ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Tall Tales Today

Where have all the heroes gone?


Key Staff

Classroom Teacher

Key Skills

Making Art: Performance Skills and Techniques
Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres


In this lesson, students are introduced to the genre of American tall tales. Students are exposed to several traditional tall tales, then prompted to write an original tall tale set in contemporary America. The tall tale must address a current event or issue and must feature a "larger-than-life" main character. The students use exaggeration and hyperbole to portray the way in which the main character resolves the issue or problem. Students then dramatize their tall tales for the class.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Recognize tall tales as a vehicle of entertainment and identity for the pioneers
  • Read for literary experience several American tall tales from the different regions of the United States
  • Identify and analyze components of a tall tale
  • Create an original tall tale
  • Perform original tall tales for classmates

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Guided Listening
  • Discussion

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment


Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should be:

Prior Student Knowledge

Students should:

  • have some experience with the writing process.
  • know the term “pantomime” and have some experience of miming actions.
  • be familiar with newspapers and the concept of current events.


  • Small Group Instruction
  • Large Group Instruction


Teacher should prepare a brief story to tell in Step 1 below. Choose a fairly plain narrative that can be transformed into a tall tale: a vacation trip, for example, running an errand, or something seen on the way to school.

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Briefly the Vocabulary handout located within the Resource Carousel.

2. Tell a story from your personal experience, and record a general outline of the story on the board or chart paper. Ask students whether this story seems realistic or not. If they agree that it’s a realistic story, ask them to help you make it into a tall tale: a story that gets its humor from exaggeration.

3. Tell the same story, using some of the mechanisms of tall tales:

  • Add exaggerations throughout the tale (for example, if the story is about seeing a squirrel on the way to school, say that it was a giant squirrel with special abilities).
  • Use simile and metaphor to create more vivid descriptions of people, places and things.
  • Make the story funny or silly.

Encourage students to join in once they grasp the idea.

4. When you have modeled and discussed the rewriting process for students, have students repeat the exercise in pairs. Allow students to share personal stories and suggest ways to enhance these stories through exaggeration. Instruct students to make their exaggerations specific, and to use similes and metaphors to create vivid and memorable descriptions.

Build Knowledge

1. Explain to students that in the warm-up activity, they created a type of story that was very popular among American settlers in the early 1800s. The stories were known as tall tales. People liked to tell tales about "larger-than-life" characters that had extraordinary abilities, such as super-human strength or speed. Stories were invented about the adventures and challenges faced by these characters. As the stories were repeated, the details became more and more exaggerated. (Note that in some cases, the heroes and heroines of the stories seem to have been based on real people, but that after many retellings, these characters and events were exaggerated beyond the limits of possibility.)

2. Point out that people liked to invent heroes that were particular to the region in which they lived. These heroes and heroines often used their extraordinary qualities to help resolve problems faced by people in the area. For example, in Minnesota—with its vast forests and a harsh, cold climate—people told stories about Paul Bunyan, a giant lumberjack who could chop down a whole forest with one strike of his axe. In Texas, settlers told the story of Pecos Bill, the best cowboy in the west, who wrestled a threatening tornado. Point out that the main characters often brought about easy, impossible solutions to situations that were dangerous or daunting to the real-life pioneers. (Real people would need to exert hard labor to clear a forest; pioneers confronted with a tornado would not be able to control or prevent the devastation.)

3. Discuss the elements of tall tales with students, making sure to hit upon the characteristics outlined in the Tall Tale Checklist, a copy of which is available for you in the Resource Carousel:

  • The story has many exaggerations in it.
  • The main character has a problem to solve.
  • The main character is bigger than life and has super-human abilities.
  • The plot of the story is funny and impossible.
  • In the end, the main character solves a problem, overcomes an obstacle and/or defeats a “bad guy.”
  • The story includes lots of action.

4. Read several tall tales from different regions as a class. Some good tales to consider are:

  • Paul Bunyan (Minnesota)
  • Pecos Bill (Texas)
  • Sally Ann Crockett (Kentucky)
  • Captain Stormalong (Maine)

5. Ask for a few volunteers to pantomime the action of each tall tale. Assign the main parts to two or three students, and have them act out the action as you read it.

6. After you complete the story, ask the other students to identify the ways that the students portrayed the larger-than-life qualities of the tall tale characters. How did they use their bodies to make the audience believe that they were very tall, very strong, etc.?


1. Ask students what they think of the main characters in the tall tales that they have heard. Are they "good guys?" Why or why not? Discuss with students the differences and similarities between the folk heroes in the tall tales and superheroes like Spider Man and Superman. Have students list some of the qualities shared by all of the tall tale heroes and heroines (strength, bravery, helpfulness, humor, bravery, perseverance, etc.).

2. Ask students to think of people that they admire, and to list the qualities that make them admirable. (These might be sports stars; entertainment figures; people belonging to a certain profession, such as firefighters; etc.) Record examples on the board. Compare these qualities with those shared by superheroes and the heroes of tall tales.

3. Explain to students that they will be writing an original tall tale, set in their present-day community and focusing on a current issue. In their tale, they will invent a new folk hero or heroine who will solve a problem or issue that is affecting their community. Explain to students that they will need to research a current event or issue that is being debated in their community (a zoning restriction, expansion of a school district, damming a river, lengthening the school day, etc.). You may choose to give the students a list of topics, or have the entire class write about the same issue.

4. Have students form groups of four or five.

5. Provide students with local newspaper articles or editorials that explain both sides of the issue, and tell them that they will need to take a position on the issue and decide what they would like the outcome to be. The main character in their tall tale will need to perform impossible feats in order to produce this outcome. Students should brainstorm several exaggerations that they could use in their story.

6. Review the writing process with students. Remind them that the tale should include all of the elements listed in the Tall Tale Checklist, including at least three exaggerations. The story must be submitted in final draft, and must be accompanied by a completed Tall Tale Checklist citing the specific aspects of the story that make it an effective tall tale. (This checklist can be used as a self-assessment piece.)

7. Have students perform their tall tale for the class, with several students miming the action as one or two narrate the story. Go over the components that make up a successful dramatic delivery, and distribute the accompanying handout entitled Guidelines for a Successful Dramatic Presentation. A copy of this handout is available for you within the Resource Carousel.


1. Have students present their tall tales to the class. If desired, record the performances.

2. After students have presented their tall tales, ask them to suggest a plausible solution to the issue/problem that was addressed in their tall tales. List solutions during class discussion, or have students do an in-class writing detailing their practical plan.


1. Evaluate the tall tales according to the criteria on the accompanying Assessment Rubric. The Assessment Rubric is availabe for you within the Resource Carousel.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

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Diane Messina
Original Writer

Rebecca Haden

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