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Teaching independent thought with The Snow Queen, part one

By Hugh Nicklin on 07 August 2014, 10:11am | Resources

How can you go about teaching independent thinking? Veteran teacher Hugh Nicklin discusses how to go about this by using the classic Hans Christian Andersen story The Snow Queen (recently used as inspiration for the hit movie Frozen).

Part two can be seen here.

My son came home from school one day and came out with some nonsense, and when we challenged him he said “It’s true, Mr **** said so!” Nothing we said could shake him. 65 years too late for him, I present my ‘Snow Queen’ lesson as a counter-strategy.

You are going to do The Snow Queen with the class. This lesson ideally begins the whole process – i.e. you do this before the children have read any version of the story. Divide the children into pairs. There’s a lot to say about this division, and I say it further down.

Each pair of children has two papers, which are printed at the end of the article. One child takes Version ONE and the other Version TWO (they could be printed on different coloured paper to emphasize that they are different). You tell the class a white lie as follows:

I’ve found these two stories about a Snow Queen, and I’d like you to tell me which you like best. I want you to read yours to your partner. Take it in turns to read. If you find any mistakes, cross them out and write the right word on the right. Let’s try it.

You get a child to read the first sentence of each. They find that they are identical. Then the second, where you ‘discover’ that whereas Version ONE has:

Kay and Gerda were little children who lived next door to each other in a big city.
TWO has:
Kay and Gerda were little children who lived next door to each other in a large city.

You all agree that ‘big’ and ‘large’ are the same.

Then the third sentence:

ONE has “They had a tiny spaceship to play in, and became playmates”, but TWO has “They had a tiny garden to play in, and became friends”. You can have a general discussion about this, and agree that ‘spaceship’ is silly, cross it out and put garden, but if any child says ‘It could have been a spaceship’, allow them to leave it uncorrected. In preparation, you can substitute anything silly you like, especially if there is an in joke you can contrive about something the class know. In a minute they will come across ‘like Snow White’ where a willing teacher’s name can be inserted instead. ‘Friends’ and ‘Playmates’ agreed to be the same.

Ask if they understand what they have to do, and let them go ahead at their own speed.
As teacher you then patrol the room listening to as many of the conversations as you can. Keep an eye out for what the children are writing on their papers. If, for example, the person with ‘Mcdonald’s’ instead of ‘Lapland’ has failed to correct it, you can pull his/her leg about it gently. The writing is important because it enables you to monitor more of what’s going on as you patrol.

Sometimes, if they need reassurance, you might stop the exercise and have a class discussion, perhaps on the point whether you can be beautiful and wicked at the same time, for example. Encourage them to put question marks for you to see that they did see problems of that kind. It’s something else to look for on patrol. There are issues where they can’t decide, and therefore MUST put ‘?’. An example would be whether the mirror was shattered into thousands or trillions of pieces.

As the pairs finish, direct them to give more thought to the places where they have put ? marks and encourage them to try to put their thoughts in writing.

When all have finished you might have a short discussion of the differences they found, hoping to squeeze the most out of the silly facts. Then collect all the paperwork back in and, when they are calm again, read them a version of the Snow Queen from a book. Then you can ask the children to say whether the one you read was more like Version ONE (Disney style) or Version TWO (Brothers Grimm). Almost anything they say counts as literary criticism.

Questions from you might include: ‘Should all stories about the Snow Queen be the same?’ This leads on to the question: ‘Is a story which is ‘just’ a story different from History, which is supposed to be true?’ ‘Could stories in History or Religious Studies be different like this?’ ‘Would it matter if they were?’ You feel your way to a distinction between fact and fiction. You might debate a playground incident of which different reports were given, and debate what ‘lies’ and ‘mistakes’ are. You will focus on intention. At Y3 you are in the area of Piaget’s concrete operational moral judgements, where children judge the naughtiness by the amount of damage done, not by the intention of the person concerned, and this can be brought in.

If you know the class well you could set up the classic experiment where you stage a sudden event and get them to write down what happened. You might also look up Wikimedia Commons for different pictures of moments in the story. (see end for 4 random ones).

At some point you should raise the question ‘How did you know that ‘spaceship’ and ‘supercallifragilisticexpiallidocious’ were wrong’? In the discussion you guide them towards understanding that they did not come empty handed into the lesson. They brought with them several years experience of the world, and this was already enough to decide questions like this. There were in fact four authorities at work, not two, the first two being the Versions and the second two being their own slender but genuine grasp of what is ‘real’ about the ‘real world’.

What appeared at the outset to be a dialogue is shown in reality to be a ‘tetralogue’. Here you have a chance of increasing their self esteem. Their opinions, you are saying, are not negligible or valueless. The Father Christmas story is a tempting illustration, but avoid it: teachers have lost their jobs for destroying fantasies carefully nurtured at home.

I return to the question of dividing the children into pairs. If you put able children with less able ones, you create a monitorial situation, which multiplies the number of teachers in the room! This works at the level of decoding reading, as well as with reading for meaning. It is a leadership role, and shows that authority can be exercised by other people than the teacher. Another tick in the ‘self-esteem’ box. All the children in the class are reading, speaking or listening on a 1:1 basis. They all need to take part, because even an able child cannot divine what is in his partner’s version until his partner reads it out to him. For this reason, almost the only taboo is that one child shall not put the versions side by side and read both. If one child is a very poor reader, it is very hard for the ‘monitor’ not to reach over and look at the word which is giving difficulty, and you might brief the ‘monitor’ in advance of the need to show judgement in giving just the right amount of support.

If you put less able ones together you will lose the leadership, and find that they spend too much time discussing purely verbal differences (For this reason you shouldn’t rush when commenting on ‘big’ and ‘large’ in the second sentence). On the other hand, you will find an unexpected bonus. The children soon realise that their own text is just as likely to be right as the other one. Less able children get their lack of ability hammered into them for eleven years of compulsory education; to ‘own’ a text which has as much merit as their neighbour’s, and to enter into combat with someone of the same general ability armed with such a resource, is a pleasant change. When this kind of work was done with a group of trainee nursing assistants (who had bumped along the bottom in school) this was the point they stressed most in the post-mortem. A young relative with a similarly undistinguished career did a dialogue and became a successful estate agent!

If you have a child who already knows the story, your number of authorities rises to five. A person who has already heard the story will use her knowledge like a club in the discussions, exactly the problem you are trying to avoid when the teacher tells the story. The only real answer to this is to put all those who have heard the story before in pairs together, to contain the contagion. Such a discussion between two children who had read different versions would produce a ‘hexalogue’, and should generate much heat. Quarantining these children maximises the number of children in pairs unencumbered by previous ‘knowledge’.

Part two can be seen here.

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Hugh Nicklin

Hugh Nicklin

Hugh Nicklin attended state schools. Attacked while cycling home from his Grammar School for being a toff, he found himself regarded as a ragged trousered urchin by real toffs when arriving at Oxford, having ‘only’ attended grammar school. He taught for 25 years in state grammar & comprehensive schools, before moving to independent preparatory school to avoid History National Curriculum and GCSE. Hugh taught children aged 9-13 for fourteen more years, before retiring to the south of France. The collapsing euro forced him to teach for a time in a posh Indian IB school, where he also had to teach IGCSE. #happilyretired

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