A Togolese Tale: The Big Fire

Students will examine the universal nature of folk tales and evaluate the meaning of a tale told in Togo.


After studying the letter and engaging in different activities, students should be able to explain how or why folk tales represent the cultures where they originate.

  • The author felt dissatisfied with the ending of the story.
  • People can make friends by sharing stories and common elements of their cultures.
  • Telling the truth always has its merits.


  1. The Folk Tale
    1. Outline for students the structural elements on which most folk tales are based: an introduction, a development, a climax, a conclusion, and a moral. Retell a familiar story, such as "The Three Little Pigs" or "Goldilocks," and then ask the students to identify each of these elements. You might draw a graphic organizer to help students in the process and have them identify specific elements in the story below the line. 
    2. Ask students to identify each of these elements in Esso's story.
    3. Ask students why Koehler was initially confused by the ending of Esso's story. Was it because one of the elements of a folk tale seemed to be missing? Or that the ending didn't conform to a more typical Western folk tale? Or that a sense of justice seemed to be missing?
    4. Ask what the moral is in Esso's story. (Students may have different ideas on what Esso's story teaches. It might be helpful to remind students that a moral doesn't have to be explicitly expressed by the author; it can be implied by the story.)
    5. Do students think the moral in Esso's folk tale is unique to Togolese culture? Why or why not?
    6. Ask students what aspects of Esso's tale ring true in their own culture. What similarities can they identify between Esso's outlook and their own?
    7. Hold a class discussion centered on these points:
      • There seems to be a question of justice in this folk tale. Do you think the honest brother experienced justice in the end? If so, how? If not, why not?
      • Do you think the wicked brother experienced justice in the end? If so, how? If not, why not?
      • Koehler observes that the folk tale seems to show that crime does not always get punished. If there was some good that came out of the story (e.g., the wicked brother no longer misbehaves), does that qualify as a kind of overall justice?
  1. The Frame Story
    1. Once you have discussed the folk tale itself, have students identify and reread the narrative sections that come before and after the folk tale itself. Ask students why the author took the trouble to describe Esso and set the scene rather than just telling the story. What information do these sections add?
    2. Define frame story as a story that contains one or more additional stories. [With older students, you might give examples such as Boccaccio's Decameron or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Younger students will probably be familiar with the story of Aladdin and would probably enjoy hearing the story of Sheherazade's storytelling in The Thousand and One Nights.] Why doesn't the author retell for the reader his own story about the boys who fell down the well? Why does he feel he needs to change the details in his story, such as the boys' names?
    3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the Togolese tradition of taking in the children of poorer relatives?
    4. Ask students: Do you agree with Koehler's assessment of the story? Would you rewrite the story?
    5. Define the term oral tradition and explain that when stories are told orally instead of being written down, it is much more likely that many variations of the story will appear.

Frameworks and standards

Enduring understandings

  • Folk tales exist in all cultures and teach important lessons about life.
  • Folk tales contain universal themes that transcend their culture of origin.

Essential questions

  • What life lessons can we learn from folk tales?
  • What does this folk tale teach me about my culture and other cultures?  


  1. Have students devise and write their own folk tale, based on the structural elements suggested in A #1 above. This would be a good opportunity for students to work in small groups. You might use the brief account Koehler gives the reader about his own story as a springboard, and see how many different stories your class can create from the same starting point.
  2. Have each student locate another folk tale and retell it to the class in his or her own words, as expressively as possible. Older students might enjoy visiting younger classes to tell their stories, after practicing with peers.
  3. Ask students to create an illustrated version of a folk tale. You might have the results spiral-bound at a local business-supply store to use as a classroom resource in the future.

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