Standard Lesson

Teaching the Epic through Ghost Stories

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Four 50-minute sessions
  • Preview
  • |
  • Standards
  • |
  • Resources & Preparation
  • |
  • Instructional Plan
  • |
  • Related Resources
  • |
  • Comments


Our oral tradition of telling ghost stories, with which most students are familiar, builds a useful bridge to the oral tradition of the ancient epic narrators. Students begin by examining ghost stories and brainstorming a list of qualities that make the stories vivid and interesting. They then use a literary elements map as they write a ghost story they have heard, but have never seen written, and then share their stories orally with the class. Finally, students explore the genre of epics and how they are related to oral storytelling. This lesson also includes support for English language learners.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

At a time when television and reading were unheard of, ancient epics entertained, they passed on the history of a place and people, and they taught behavior. Students with a sense of these goals in their own oral histories have a context for understanding such ancient epic writings. To feel that link even more powerfully, they need to hear the words of the epics. As Beowulf translator Kevin Crossley-Holland writes, an epic "should be read out loud-an epic in the oral tradition is never going to sit very easily on the printed page" (Miller 8). Enjoying ghost stores, particularly stories about a place that they know, helps students to picture ancient storytellers and their listeners as they gather around a fire to hear an epic. Hearing ghost stories also helps them to appreciate a good storyteller. With the connections between ghost stories and epics still strong in students' minds, you and your students can move directly to reading The Odyssey, Beowulf, or another epic after completing this activity.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Props—if desired and in line with your school’s safety guidelines, gather candles, flashlights, darkening curtains, and other items to create an appropriate setting.

  • La Llorona: The Weeping Woman (optional)




  • Gather any props that you’ll use to complement the lesson and make any necessary arrangements for the appropriate classroom where the storytelling will take place.

  • Test the Literary Elements Map on your computers to ensure that they have the proper browser plugin installed. If necessary, download and install the plug-in from the Site Tools page.

  • Test the NPR News story “Spiritual Cleansing: A Mexican Ghost Story” on a computer in your classroom to ensure that you have Real Player or Windows Media Player installed. See the Using Audio and Video on page for help installing or troubleshooting the software if necessary.

  • Choose a ghost story to tell the class, either Greg’s Ghost Story, a story you know, or one chosen from the stories available at the sites listed in Websites in the Resources section. To support English language learners, use La Llorona: The Weeping Woman, An Hispanic Legend Told in Spanish and English by Joe Hayes or a similar bilingual ghost story.

  • Choose an epic to read following this activity, either one from your text or one linked either in the Websites listed in the Resources section or Wikipedia's list of world folk-epics.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • explore the connections between the oral traditions of ghost stories and epics.

  • define the qualities of an effective oral storyteller and ghost stories.

  • demonstrate knowledge of the elements of an oral story.

Session One

  1. To recreate an epic storyteller’s setting, begin by asking students what situations leave us without electricity at night. Students usually mention a blackout, a storm, or a camping trip.

  2. Next, ask them what we do on such occasions, lacking reading or television to entertain ourselves after dark. Answers typically include “talk with each other,” “sleep,” “sing,” and “tell ghost stories.” There are no right or wrong answers here. Allow students to share whatever they they think of.

  3. (Optional) Set the scene to share a ghost story with students by turning off the lights, lighting a candle, and so forth.

  4. Tell students a ghost story, either Greg’s Ghost Story, a story you know, or one chosen from the stories available at the Websites listed in the Resources section.
    To support English language learners, use a bilingual story such as La Llorona: The Weeping Woman by Joe Hayes. As you read, be sure to stop and review any vocabulary words that are new to students, using the Spanish version of the story as possible to guide acquistion of the parallel ideas in the English version. Take time to point out how features of the two different versions compare as part of your analysis of the story—how are story structures and sentence construction different?
  5. If you have used La Llorona: The Weeping Woman, remember that the story is a cultural tale of the supernatural that many people consider a true tale. To underscore how such tales are accepted as part of everyday life, share the NPR News story “Spiritual Cleansing: A Mexican Ghost Story” (Real Player or Windows Media Player required) with the class. Emphasize the importance of supporting diverse cultures to ensure that all students feel comfortable in the class.

  6. Ask students to brainstorm a list of the qualities that make the ghost story vivid. Write the list on the board or on chart paper. Students will use this list as a checklist for their stories. Focus on the following questions:

    • What makes a ghost story entertaining?

    • What makes characters in a ghost story strong, believable, and interesting?

    • What makes a setting appropriate for a ghost story?

    • How is the underlying code of behavior best communicated in a ghost story?

    • What are ways to connect to the history of a place or people that make work well in a ghost story?
  7. Expand the discussion of ghost stories by asking students to think of other times that people tell stories of the supernatural (e.g., to explain something that seems unexplainable as in the “Spiritual Cleansing: A Mexican Ghost Story” recording. Encourage students to discuss cultural differences in ghost stories that they know.

  8. As a writing assignment, ask students to imagine themselves in the dark or in another appropriate situation, and to put to paper a ghost story that they have heard, but have never seen written. They will share these stories out loud in the following sessions.

