Travel through stories with these ten exciting myths and folktales from around the world!
In the past, myths and folktales were how people explained natural phenomena and dispensed wisdom from one generation to the next. Just as people in the past sought to explain the world around them using these stories, we can also use these stories to better understand ourselves.
Here are ten engaging examples of folktale stories for middle and high school that are sure to provoke discussion in your classrooms! You can also compare and contrast the texts to better understand the difference between a myth vs. a folktale.
“Welcome to the Underworld” by Michael A. Signal (6th Grade)
Have students read this refreshing take on a classic Greek myth: a visit to the Underworld, with the messenger of the gods, Hermes! This text is an accessible introduction to Greek mythology for students who might find myths intimidating. Before reading, have students brainstorm some things they know about the Underworld. Ask students to share some popular representations of Greek myths they already know. After reading, have them discuss how those are different from what they read in the text.
“The Fisherman and His Wife” by Brothers Grimm (6th Grade)
This folktale story with a moral lesson is one of many German folktales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, more commonly referred to as the Brothers Grimm. In this tale, a fisherman discovers an enchanted flounder that can grant wishes. However, the more wishes the fisherman is granted, the more riches his wife desires. Have students read the text in small groups, then have each group try to put the moral of the story into their own words. Then, have the groups discuss how the moral applies to their own lives.
“The Roof of Leaves: A Tale of Anger and Forgiveness from the Congo” by Donna L. Washington (6th Grade)
In this folktale example from the Congo, a husband and wife have an argument that threatens to derail their marriage. The two reach a stalemate, and the only way the husband and wife can repair their relationship is by remembering their bond is stronger than the fight that separated them. Have students read this text and ask about a time they had a fight with someone close to them. Then, have students discuss how they resolved the problem.
“The Anklet” by Neil Philip (6th Grade)
This folktale story with a moral lesson is a version of the Cinderella story from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The youngest of three sisters is mistreated by her two older sisters and is forced to spin flax in rags. When the prince of the land hosts a ball and she is forbidden by her two sisters to go, the youngest sister has her jinni (genie) adorn her with silks and scarves in order to attend the ball. I’m certain you can guess what happens next! Have students compare and contrast this text with the Cinderella story from Western culture. Then, have them discuss whether they think the differences in this story change its meaning.
“Tansen’s Gift” by Dawn Renée Levesque (7th Grade)
In this example of a folktale story from India, students will discover the mystical origin of Tansen, a classical composer and musician. In this story, Emperor Akbar discovers Tansen’s gift, and he is heralded as one of the most talented musicians in the kingdom. However, the other musicians in the Emperor’s court become jealous of Tansen’s skill and devise a plot that could mean his demise! As students read, ask them to consider why musical talents are given a magical quality in this folktale. Have students discuss a time where they heard a piece of music that they found particularly moving. Ask them to share the effect the music had on them.
“The Four Dragons” by Unknown (7th Grade)
Many folktales explain the origin of features in the landscape, like the shape of rivers and the formation of continents. In this Chinese folktale example, four dragons transform into rivers after they are punished for defying the Jade Emperor, master of the heavens and Earth, in order to bring rain to drought-stricken areas. As students read this tale, have them reflect on the story’s message that sometimes personal sacrifice is necessary in order to help others. Have students discuss whether they agree or disagree with this idea. Encourage students to support their response with examples from the text.
“Excerpt from The Odyssey: The Sirens” by Homer (9th Grade)
Introduce your students to epic poetry with this excerpt from Homer’s The Odyssey. In this part of his perilous journey home from Troy, Odysseus and his crew face a wily set of foes: sirens, whose song tempts sailors to their doom. Have students read along as Odysseus must use his quick thinking and leadership skills to navigate this next challenge. Then, have students watch the Related Media video “What Makes a Hero” and ask them to discuss how Odysseus demonstrates heroism through his leadership.
“The Pied Piper of Hamelin” by Robert Browning (10th Grade)
In this poetic retelling of a German legend, the city of Hamelin is plagued by rats! The Mayor must employ the help of the Pied Piper, a mysterious figure who uses his magical instrument to charm vermin and lead them away. When the Mayor refuses to pay the Pied Piper in full, however, there are dire consequences. Have the class use the annotation tool to highlight Mayor’s actions throughout the poem. Given the Mayor’s greed, ask them to explain whether they think the Pied Piper’s response is justified.
“The Myth of Daedalus and Icarus” by Ovid (11th Grade)
In this Greek myth, inventor Daedalus and his son, Icarus, are exiled on the island of Crete. Together, they try to escape using bird-like wings to fly over the waves surrounding the island. Unfortunately, Icarus fails to follow his father’s directions to disastrous results. Before reading, have students discuss what makes a story a tragedy. After reading, ask them who they think experienced greater loss in this story, Icarus or Daedalus. Encourage students to support their thinking with evidence from the text.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving (12th Grade)
In this early American myth, Ichabod Crane is a fearful teacher in Sleepy Hollow, a place purported to be haunted by the Headless Horseman. Crane, obsessed with tales of the occult, disappears mysteriously after competing for the affections of heiress Katrina van Tessel with the brutish Brom Bones. His disappearance is open to interpretation: was it foul play, or proof of the supernatural? Have students examine the way both ghost stories and rumors contribute to Ichabod Crane’s fate in the tale. Then have students discuss how Crane becoming the protagonist of his own ghost story is an example of situational irony.
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