Category Archives: reading

Life Lessons from Charlotte’s Web

FullSizeRender (2)
Artwork by Heather Hatcher

March is over, and the Belle River school community just finished reading Charlotte’s Web. Together, students, staff, and parents shared the seemingly simple story about an imaginative girl, farm animals, a small pig, and a barn spider. Although a multitude of children’s books of various themes and genres have been written since E.B. White published this short novel in 1952, I cannot think of any other children’s book that contains as many important life lessons in 184 pages as Charlotte’s Web. White used a deceptively mundane and ordinary setting, set of characters, and plot to explain the profundity of life in ways that people of all ages can understand.

Charlotte’s Web teaches us to…

Celebrate and Make the Most of Life

Wilbur is saved from an untimely death by Fern and likes to spend quiet time thinking about what is is like to be alive. In the background of the story is the nature world in its constant state of life, death, and replenishment from year to year and generation to generation. Charlotte ponders, “After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” Life is precious, wonderful and beautiful, especially when it is well-lived.

Realize the Importance of True Friends

Friendship is certainly the foundation of the novel. Fern’s love for Wilbur saved him, and Charlotte taught Wilbur how to make and be a friend. Charlotte’s life had purpose because she saved his life and made him happy. The meaning and satisfaction of friendship is one of the greatest joys of life.

Appreciate Diversity

There are a variety of animals in Charlotte’s Web: cows, sheep, geese, a horse, and even a rat.  Even though they share the same space in the barn, they do not 12778674_1669994383251660_6483419314232506641_ohave any interest in becoming friends with one another. The animals do not trust what is different from their own kind. Simple and kind Wilbur sees past the exterior appearances of the animals, and the friendship shared by Wilbur and Charlotte inspires the rest of the animals. Ultimately, the barn animals work together as a team to help Wilbur and Charlotte. Although everyone has different appearances, cultural backgrounds, and customs, people are similar on the inside and have talents to contribute to the greater community.

Stay Humble

“Wilbur was modest; fame did not spoil him.” He maintained his lovable, kind personality, and everyone in the story liked him even more. People respond well to humility because it shows that you place yourself at the same level as others, and not above them.

Cope with Loss, but Never Forget

After Charlotte died, Wilbur loved her children and grandchildren, but “none of the new spiders ever took her place in his heart”. Fern grew up and stopped visiting the barn, but Wilber maintained his fondness for her, too. Although life is not the same after a loss, memories remain unchanged.

Show Compassion Whenever Possible

Both Fern and Charlotte show tremendous compassion for Wilbur. Charlotte is even compassionate toward her victims, putting them to sleep before eating them so that they feel no pain. Both great and small acts of compassion should be applied to our choices and actions.

Give People a Chance

Charlotte seems fierce, brutal, and bloodthirsty to Wilbur at first. He gives her a chance and learns that she is kindhearted, clever, and compassionate. Some people may seem rough around the edges on the outside, but they usually have endearing qualities on the inside.

My hope is that our students will hold on to this story as they grow up, always keeping in their hearts the lessons of friendship, life, and loss that will help them navigate through their lives and be better people. When they are adults and have the urge to reread Charlotte’s Web, perhaps with their own children, I hope they remember with fond memories the first time they read this classic story as students at Belle River Elementary.

FullSizeRender (3)
Artwork by Heather Hatcher


Literature Circles

One of my favorite instructional practices in reading that I’ve used for two decades is literature circles, based on the work of Harvey Daniels.  A literature circle is a group of students who read the same book and meet together in a book-club format to discuss the book and work together to better understand their reading. 

When I first introduce literatures circles in the beginning of the school year, I teach the students various “roles” to use as lenses through which to engage with the text. The roles are Discussion Director, Vocabulary Enricher, Connector, Summarizer, Literary Luminary, Researcher, and Illustrator. Students are assigned a different role each time their literature circle completes a reading, and then the groups meet the following day with each person contributing to the discussion from the perspective of his or her role. 

Assigning different roles works for one or two books with students becoming experts at discussing and analyzing text. I find, however, that the novelty of literature circles wears off and students settle into sharing their roles in a “round robin” format that lacks excitement and substantive conversation. When that phenomenon occurs, I introduce the Advanced Literature Circles form that I created that include all of the roles. This format helps students examine a book through all of the desired aspects, better understanding how a reader asks questions, develops vocabulary, makes connections, summarizes, appreciates the author’s craft, and visualizes during the course of a particular reading session. After completing the Advanced Literature Circles form and gathering for the next day’s discussion, students begin to share what their notes in a more natural way as the conversation calls for particular contributions. 

Eventually, students become so adept at using this note-taking process to synthesize during reading that they do not need to use their notes to discuss. After months of developing the skills associated with all of the literature circle roles, the students are experts and become so caught up in discussions characterized by high-level thinking and substantive conversation that they do not need prompts. Wanting to capture this type of dialogue in which students abandon their literature circle scripts and move beyond merely recounting the facts of a book, I recorded an impromptu video of a group of girls reading Esperanza Rising. Watch as they analyze and debate their ideas and predictions about the story with a natural passion and love for literature.