this limit what people hope to accomplish with their lives?

  13. The story does not reveal in precise detail what it was that enabled Juan to grow such an abundant crop. Knowing that Juan planted corn, beans and squash, research "the three sisters" to find out exactly what Juan and the zanate birds’ secret was. (See Bibliographical References.) Discuss whether the relationship of the three plants is a form of symbiosis.

  14. In the 1930s in the Upper Rio Grande region of Colorado and New Mexico, Juan Bautista Rael personally transcribed over 500 folk tales from the Spanish-American settlers there. These settlers, called Nuevo Mexicanos or Hispanos, had developed a distinct culture going back to their settlement of the area in 1598. The short folktale, "The Hog," was one of these stories collected by Rael. Read the story together and identify what type of folktale it is (fairy tale, myth, legend/epic, tall tale, fable, religious story/parable). Identify the lesson of the story.

  15. Unlike the other folktales, this one has no "generosity of the spirit" in it. It seeks to teach generosity by demonstrating its reverse. Ask the learners to determine when an author would decide to use this technique to tell his or her story. Is it effective?

  16. Another folktale collected by Juan Bautista Rael is "A Boy and His Donkey" which is also from the American Southwest. Unlike "The Hog," this tale is more fleshed out with characters and dialog. Read the story together and identify what type of folktale it is (fairy tale, myth, legend/epic, tall tale, fable, religious story/parable). Identify the lesson of the story.

  17. The author builds into the story a technique of "character perception". We know whether or not the character is trustworthy based on the half of the apple he chooses. Is this an effective technique for character perception? Would the story have been as effective if it did not have this "test" built into it? How important in life is it to be able to perceive goodness or evil in a person? Which character showed "generosity of spirit"?

  18. Did these stories have universal appeal? Would they be understood by someone who knew nothing of the cultures included in the stories?


Divide the learners into teams of two. Thinking of the four American folktales in this lesson, have the learners decide what character traits are valued by the American cultures represented. Of all the characters in the stories, have each team select the one character that, to them, most represents the American culture and explain why. Since the four folktales represented in this lesson are only a small sampling of American culture, have the learners suggest other characters in American folktales that are representative of American culture and compare them to the characters in the stories studied.

Cross Curriculum 

Learners will research the Pay it Forward Foundation and/or the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation and develop a plan to implement a campaign for serial reciprocity or random acts of kindness. and/or the and develop a plan to implement a campaign for serial reciprocity or random acts of kindness.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 01. Define Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark HS.2 Identify and discuss examples of philanthropy and charity in modern culture.
      2. Benchmark HS.4 Define and give an example of serial reciprocity.
  2. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 02. Diverse Cultures
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Analyze philanthropic traditions of diverse cultural groups and their contributions to civil society.