  9. To get started, have students use the Literary Elements Map as a prewriting tool. Preview the tool, providing a focus lesson for English language learners on how the tool works. Ensure that everyone understands the mechanics of the tool before students turn to the content of the lesson.

  10. Reinforce the vocabulary of the literary elements highlighted in the tool by reminding students of the definitions and providing examples from readings that students are familiar with.

  11. If desired, provide guided instruction on how to use the Literary Elements Map by analyzing the features of the ghost story that you read to the class. This process not only reviews the vocabulary in context but also provides English language learners with a shared experience with the tool and the kind of analysis they are to complete before they move on to independent writing.

  12. As you introduce the Literary Elements Map activity, provide the following tips:

    • Character: Think about the ghost as the main character (e.g., La Llorona in La Llorona: The Weeping Woman), or focus on the reaction of a key character in your story who is affected by the ghost (e.g., J.H. in Greg’s Ghost Story).

    • Conflict: The conflict in a ghost story is usually the issue that makes the human return in ghost form (e.g., La Llorona’s despair over killing her children). It may be a violation of the code of behavior that the story seeks to illustrate.

    • Resolution: The resolution in a ghost story typically involves the ghost's return and the details of the haunting (e.g., La Llorona’s crying for and taking any child abandoned by a river). Remember that the haunting in a ghost story usually relates closely to the conflict and code of behavior.

    • Setting: Students may have more than one setting to think about, the present time period that the ghost haunts and the past time period when the ghost was a living person (e.g., the month of June 1938 and decades later in Greg’s Ghost Story).
  13. For homework, ask students to use their prewriting from the Literary Elements Map to write out their story. Stories should be finished by the beginning of the next session. English language learners can be encouraged to compose parallel or bilingual stories if desired. If students need additional time, consider adding an optional in-class work session in addition to homework time for them to compose their stories.

  14. Refer to the brainstormed list to emphasize the qualities that the class will listen for in the stories. A simple checklist, along with the specific details brainstormed in class, can serve as a resource for students’ revision.

Sessions Two and Three

  1. Again, set the scene as appropriate for your students to share their tales. You might, for instance, move your class to a windowless room so that the space can be appropriately darkened, and you might use a candle or flashlight to light the room or play spooky music softly in the background.

  2. Assemble students in a circle.

  3. Remind students of the checklist of qualities used in the previous session. Ask them to listen in particular for these characteristics while others tell their stories. Explain that you’ll discuss all the stories and the characteristics again after everyone has told a story.

  4. For this and the next session, students tell their stories. Allow students to share their tales in whatever way they are comfortable. Some will recite their stories from memory; others will read their papers. Students may even be slightly dramatic if they desire. This is one classroom activity where shrieks and screams are perfectly acceptable.

Session Four

  1. Return to the list of qualities typical of ghost stories that was brainstormed in Session One. Annotate the list during full-class discussion, listing examples from the tales that were shared over the previous two sessions. Students should be able to provide examples for all the categories with relatively little prompting.

  2. Introduce the genre of epics, and explain that most epics were originally oral tales.

  3. Point out the range of epics, from a variety of cultures.

    • Alex Haley, in Roots, traced his early ancestry using oral histories from West Africa that went back over two hundred years.

    • Ballads in America perpetuate the stories of various calamities like "The Wreck of the Old 97" and figures like Jesse James.

    • Use the Wikipedia Epic poetry entry and the List of world folk-epics to broaden discussion to include other European, African, American, and Asian stories.
  4. Discuss cultural connections between the voices of spirit and family ancestors in epics and the voices of ghosts in ghost stories. Return to the story of La Llorona: The Weeping Woman as an example of the voice of a ghost becoming a cultural story before moving on to examples from epics.

  5. Present the Epic Story Analysis Checklist, a revised version of Ghost Story Checklist. Explain that you'll use this revised version to guide observations as you read the epic that you’ve chosen:

    • What makes the epic entertaining?

    • What makes the characters in the epic strong and interesting?

    • What makes the setting appropriate for the epic?

    • How is the underlying code of behavior best communicated in the epic?

    • How does the epic connect to the history of a place or people?
  6. Before moving on to reading the epic, ask students to hypothesize reasons that there are similarities between ghost stories and epics. Expand the list of analytical questions based on student discussion.

  7. If desired, ask students to turn in a printed copy of their ghost story for feedback.


After you have completed reading and analyzing the epic that you’ve chosen for your class, return to your list of characteristics for ghost stories and your list for epics. Use the Interactive Venn Diagram to compare the characteristics of the two genres. Urge students to draw conclusions about the reasons for the differences.

Student Assessment / Reflections

It’s likely that you’ll need to do little assessment of students’ ghost stories for them to know whether their stories have been successful: feedback from the listening students in class will make their stories’ impact quite clear. Success can be measured by a whole range of reactions from whether students are listening raptly to whether someone screams or jumps at a suspenseful moment.

Students can reflect on the reactions to their stories and revise for the fourth class session, when they can turn in a final draft. The Ghost Story Checklist provides a nice list of characteristics that students should develop in their pieces. When final versions are submitted, ask students to include their checklist as well as short piece of reflective writing that explains what they changed in their stories after telling them in class and the reasons for the changes. Use the checklist to guide feedback on these final drafts.

Add new comment