Yesterday was not only the anniversary of my birth, but also the anniversary of the death of one of America’s most revered writers for children, E. B. White. And tomorrow, as I’ve done since 1990, I will be using Charlotte’s Web to introduce my 4th graders to a completely new way of reading.
This new way of reading for my students is actually a very old way of reading. It is close reading, the scholarly-sitting-around-the seminar-table-with-pencil-in-hand-to-make-notes-in-the-book’s-margins sort of reading. It is a way of reading that is exciting, revelatory, and wonderful when done with a book as moving, exquisitely written, and unique as Charlotte’s Web.
The children have brand new paperback copies of the book, all ready to mark-up, to make into their very own personal copies of Charlotte’s Web. My copy is not nearly as pretty. For it is a copy that was already beat-up when I grabbed it off a shelf in my classroom to take to Princeton University where I was to read it as part of a NEH summer seminar led by U. C.Knopflmacher.
I was ecstatic to be going; the reading list was full of beloved authors of mine like Sendak, Carroll, and Nesbit. The only one I was dubious about was White. Charlotte’s Web? That soppy book? No way was I spending a cent on a new copy.
But then there we were at that seminar table in the basement of the Firestone Library. Uli had me by the end of that remarkable first sentence, “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”, and I’ve never looked back. When I returned to school that fall, I decided to see how kids would react to such an experience. They loved it and I’ve been doing it every year since. And what do I think of Charlotte’s Web now? Only that it is the great American children’s novel.
So tomorrow my students will be (hopefully) all eager and excited to get going on this. My only worry is that I’m doing it a bit differently this year. One of my colleagues a few years ago had the brilliant idea of making enlarged copies of each page of the first chapter so the kids could see easily exactly what we were doing and do it too. (We model the first chapter for them and then they each do one on their own.) Last year I watched one colleague doing it on a Smartboard with great success so tomorrow I’m trying it on one too.
I’ll let you know how it goes. Maybe I’ll even figure out how to put a page or two up here for you all to see. (This blogging IS remarkably time absorbing!)