Category Archives: Charlotte’s Web

In the Classroom: Some Questions About Some Common Core Lessons

As a teacher in a private school I am not currently required to follow the Common Core State Standards. That said, because I am a teacher, I am following closely the discussion about them, their implementation, issues, and so forth. One resource I’ve come across is the Achieve the Core website created by Student Achievement Partners, who describe themselves as  “….a non-profit organization working to support teachers across the country in their efforts to realize the promise of the Common Core State Standards for all students.”  As for the site, they state the following:

This website is full of free content designed to help educators understand and implement the Common Core State Standards. It includes practical tools designed to help students and teachers see their hard work deliver results. achievethecore.org was created in the spirit of collaboration. Please steal these tools and share them with others.

So I decided to check out a few of the ELA/Literacy “Common Core-aligned sample lessons with explanations and supporting resources.” And the ones I looked at were so full of problems that it made me wonder who is vetting them as worthy of teacher use.

One  that I looked at particularly closely is on Charlotte’s Web. (I came across it by looking through their lessons for fourth grade. I can’t link to it directly, I’m afraid, as it takes you to a word document of the lesson.) Because I feel I’m pretty expert at the teaching of  Charlotte’s Web, I was curious about the lesson they had on the book.  And I found it very problematic. The questions seem to suggest it is a play version of the book, but no reference for it is cited. No edition of the book or play is given although there are page numbers given for various questions.  The level of questioning is simplistic, surprising given the desire of the Common Core creators to make experiences with reading more complex and rigorous.  Since I feel White’s book is a wonderful one to use with children as an entry into close reading, the lack of it and very low-level engagement recommended in this particular lesson was something I found despiriting. It looked similar to the many poor lessons about the book I have seen over the years.

The final task is to “Write an essay explaining what makes Charlotte ‘no ordinary spider’.  How do these special qualities help Wilbur? Use evidence from the story to support your answer.”  That makes me so sad — there is so much more to this book. The major themes of the book (say that of life and death) that fourth graders are completely capable of discussing are completely missing from this incredibly muddled lesson plan.

I then also looked at a lesson focused on a single chapter from the book, “Escape.”  It is evidently  to be taught in five sessions over five days, 45 minutes each. I can only say that I’d curl up and die if I had to spend that much time with that particular chapter. Sure, it is a fun one, but it barely even gets to the serious themes of the book. While I could perhaps see spending more than a period on “The Cool of the Evening,” or “The Last Day,” even then I  couldn’t see spending five periods on them or on any one chapter of any book. Further, in these five lessons there is little about the wonderful opening that was White’s original beginning of the book or anything much on the glorious writing itself, say White’s extraordinary use of language to convey sensory details. Now THAT I could and do spend quite a bit of time on (but still probably not a full period, much less five).

At the end, students are asked “Describe what lesson(s) Wilbur learns at the end of the story. What in the text helps you to know this?” The answer provided is:

Wilbur learns that sometimes we aren’t ready to accept the consequences for our actions/decisions. He also found out that he was too young to go out into the world alone.

Hmm…I don’t think that the first sentence is the point of the chapter at all. (I’m guessing it is more likely something the writer of the lesson wanted to emphasize for his or her own reasons.) The second is closer to what I think White had in mind, relating it more to the theme of growing-up that runs through the book.  Yet to take five days to study this one chapter in isolation from the whole book — I can’t even imagine it.

Then there is the culminating task that is again about the moral lesson:

Wilbur has second thoughts about his choice to escape. First, describe what it means to have second thoughts about something. Then, use evidence from the text to explain how Wilbur’s second thoughts show that sometimes we are not ready to accept the consequences of our actions.

Nothing against moral lessons, but again, I don’t believe that is the main point White wanted to make.

I looked at a few more lessons and none of them seemed any better.  So just be wary, folks, of some of the lessons being touted for Common Core.

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In the Classroom: Close Reading

I’ve been curious about the attention now being paid to the skill of close reading, something I began doing with my 4th graders decades ago. Judiciously. By that, I mean I only do it enough for the children to see how much pleasure they can take in the experience, but not enough for it to become a chore. Frankly, some of the current suggestions I see for close reading concern me because they seem utilitarian in the extreme and leave out the joy that the experience can be.

