Cumulative Fairy Tale Essays


Students experience what it is like to be an expert in a field by focusing their research and writing on a single fairy tale and its adaptations throughout the course of a semester.


  • To show students how to choose an area of expertise and join in an ongoing academic conversation as a researcher who listens, learns, and contributes thoughtfully and usefully
  • To excite students about the topic by allowing them to become explorers of a constantly changing genre in the humanities and develop genuine mastery of a specific part of the field
  • To provide students with opportunities to practice developing and revising ideas over the course of multiple writing assignments that build on each other.
  • To demonstrate to students how this form of literature is a democratic one that constantly evolves.

Class: Expos E25: Academic Writing and Critical Reading: Fairy Tales and the Life of Imagination

Introduction/Background: This course teaches students about academic reading and writing through the study of fairy tales through time. Students write three essays of increasing length throughout the semester, which they workshop with their peers and the instructor. To encourage students to develop mastery and expertise on a subject, the instructor requires that students focus their research and writing on a single fairy tale that has been adapted and retold over time.


  • At the start of the class, the instructor asked students to choose a fairy tale, myth, or folktale from anywhere in the world to spend the semester becoming an expert on. They didn't have to know anything about it yet – they just had to commit to studying it and making it their own throughout the semester.
  • To help them select their tale, at the beginning of the course the instructor asked students to free-write on six questions:

1. What are your questions about the world right now? 

2. A fairy tale/myth/folktale (or several) that reflect those questions?

3. A part, passage, character, or theme in that FT that interests you most?

4. A memory or role from your life that reflects those themes?

5. An adaptation of that/those FTs?

6. A problem or question that the FT or life story raises?

  • From there, the class discussed how each student's answers could guide them in choosing their subject matter.
  • Each week, students were asked to share with the class any updates on their fairy tales. Anything new? Any other versions? Students were expected to be in a constant investigative state, always curious and on the lookout.
  • Students created three deliverables (Essays) of their expertise. Each began with an exercise (which the instructor commented on), a draft (which the instructor commented on and they peer reviewed in groups of 3-4), and then a final (graded) essay. Longer descriptions of each essay are included in the syllabus.
  • Essay 1 was a 4-5 page essay that interpreted a single fairy tale. The beginning exercise guided students through annotating and summarizing the story, and posing a question about the story’s meaning. Students then picked out 5-6 passages that helped to address this question and analyzed how those passages supported their interpretation. Finally, students wrote an essay that used close-reading of the passages to uphold their interpretation of the fairy tale.
  •  In Essay 2, students broadened their findings from Essay 1 to compare their chosen fairy tale with a modern adaptation in 6-7 pages. Students followed the same exercise as Essay 1 in order to craft an interpretation of the modern adaptation. Then, they wrote an essay defending an arguable claim about the adaptation, such as how it draws from the original tale, what differing perspectives it brings, how the author uses fairy tale motifs, etc.
  • Finally, in Essay 3, students engaged with a critical text in an essay of 7-9 pages. Students  discussed what these fairy tales and adaptations seem to be saying about growth, wisdom, survival, or a topic of their choice. Students engaged in a similar close reading exercise of the critic’s work in order to understand and summarize the scholar’s claim, and then find a way to respond to or build on their argument.


Textbook - Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar

 JSTOR to find a scholarly text, which the instructor provided a tutorial on

Comments from the Instructor:

The instructor sees this exercise as having two major benefits, which make it superior to having students write multiple essays on different topics: 1) Expertise 2) Revision. 

“EXPERTISE: The students became throughout the class genuine experts in their chosen fairy tale. By the end of semester, if they did their work well, they knew more about their tale than any other student in the class, and often more than me. They had the privilege of being the resident "Rumplestiltskin person" who could speak to how that story works in the fairy tale canon, how modern interpretations take liberties or remain faithful to earlier versions.”

“REVISION: Professional writers revise, and this is something I want all writers in my class to know in their bones. Too many classes ask students to write papers that they never see/use/think about again. I wanted to turn my students into writers who write a thing (Essay 1), then adapt and revise and expand it (Essay 2) and then adapt and revise and expand it again (Essay 3). I teach them the tools to keep working with an idea or a story, from a seminar paper, to a master's thesis, to a dissertation, to a published paper, to a book....”

syllabus.doc65 KB
essay 1.pdf76 KB
essay 2.pdf87 KB