Teaching on and with Hans Christian H.C. Andersen
Summary of a development project with students in lower secondary school, fourteen to sixteen-years-olds.

By Anna Karlskov Skyggebjerg

Hans Christian Andersen is a fascinating person and writer, also when you are fifteen. His texts have potential for identification, reflection and recognition, and the temporal distance between the texts and today's schoolboys and schoolgirls does not stand in the way of experiencing and understanding the texts.

That is the main conclusion of a literary-pedagogical development project that Centre for Children's Literature carried out in cooperation with two Danish schools, Virum School and Næsby School, in 2003.

The development project was carried out with the intention of developing the teaching on and with Hans Christian Andersen's works. Apart from a representative from Centre for Children's Literature at the Danish University of Education, eleven teachers and 250 students participated in the project, which took place during their usual Danish classes and covered disciplines such as literary history, textual analyse and creative writing. The students attended the 8th and 9th grades and were between fourteen and sixteen years of age.

The starting-point was an examination of the students' previous knowledge of Hans Christian Andersen's life and texts. The inquiry showed that the greater part of the students had a certain knowledge of Hans Christian Andersen's biography, but that their image of the writer was rather stereotyped.

The most highly frequent pieces of information on his life were that he came from straitened circumstances, that he was clumsy and therefore could not be a ballet dancer, and that he had trouble with love (!).

The study also showed that the students had active knowledge of a smaller part of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales. The same ten titles were mentioned by more than half of the students, while a number of relatively well-known fairytales, such as The Bell (1845), The Shirt Collar (1847) and The Snowman (1861), were not mentioned at all.

The conclusion of this pilot project was that there was a potential for spreading the knowledge of Hans Christian Andersen as a multi-facetted person and writer of 156 self-published fairytales and stories, as well as lyric poetry, travel books, novels, dramas and autobiographies.

The aim of the project was, among other things, to develop ideas, material and methods for a teaching in school that would broaden the primary and lower secondary schoolchildren's knowledge of Hans Christian Andersen as a person and as a writer.

The aim was made more specific in a number of intermediate aims, including working with less known Andersen texts, working with well-known Andersen texts in a new way, and involving various dimensions of the subject Danish, our native tongue, by engaging in literary, philological, visual and movie-related analyses and creative writing and drawing. The point of departure was the following ideas and goals for the teaching (the order is accidental):

  • that the students were to develop a consciousness of the fairytale genre and the various sub genres, for instance by writing their own fairytales of
  • that they were to analyze Hans Christian Andersen's influence on texts by modern writers of children's books
  • that they were to work with Hans Christian Andersen's lyric poetry and travel books
  • that they were to discuss various themes of his works
  • that they were to learn about the time in which the writer lived
  • that they were to learn more about Hans Christian Andersen's biography and the relationship between person and text
  • that they were to view Hans Christian Andersen's texts in various versions, including translations and films.

The eleven classes that participated in the project went through different sequences, but with common features. In all of the classes, the Hans Christian Andersen course was categorized by headlines that related to genre, theme or historical context, so that their work focused on particular problems.

The course involved joint textual analysis in the classroom, group work, work in twos, and individual work. Different work methods were employed, including various kinds of class teaching and workshops where the students worked with creative writing, drawing Hans Christian Andersen's travel routes onto maps, dramatizing and illustrating texts.

In the following description of the project the emphasis is on the content rather than the form of the teaching, although the two aspects cannot always be separated.

Points of view on Hans Christian Andersen
All of the 250 students who participated in the project worked with a selection of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales of things, that is: The special sub genre of fairytales in which objects come alive and display human qualities.

Some of Hans Christian Andersen's most well-known fairytales are fairytales of things, e.g. The Steadfast Tin Soldier (1838), The Sweethearts (1843) and The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep (1845), but there are also a number of less well-known titles in this category, e.g. The Old Street Lamp (1847), Pen and Inkstand (1859), The Silver Shilling (1861) and The Candles (1870).