Joy?  Yes indeed. Many years ago I was fortunate enough to spend a summer studying children’s literature in a scholarly manner and one of my favorite aspects of it was doing some close readings of parts of the books we were exploring. I wanted to see if I could help my 4th graders have the same experience and so returned to my classroom that fall and gave it a try with E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. It turned out to be a fantastic experience, one I now do every fall. I’ve written about it in books and articles, talked about it in presentations, and have been thrilled that other teachers have taken the idea and run with it. Now with close reading being so on everyone’s radar I hope some do read about how I do it and perhaps use some of those methods in their own classrooms.

Here are some posts about my teaching of close reading with Charlotte’s Web:

I also do it with a few pages of Mourt’s Relation, a primary source of the Pilgrims and have written about that lesson as well in articles, books and in various posts including this one:

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Kate DiCamillo on Charlotte’s Web

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The Elements of Style Rap?

Will Strunk in the house but don’t call me junior
Grammatical genius. Number one word groomer.
I teach English 8 at the school of Cornell
Choose your words carefully or I’ll put you through hell.

E.B. White on the mic, former student of Strunk
A story that flows is all I need to get crunk
Write for the New Yorker, papers marked up in scarlet
I spin webs with words like my name was Charlotte.

via brainpickings

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Is CHARLOTTE’S WEB a Literary Masterpiece?

The folk of @radical.media have an excellent series called BOOKD  on their  ThinkR youtube channel in which they consider “…game-changing books through the insights and opinions of engaging personalities.” Their latest segment features Charlotte’s Web and I am honored to be part of it.

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Middle Grade Readers and Informational Books

The Common Core recommendation for a greater percentage of informational reading in schools has created quite a bit of buzz these days. Since, like many of my middle grade colleagues, I already use a lot of informational material as a 4th grade teacher, I am hopeful that this new emphasis will only be a good one.

For example, when doing an author study of E. B. White I enrich our readings of his iconic children’s books with excerpts from his essays (especially “Death of a Pig“), letters, interviews, and even his obituary. And because I’m a big fan of the judicious use of primary sources to give kids a taste of what it was like back in time, I love leading my students in “translating” a bit of Mourt’s Relation, a primary source journal from some of the original Mayflower passengers, during our Pilgrim unit in which most of the reading is informational in nature. (For more about this see my book Seeking History: Teaching with Primary Sources in Grades 4-6.)

As for independent reading, I find my 4th graders gravitating to a wide variety of informational books.  Some have intriguing topics, some have unconventional formats, and some are just captivating for other reasons. Here are several new and forthcoming 2012 informational books that I feel are going to be very successful with my middle grade readers and yours too, I hope:

Buried Alive!: How 33 Miners Survived 69 Days Deep Under the Chilean Desert by Elaine Scott

This is a clear and compassionate look at the circumstances and most of all the people involved in this riveting event. Caring, thoughtful, well-researched, this is a take that is perfectly calibrated for middle grade readers.

Looking at Lincoln by Maira Kalman

A quirky, captivating, and original look at the iconic president. Middle grade readers are going to love Kalman’s ability to pull out intriguing facts on the man, her warm regard for him, and her absolutely unique and wonderful paintings.

Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close

What a wonderful way to look at the creations and the creating process by the artist himself.  Simply and clearly told by Close himself, in this book children are going to be engrossed in both his words and his art. Of particular note is the section where they can mix and match parts of his different portraits to create new and unique ones.

Temple Grandin:How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery

This is an excellent biography for middle grade readers about a unique woman.  Clear and without sentimentality, but still empathetic, this account of Temple Grandin’s life and her autism is done just right for this age group. In addition to showing how her autism actually accentuated Grandin’s particular sensibility for animals and thus led her to her life work with them, this book also gives young readers an age-appropriate view into the way the meat they eat comes to them.

Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez

This memoir of the author’s 1970s childhood in China offers young readers a personal take on a particular time and place. Eight stories tied together by family are delightfully presented in a graphic novel format.

Island: A Story of the Galápagos  by Jason Chin

A fascinating consideration of the development of these unique islands using a representational and imagined island. Well-researched (with the sources all clearly indicated at the end), simply told, and beautifully illustrated Chin gives a good sense of this remarkable region that fascinate us today as it did Darwin so long ago.

