Using Cinderella to Teach How History and Culture Change Over Time

The story of Cinderella is a timeless tale including elements of magic, misfortune, love, and the universal struggle of good versus evil. The themes from the story appear in the folklore of many cultures.

Students will probably have seen movies or heard the story of Cinderella. Let students know that there are over 1,500 Cinderella stories across the world. The earliest recorded version comes from China in the tale of Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Tale from China. Cinderella books can be used to teach cultural elements to younger elementary students, using the lesson guidelines below.

Setting the Scene

To begin, activate background knowledge and ask students these questions: “What elements define a Cinderella story?” (theme of love, special shoe, magic help, mean relatives, persecuted heroine, celebration, overcoming bad odds, prince); “What one element of the story identifies Cinderella?” (the shoe); “How many shoes do you have in your closet?” Allow students to answer, then use pictures from the book Shoes: Their History in Words and Pictures, by Charlotte Yue (1997), in a PowerPoint to discuss customs and superstitions of shoes. Note that different cultures have different beliefs about shoes.

Tell students that shoes (or no shoes) are a part of clothing, which is a part of culture. Ask students, “Can you name a type of shoe that represents a specific culture?” (wooden shoes, cowboy boots, moccasins). Ask students to define culture and list some of the elements.

Classroom Activity

Explain to the students that they will be divided into groups of four members. Assign each group a different version of a Cinderella story to read. Assign group roles of reader, recorder, artist, and map finder. Explain the following group roles to the students:

    • The reader reads the story aloud to the group (e.g., Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella, by Robert D. San Souci [2002]; Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Tale from China, by Ai-Ling Louie [1996]; Fair, Brown & Trembling: An Irish Cinderella Story, by Jude Daly [2005]; The Rough-Face Girl, by Rafe Martin [1998]; Smoky Mountain Rose: An Appalachian Cinderella, by Alan Schroeder [2000]).
    • The recorder writes down the answers to the following questions: “Who is the persecuted character in your story?”; “What magic help is received?”; “Who are the mean relatives?”; “What is the proof of identity?” (e.g., the shoe); “Is there a theme of love? With whom?”; “Are there animals involved in the story?”; “Is there a party or festival involved?”
    • The artist draws a symbol to represent the story.
    • The map finder places the symbol on the map to mark the location of the story.

Each reader will read a Cinderella story aloud to their group, and all members will answer the questions on the worksheet as the writer records their answers. Have the members decide on a symbol to represent their Cinderella story (drawn by artist) and where it should be placed on a map to mark the origin of the story (placed by map finder). After all groups have finished, give each student the comparison chart to complete as you work together to find the elements. Ask students, “What elements of culture do you see in these stories?”

Name of Book Persecuted Hero or Heroine Mean Relatives Magic Help Beautiful Clothing Party or Festival Cultural Differences

Ask students the following questions: “What are some key patterns of Cinderella stories?”; “How do the traditions and values in the Cinderella story you read reflect the origin of the story?”; “Why is the symbol your group chose a good representation of the story?”; “What would be an alternate symbol and why?”; “What are some common characteristics of different cultures?”; “What do names and clothing indicate about a culture?”

Although some critics cite Cinderella stories as the classic example of male-female stereotyping (with the female dependent and with the male as rescuer), there are Cinderella versions that include a male main character, such as The Irish Cinderlad, by Shirley Climo (2000), Prince Cinders, by Babette Cole (1997), Bubba the Cowboy Prince, by Helen Ketteman (1997), Joe Cinders, by Marianne Mitchell (2002), and Sumorella: A Hawaiian Cinderella Story, by Sandi Takayama (1997). If you utilize these, consider asking questions about traditional gender roles and how the culture or time period the story was written in could have influenced the retelling of Cinderella. Other interesting versions might be stories with the main character as an animal, such as Cinderdog and the Wicked Stepcat, by Joan Holub (2001), and Cinderella Penguin; or, The Little Glass Flipper, by Janet Perlman (1995).

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Kay Gandy is a retired professor of seventeen years and a retired elementary teacher of twenty-seven years. Her goal is to work with teachers in countries around the world and watch movies in foreign theaters. Her books Mapping is Elementary, My Dear and 50 Ways to Teach Social Studies provide practical lesson ideas for elementary teachers.

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