The students analyzed both well-known and less known fairytales of things in order to isolate the particular characteristics of the genre on the basis of questions such as:

How and in what environments do the live things act? What are their characteristics? How do the appearance and the psychology of the objects agree with each other? What human qualities, emotions and lives are being recounted? What lines do the live objects speak out? What has the writer gained by choosing objects as main characters?

The advantage of working with the subgenre of fairytales of things is that it is a limited genre, to which some fifteen or twenty of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales belong. When it came to genre analysis, the students gained an overview and a thorough knowledge of some specific traits of the genre.

After the analytical phase they were asked to write their own fairytales of things that were to take place in settings of their own making. This resulted in some interesting texts on life in the fridge, the schoolbag, the attic, the workshop etc.

The aim of such exercises is of course not to make the students try and measure up to Hans Christian Andersen, but for them to expand their analytical insight while also challenging their imagination and their own language.

Some of the students also worked with the fairytale genre in another way, by studying the development from folktales to artistic fairytales, for instance by comparing the folktale Klotte Hans with Hans Christian Andersen's Clumsy Hans (1855) and the Brothers Grimm's Tom Thumb with Hans Christian Andersen's Thumbelina (1835).

This course also included texts by living writers, e.g. by the Danish writers Louis Jensen, Bent Haller and Rune T. Kidde. The fundamental question here was how Hans Christian Andersen's texts influence today's literature for children.

The above-mentioned three writers have, among other things, written texts in a genre we might call meta-fairytales, that is, fairytales that contain a development of and a reflection on the very fairytale genre.

The meta-level of the texts is for instance produced by a high degree of intertextuality in the shape of references to fairytales by Hans Christian Andersen.

Genre was also the centre of rotation when the students worked with Hans Christian Andersen's poetry. Only a few of Hans Christian Andersen's hundreds of poems are known, so here was also a potential for developing the students' knowledge of the scope of his works.

Like with the prose texts, they also worked with both well-known and less known poems. The focus was especially on Romantic elements: The fascination of what was strange side by side with the emphasis on the near and known environments, the relationship between mother and child as a Romantic icon, symbolism drawing on nature and the Romantic representation of themes like love and death.

The following poems by Hans Christian Andersen played a central part in the course: Det døende Barn (The Dying Child) (1827), Moderen med Barnet (The Mother with the Child) (1829), Aftenlandskab (Evening Landscape) (1830), Gurre (1842), Danmark, mit fædreland (Denmark, my mother country) (1852) and Jylland mellem tvende have (Jutland between two seas) (1860).

Some of Hans Christian Andersen's poems were set to music in his own lifetime, and during the course the students sung and listened to musical versions of the poems. Poems by other writers were also included, e.g. the Danish hymn writer B.S. Ingemann's Morgensange for Børn (Morning Songs for Children) (1837), which the Danish composer C.F.E. Weyse has put to music.

The students learned about the age of Hans Christian Andersen not only by listening to music, but also through visual art, architecture and technological inventions, such as the railway and the telegraph, and historical events, for instance the Silesian wars 1848-51 and 1864 and the Danish constitution of 1849.

The students were introduced to concepts like Biedermeier, Romanticism and national Romanticism. The state of things and the notions and standards of the age Hans Christian Andersen lived in served as an introduction to his biography.

And Andersen's relationships to other contemporary artists, such as B.S. Ingemann, Bertel Thorvaldsen and Charles Dickens, were told to the students in the form of anecdotes, and the various contemporary descriptions of Andersen were used to broaden their image of the writer's complicated personality.

Some of the students also compared textual readings from different thematic perspectives, such as the views on children or the death of a child or adult.

In relation to the views on children and childhood the students worked with, among other things, The Mother with the Child (1829) and the fairytales Little Ida's Flowers (1835), Children's Prattle (1859) and Peiter, Peter, and Peer (1868). Fundamental questions to the very different texts were for instance:

What part does the child, or children, play? What are the children's characteristics? Does the text speak to children or to adults? What view of children is expressed?