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The Care and Feeding of Middle Grade Readers

Currently the ccbc-net discussion group is considering the following topic:

Rebirth of Middle Grade Fiction:  Yes, young adult literature continues to outpace middle grade in terms of numbers, but we’ve noticed lately that tucked between the seemingly endless volumes of y.a. angst, dystopias and romance (supernatural and otherwise) is a growing number of solid middle grade novels. During the first half of July, we’ll talk about middle grade fiction on CCBC-Net: inviting you to share how do you define it, what makes a great middle grade read, and some of your recent favorites.

Since I have been an elementary classroom teacher for decades now, I figured I’d weigh in on this beginning with the question of definition. Already some have suggested (go here to subscribe if you are interested in following or participating in the conversation) that these readers include early teens while others suggest those just moving into chapter books should also be considered. That is too broad for me. I see middle grade readers as those in grades 4-6, so approximately ages 9-12. These are kids who have the nuts and bolts of reading under their belts and are now able to focus more exclusively on content; kids who are working out the sort of readers they are, exploring different genres, seeing the pleasure of reading; kids who are heading we hope toward a lifetime of reading.

This being a time when children are often dealing with the complications of friendship, cliques, mean peers, and other relationship situations, these young readers often gravitate to stories involving these issues. Some of these can be quiet and interior-focused while others can be loud and very much out in the world. For some kids, contemporary stories, often school-centered, are what appeal while for others it is those set in other worlds, say a fantasy one or one set in the past, that are the attraction. Most prefer strong pacing and plots, be they about kids dealing with a bully in school, a sad family situation, or saving the world from something highly evil. Humorous books, graphic novels, and even picture books for older readers are all highly successful ways of engaging this age group.

As for the next question, what makes a great middle grade read? —- for me it is great writing. Unique and engaging plots, well-developed characters that encourage empathetic responses, and well-crafted sentences all figure into what I admire most in works of fiction for this age group. And the best of the best for me is that iconic American children’s book E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (#1 on Betsy Bird’s latest chapter book poll). I’ve written realms about this book so won’t go on about it here other than to say that years of rereading and teaching it has me considering it one of the most perfect children’s books ever written. What it and other great middle grade readers offer are not only great plotting, characterization, and writing, but themes that are compelling, moving, and age-appropriate. That is, kids of this age are contemplating death, the circle of life, friendship, changes, growing older, and the other ideas so beautifully considered in this wonderful book. In fact, White features some of these in his other two books for children, Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan, along with another important topic for this age group, family.

And then there is the final question –what are some of my recent fictional favorites?  (To see some of my 4th grade students’ recent favorites please check out this post filled with them.) Here are ten of many more.

Five from last year:

The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright. This was a great hit when I read it aloud to my fourth graders last year. Writers often reference people, ideas, and such as Easter eggs for adult readers and indeed this book is full of clever Dickensian bon motes, but they stand alone as clever bits of writing all by themselves. Take the opening, introducing the cat hero, “He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms.”  You don’t need to know the reference to enjoy it and my students certainly did.  A grand romp with a heart and delightful writing.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. I never wrote a proper review of this one (although I did suggest it as a possible Newbery winner), but after reading it aloud to my class this past year many of them included it in their summer reading suggestions. One wrote that it “…is an fantastic book for kids that are interested in adventures, laugh-out-loud, exciting books. Jack Gantos puts himself in a child character, who goes on throughout a classic plot story, including gripping chapters, amazing twists, and possibly murder? It also gives your imagination a boost, and makes you want to relate to it after.”

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. I tend to be wary of verse novels, but was taken in immediately when reading this powerful story of immigration based on the author’s own childhood. From the first page set in 1975 Vietnam to the last in Alabama, I was utterly engaged throughout as were my students.  It was one of several books they chose from for a unit on immigrant historical fiction and it ended up being so popular I did not have enough. Several children were so eager to read it they bought their own copies rather than selecting one of the other available books. One child was so inspired by the form that she used it when writing her own work of historical fiction.

