Grade 4 Trickster Tales: How Coyote Stole Fire (#253)


A Year in the Life: Ambient Math Wins the Race to the Top!
Day 253

For one year, 365 days, this blog will address the Common Core Standards from the perspective of creating an alternate, ambient learning environment for math. Ambient is defined as “existing or present on all sides, an all-encompassing atmosphere.”

And ambient music is defined as: “Quiet and relaxing with melodies that repeat many times.” Why ambient? A math teaching style that’s whole and all encompassing, with themes that repeat many times through the years, is most likely to be effective and successful. 

The trickster tale encompasses the essence of the Grade 4 year: brash and brave with a will to take on the world, and the panoply of the Norse Gods and Goddesses fill this bill quite nicely.  But there are many tales from other times and places that also beautifully fit this genre.  American Indian tales are full of mythical trickster figures, with Raven and Coyote as just two of the towering animal totems who are both heroic and renegade, locked in a reciprocal and magical dance with their human counterparts.  This Coyote tale from the Karok Indians can be found in the Math By Hand / Grade 4 / Form Drawing/Stories book.


Long ago, when humans first appeared upon the earth, they were the happiest creatures of all during the long, warm days of summer and autumn, when all the fruits and grains ripened and their children happily played in the sun. They were the best times. But when the days grew shorter and evenings more chilled, the people knew winter was near and they became fearful and unhappy. Knowing that many of the very young and very old would die in the snows and bitter cold brought them great sorrow. Yes, every winter so many beautiful babies and children as well as the revered elders who kept the precious and sacred tales of the tribe were forever lost. Now Coyote, like the rest of the animal people, had no knowledge of or need for fire because they always wore warm fur coats. So he never thought about fire until one spring day as he was passing a human village. There, the women were singing a song of mourning for the lost babies and old ones who had died in the winter. Their voices, like the moaning west wind through a buffalo skull, prickled the hairs at the back of Coyote’s neck. One of the men wondered aloud why the sun that now warmed the earth and made the rocks hot to the touch could not be captured in small pieces and taken into their teepees in the winter. Coyote felt sorry for the men and women of the village, and thought there must be something he could do to help. He remembered the three Fire Beings who lived at the top of a tall mountain and jealously guarded their fire, fearing that if humans got hold of it, they would one day become as strong as the Fire Beings were. Coyote hated their selfishness and thought that he might do a good turn for the humans while teaching the Fire Beings a lesson. So Coyote stealthily crept to the top of the Fire Beings’ mountain and watched the way they guarded their fire. While he crouched hidden among the trees, one the Beings leapt to her feet and gazed piercingly around the camp, eyes glistening like hot, red coals and claws clenched like great, black vulture talons. She screeched to the others that there must be a thief lurking about in the camp, and then she spied Coyote. But because he was going about on all fours, she thought he must be an ordinary coyote, slinking as coyotes do, among the trees. The lookout shrieked that it was nothing and no one, but merely a lowly, gray coyote. As the other two looked, they agreed and all sat down again. So, as he was safe and unnoticed, Coyote was able to watch unhindered the rest of that day and all that night while the Fire Beings guarded their fire. He saw them feeding it with pinecones and dry twigs and branches, and he saw them angrily stamp out any runaway flames that escaped from the confines of the fire, as it gobbled up the dry grass around it. All night, the Beings took turns sitting by the fire, sending two off to sleep while one continuously watched and kept the fire going. But Coyote noticed that there was one part of the day when the Beings were not so closely watching. Early in the morning, when the first chilly winds of dawn arose, the Being who was watching the fire would crawl off shivering into the teepee, calling for one of the others to go out and sit and watch. But the next guard, still fuzzy and groggy with early morning sleep, would always be slow to come out and take the post by the fire. Coyote went to the animal people and told them of all this, and how the furless humans shivered so in winter and lost many of their young and old to the cold. The animal people agreed that it was for the good of all if the warm, bright flames were stolen from the selfish, greedy Fire Beings and shared equally among the humans. They promised to help him in any way they could, and encouraged Coyote to go back and steal the fire. Again, when Coyote came close, the Beings loudly screeched that there was a thief nearby, and again paid him no attention when they saw that he was nothing more than a harmless, ordinary gray coyote. Coyote waited all day and night and watched as they changed guards at intervals through the long, dark hours, until the dawn winds rose again and the next Fire Being was slow in coming out of her teepee saying that yes, she was indeed on her way and do not shout for her so! In those brief moments before she came out of the teepee, Coyote lunged out and grabbed a burning coal, running as quickly as he could down the mountain. The Fire Beings flew screaming in pursuit of him, and quick though Coyote was, one of the Beings caught up with him enough to grab just the tip of his tail, turning the hairs there pure white. That’s why a coyote’s tail tip is white to this day. Coyote shouted as he flung the glowing coal away from him. The animal people, who had promised to help, were waiting at the foot of the mountain. Squirrel caught the coal, putting it on her back as she fled through the treetops. It so painfully burned her back that her tail curled up and back, as it still is, to this day. Squirrel then threw it to Chipmunk who held it, frozen with fear, as the Fire Beings came terribly close. She finally turned to run, but not before one of the Fire Beings reached her, clawing at her back as she escaped. The three stripes that we still see on a chipmunk’s back today are the marks that the Fire Beings’ claws left. Chipmunk then threw the fire to Frog who took a mighty leap as one of the Fire Beings grabbed him by the tail. He did get away but without his tail, and that’s why frogs today have no tail. As the Fire Beings pursued him, Frog flung the fire to Wood who swallowed it. All three of the Fire Beings gathered around Wood and frantically watched, but did not know how to get the fire out of Wood. They threatened and pleaded and tore at Wood with their sharp claws, but to no avail. They finally gave up and went back to their mountaintop, defeated. Coyote, having watched carefully, knew how to get the fire out of wood, and he taught the humans in the village. He showed them the trick of rubbing two dry sticks together, and the trick of spinning a sharpened stick in a small hole made in another piece of wood. Thanks to Coyote, the humans now enjoyed bright fires in their teepees, keeping them safe and warm through the winter’s cruel, killing cold.


Winter can be cruel, but it can also be a time of coming together around the warmth of the fire.  Math By Hand is offering a special Winter Sale for the month of December: 15% off your entire shopping cart!  Hop on over to your grade level of choice on the Shop page and explore.  What better time to try this hands-on, creative, and experiential approach than now, mid-year, when interest in math may be waning.  Give the gift of joyful math!

Knowledge ensues in an environment dedicated to imaginative, creative knowing, where student and teacher alike surrender to the ensuing of knowledge as a worthy goal. Tune in tomorrow for more Grade 4 math CCSS and their ambient counterparts.

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