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Using Urban Legends to Engage Struggling Readers

Using Urban Legends to Engage Struggling Readers

By Sarah Hastings Morley

No matter what subject you teach, the beginning of the school year is filled with fun getting-to-know-you activities, establishing class routines, and fostering student-teacher relationships. It’s an exciting and hopeful time, but after the whirlwind ends, I get anxious. I worry that my lessons won’t live up to the start-of-the-year activities. Like me, many teachers may fear the transition into actual work. That it may bore their students, especially if you teach high school reading intervention classes like me. So, what’s a teacher to do to keep the momentum going? The answer is—urban legends. “Hey class, so the other day I heard from my cousin’s friend, that….”

After teaching high school reading intervention courses for many years, I know that starting with a novel is a mistake—it’s too long. Literature circles are also a wonderful opening unit, but I found that introducing them too early often derailed my lesson plans and created absolute chaos. Then I tried beginning with Urban Legends, a unit I usually do at the end of the year. It became so successful that now I always start with it.

Whether teaching a literacy-based intervention class, creative writing, or a regular English class, students love reading and writing urban legends. They blend the lines of fiction and non-fiction but follow a very predictable pattern. The stories always starts with the source: “I heard from my brother’s girlfriend that….” Then a situation: “A guy and girl run out of gas on a lonely road….” Then a general setting that so that it can be anywhere, anytime, making it more realistic: “…. A road surrounded by forest,” or “…. A friend’s sleepover.”

For struggling readers, this basic structure is easy to read. Later on, it helps them grasp more complex parts of the story like a surprising plot twist: “The boyfriend is dead. His body hangs from a gnarled tree, dripping blood.” Or, “The escaped killer is calling from inside your house.” Students can then learn a lesson in morality or conduct such as, “Don’t babysit for a family you don’t know well,” “Don’t miss curfew,” “Never trust a stranger,” or “Be careful of your online privacy settings.” While the stories may be outrageous, the morals are geared towards teens learning to live more independently from their parents, usually by hanging out with friends and exploring their freedom.

Urban legends can be gossip-y, mysterious, scary, or “spilling the tea” as the cool kids say these days. Many students will swear that some of the stories are real. Almost every community has an urban legend or folklore specific to the area. Our town has a mysterious island on a lake with buried treasure nobody has found yet and a haunted mansion. The stories are edgy enough to engage students. They will forget they are learning about story structure and close reading skills.

When surveyed on what to read, most of my students ask for creepy stories, even those who are repeating my reading intervention class. So, find your library’s dusty anthology of local folklore or search for online rumors about Charlie Charlie, versions of The Babysitter or any of the gruesome versions of Boyfriend’s Death, and I promise that your students will love reading them. Students can track the structure and story elements in several different stories, or they may work in groups to debate the differences between similar versions. They can even decide which elements may be true. The urban legend of Slenderman is a good example. Even though two girls in Wisconsin confessed to the attempted murder of their friend after reading it, the story of Slenderman is completely untrue. And even though this tragic event made international news, the urban legend is still false. These difficult conversations may later lead to reading nonfiction topics open to debate and even, lessons on fake news.

For the culminating part of the unit, have students write an urban legend using the basic plot structure, mimicking the tone and style. Students should remember they heard the story from a friend of a friend… and it really happened! What’s great is that students can modernize the classics to include current topics like social media hoaxes. Make certain your district and parents know you aren’t doing any weird ghost séances in the classroom or creating fake internet hoaxes.

Beyond thoroughly enjoying the “Creepy Story Unit,” I know students will be able to recognize more sophisticated text structures and work on inferring implicit messages in text throughout the year. Students may use the same checklist used to track story elements, or write their own, and later, come up with more detailed drafts.

Here is a checklist I like to use when teaching reading and writing urban legends:

  • The source of the story that cannot be traced, but seems believable: “My boyfriend’s mom’s sister.”
  • The situation: “A girl cracks her phone screen. Her parents make her pay to fix it. She decides to babysit for extra cash, but the kids are asleep when she arrives.”
  • General setting: “The mysterious door on the third floor of the building.”
  • Characters without specific names: “The babysitter,” or “The boyfriend,” or “The man in the woods.”
  • Twist: “The girl died three years ago,” or “The call came from inside the house,” or “The dog was actually a giant rat.”
  • Lesson: Always teaches a moral to teens, “Don’t pet animals you don’t know,” or “Don’t go to a house where you don’t know the people.”

Sarah Hastings Morley is both a Reading Specialist and a high school English Composition Teacher. This is her 13th year teaching in the northern suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She earned her Bachelor’s in Secondary English Education from Illinois State University, and her Master’s in Education: Reading and Literacy from Benedictine University.

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2019 Issue