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami. I was charmed by this Bollywood-inspired tale. In a review I wrote “Young readers will delight in this upbeat and entertaining tale, identifying with Dini as she meets new friends, gets to know her new town, and solve a mystery as well. Along the way they will get a taste of life in one small part of India, complete with monkeys, movie lore, and some absolutely scrumptious-sounding curry pastries.”

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. In a blog review I wrote, “As  he did with the Caldecott winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret … Selznick uses a unique mix of text and images to create a singular reading experience for children. There are two separate stories here, one told entirely in illustrations and the other in words. Set in different time periods, these tales of a mysterious girl and an unhappy boy twist and twirl around each other in nature, in museums, in New York City, finally coming together in a dramatic, moving, and satisfying ending.”

Five from this year:

Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey.In this post I wrote that “Egg [main character] tells his own story with humor and a  likable lack of self-pity. There is adventure galore as he goes from one cliffhanger (one is literally a cliffhanger) to the next and wit as well. For it is Rodkey’s writing that made this rise for me above the others of its type — a dry sense of humor, the sort of throw-away lines Dickens does so well, great pacing, and excellent world building.”  The first in a series (something this age group loves).

Fake Mustache by Tom Angleberger. From my blog review: “So wacky this is (as another beloved Angleberger character might say) in the best way which is no easy feat. For funny is incredibly hard to pull off; what has me guffawing can just as easily leave another reader cold and vice versa. As someone who too often has been left cold by silliness I was wary when I started this one, but within pages I was completely won over.”  My students fought over the copies of this one.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage. On goodreads I wrote, “Completely and utterly charming!” while one of my students wrote that it  “…is about Mo, a girl who loves mysteries. So when a strange detective comes to town, and an old man is murdered, she’s on the case with her friend Dale. This book is great if you adore action. Three Times Lucky is one of those books that has big parts that you know something’s going to happen but you don’t know what.”

Wonder by R. J. Palacio.  On goodreads I wrote, “I went a bit kicking and screaming into the reading of this one because I thought — yet another soppy sad story of a kid with a serious problem. Not to mention realistic school stories too often feel forced to this veteran classroom teacher. But as I read further into it I was completely taken in. This is a truly lovely story and beautifully, beautifully told. The movement between different characters’ points of view is nicely done. The children and adults all seem real as can be, not a one seemed a straw man or someone pontificating a moral. There were moments when I was brought to tears, but they were genuine moments, not a one felt overly sacharine or manipulative. Nothing, in fact, is the slightest bit manipulative in this book.”  Kids and teachers love this one for good reason.

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead. I wanted to stick to books already available, but this one is out in a few weeks and to my mind exemplifies the best of what a middle grade book is so I’m putting it here anyway. The main character is in 7th grade, but in my experience, 4th graders like reading about those a bit older than themselves. The writing here is spare, elegant perfection; the characters well-developed and sympathetic; the plot a fascinating mystery. More when the book is out, but trust me — this is one gorgeous middle grade read.

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In the Classroom: 4th Grade Scholars

I’ve written before here about my classroom work with Charlotte’s Web, in particular the glorious fun I have introducing my 4th graders to a scholarly approach to reading a book. I’d never considered that you could do such a thing with a children’s book until U.C. Knoepflmacher showed me how at a life-changing NEH seminar at Princeton in 1990 and have now done it ever since with my 4th graders.

This year, for the first time, I decided to see if we could rearrange the desks into a true seminar table. It worked and you can see the results here. The kids as always are blowing me away with their discoveries; I’m thrilled at all the new amazing things (even to me after so many years) in this remarkable book. This year, after the seminar is finished, I’m going to ask them to select a few of their favorite quotes and we are going to organize them as a display. It will be so interesting to see which they select and why.

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Talking Animals: Realistic or Fantasy?

Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library raised an interesting question after I nominated Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright’s The Cheshire Cheese Cat for the Cybil’s middle grade fiction catagory. Asks Charlotte, “… when is a book with sentient animals acting as Persons and effecting the course of human events fantasy?”

I immediately apologized, writing, “My bad. I’ve been thinking about Cheshire Cheese Cat in terms of Newbery and was focusing on age and content not genre. You are absolutely right.” It looks like the Cybils’ folks agreed because they’ve moved my nomination to the fantasy/science fiction section. But then Charlotte responded to my comment, “I think it’s a fuzzy line–The Underneath, for instance, ended up in straight middle grade when it was nominated a few years ago.”