In relation to the theme of death, the following texts were used: The poem The Dying Child (1827) and the fairytales The Little Match Girl (1845), The Red Shoes (1845), The Story of a Mother (1847) and She Was Good for Nothing (1852).

In these texts death plays very different roles, but what they have in common is an extremely subtle balance between grief, pain and deliverance. The mother is a recurring figure in the above-mentioned texts and in Hans Christian Andersen's works as a whole, and the mother and the mother's role were therefore the centre of rotation in a number of discussions.

An interpretative lead that went across the division into genres and themes was the work with Hans Christian Andersen's texts in visualized versions.

The fact that many of his texts ought to be considered as a kind of common cultural baggage - which many readers all over the world have a personal relationship to - often lead to class discussions of who owns the texts.

Especially in connection with the many visual versions of Hans Christian Andersen's figures, for instance in picture books, illustrated books, comic strips, stage plays, feature films, puppet films and animated films, it is relevant to discuss both the interpretative potential of the figures and the raison d'être of various interpretations of Andersen's texts.

Apart from picture books the students worked with different film versions of Andersen's life and texts, such as Jørgen Vestergaard's puppet film Historien om en moder (The Story of a Mother) (1977), Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989), and Jannik Hastrup's at once biographical and interpretative animated film H.C. Andersen og den skæve skygge (Hans Christian Andersen and the Crooked Shadow) (1998).

Hans Christian Andersen for the fourteen to sixteen-year-olds
On the basis of the development project we were able to conclude that the students already have an understanding of the writer and the person of Hans Christian Andersen before they reach the lower secondary school level.

They will probably have gained this knowledge both at home (for instance from having been read aloud to), in the media (especially from screen versions) and at school (from previous courses on fairytales or Hans Christian Andersen's works). Their previous knowledge includes some biographical information and a number between ten and twenty of canonized Andersen texts.

The students' knowledge could and should be used when they go on to work with Hans Christian Andersen at this level. The fascination that most students already have can be stimulated and extended by introducing them to other interpretations of the writer's life and works than those they already know. And not least there are inherent resources in working with a few of the many texts they do not actually know.

The development project shows that the fourteen to sixteen-year-olds are capable of working with some of those Hans Christian Andersen texts that have previously perhaps been considered too difficult for this educational level.

That goes for, for instance, The Red Shoes and The Story of a Mother, which some of the students were very engaged in working with from perspectives like self-sacrifice and death.

As an example of the work with one of these texts we might mention that the students in one of the 8th grades began to tackle the interpretation of The Story of a Mother by first listening to the story and then illustrating the mother in two different situations: When the narrator begins the story, when Death comes to take the small child, and the end, where the mother waives her claim to get the child back in consequence of the insecurity about its destiny.

The students' illustrations of the two episodes worked as independent interpretations of the mother figure, her development and final recognition, and the illustrations provided the background for the subsequent discussions and textual analyses.

At the same time the project also showed that the students throughout the course gained a different and more reflected view of some of the Hans Christian Andersen texts that are traditionally read aloud during the first years in school.

Especially the fairytales of things through which the fourteen to sixteen-year-olds developed a consciousness of genre codes and artistic effects. By working with the artistic period of Romanticism and with contemporary artists and their works, the students learned that Hans Christian Andersen might have gone his own way, but that his texts were still products and bearers of a zeitgeist.

And many students find that zeitgeist very fascinating. The Romantic schism and the Romantic dichotomies: nature versus culture, strange versus familiar/homely, body versus soul, earthly versus heavenly etc, are not strange to the students, and the mixture of passion, pathos and humour in Hans Christian Andersen's works seem to appeal particularly to this age group.

We can conclude by saying that working with Hans Christian Andersen turned out to be worthwhile. The students did not grow tired of the subject even though the course took up quite a number of lessons, because it was varied with regard to texts, angles and work methods.

They were soon ensnared by the Andersen universe, and their fascination did not cease when they stumbled upon strange notions, concepts or words. Actually, the students often feel that Hans Christian Andersen's texts speak directly to them.