And this got me thinking about the way we parse genre. I’ve been reading aloud The Cheshire Cat Cheese to my class because I thought it would work nicely with our current study of E. B. White’s three children’s books, all featuring talking animals. Now of those three, Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan seem clearly fantasy to me with Stuart being the son of a human and Louis with his trumpet and interactions with Sam and others. But Charlotte’s Web? That seems a harder call. After all, the animals never talk to humans (although Fern listens which worries her mother) and seem very, er, animal-like, more like those in The Incredible Journey and Black Beauty (both mentioned by Charlotte), books where animals talk to each other, but otherwise seem very realistic.

The more I think about it I do think The Cheshire Cheese Cat is more fantasy as the animals interact with people, read, and do other very human-like things.  But Charlotte’s Web and other stories where the animals basically act as animals, don’t interact with humans (other than in the ways we expect in real life), and talk to each other?  I wonder.

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Middle-Grade Favorites

Stacy over at Welcome to my Tweendom has asked:

So, I have a question that I ‘ve been wondering about for the past while.  I’ve been thinking deeply about tween reads and what makes them great.  I’ve also been thinking about the idea of tween / middle grade as a category.  My question(s) to you are as follows…What is your favourite middle grade/tween read of the past 10 years (and why).  What is your favourite middle grade/tween read of ALL time (and why)?

Since I teach 4th grade I’m smack dab in the middle of that tween/middle grade group* all the time and figured it would be easy to answer Stacy’s question.  But actually, it is hard.  First of all, no way can I do just one. Secondly, I have very particular tastes which mean my favorites are not necessarily the most popular among the intended age group (and they are mostly novels).  That said, I couldn’t resist coming up with a FEW (of many I’m having to leave out) favorite titles to help Stacy.

For her first part of her question (although I’m cheating as several of these are more than ten years old):

  • Rita Williams-Gracia’s One Crazy Summer because Delphine’s voice is spot-on and all three sisters are beautifully rendered.  The sentence-level writing is gorgeous and I love the way Williams-Garcia tells history, but doesn’t overdo it.  Yes, it is a time and place many readers are unfamiliar with, but she keeps the story of the sisters and their mother front and center.
  • Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me because it is captivating, original, and set within a place that is very familiar to middle-grade readers.  Trying to untangle the mystery even as Miranda tries to is right up their alley.  The writing is clear, accessible, and elegant — I think it is a book that will stand the test of time, an instant classic.
  • Kate Dicamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux because it is beautifully written, moving, funny and still works well for this age group.  I read it aloud last year for the first time in years and it was as fresh as ever.
  • Frank Cotrell Boyce’s Cosmic is a recent favorite.  I’ve read this aloud for the past four years and will probably again this year.  Kids of both genders love this book and often go read it again on their own.  The kids, their relationships with each other, the thoughtful-but-not-heavy-handed exploration of what it means to be a father, the fun aspects of preparing and experiencing space travel, and Liam’s emotional growth (moving into his physical growth) works beautifully for this age group.
  • Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck.  These are both unique and absolutely riveting reads.  I’m listing both because as of this writing Wonderstruck isn’t out yet and so I have not yet seen middle grade readers engage with it. However, I have seen kids over the years read with great pleasure Hugo Cabret and had a great time reading it aloud to them last year.
  • More than ten years old is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone which may be for the stronger readers in the age range, but nothing beats it for a fun and exciting adventure.  The books may go up in age range as the series goes on, but this first one feels solidly middle grade to me.
  • Also more than ten years old is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline; creepy indeed, but for those middle grade kids who like spooky this one is terrific.
  • Jon Sciezcka’s Science Verse or Knucklehead, can’t decide, but he’s got an instinctual feel for a particular sense of humor that works perfectly for this age group.
  • Another more-than-ten-years title is Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, still my favorite of all his books. It is moving, hysterically funny in spots, and disturbing too.

And for the second part — my all-time favorite?  There I can go with just one,  E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.  I’ve been teaching it since 1990 and I’m just more wowed by it every year.  As are the kids.  The writing, the themes, the characterizations, it is one of the most perfect books ever.

*I’d define it as grades 4-6 more or less.

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