Yesterday I modeled a close reading/annotating of the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web, something I’ve been doing with my 4th graders yearly for decades. It was, as always, an amazing experience because the book is such a remarkable piece of writing. Every year my students discover new aspects to note. You’d think there wouldn’t be anything new after so many years, but the book is so gorgeous and elegant and my students so captivated by the process that — yes — there is always something new. (That is, after some of them got over the idea of writing in the book — this shocked them!) After doing the first chapter together each child chose one to do independently. They will then present their chapters at a series of seminar sessions — can’t wait!
Category Archives: Charlotte’s Web
For decades I’ve been launching my 4th graders’ school year with an E. B. White author study. You can read more about it here and find the materials for the students here. As you will see there is close reading, passionate essay writing, and art. I’ll still be doing all of that this year, but I’ve added in something new that I’m very excited about — Melissa Sweet’s glorious Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White.
As the children read or reread Charlotte’s Web at home in preparation for our close reading, in school we read Some Writer! together. I gave each child a copy of the book and they followed along as I read aloud, stopping frequently for us to marvel at the art, the primary sources, and the information. At the end of each chapter the children spent five minutes going back through it, taking notes on what seemed most interesting in terms of their forthcoming work with Charlotte’s Web.
This week they will be working in table groups to pull out their most significant, important, and related notes and put them into a Padlet, a digital workspace. These will then become another source for them when they begin their close reading of one chapter of Charlotte’s Web. I’m so excited to see what they’ve come up with and how it informs their explorations.
I’ll be back to let you know how it goes!
Every spring, Mary would arrive to open the house and ready the gardens for planting. For many years, in mid-June, a teacher from a school 90 miles away would bring her class to visit. “They sit on hay bales in the barn,” Mary says, “and we play the recording of Mr. White reading Charlotte’s Web. They swing on the same rope swing that they knew Fern had; they sit on the milking stool where Fern had sat. I wanted them to grow up remembering this day. I hoped one day they’d want to find Mr. White’s other writings.”
From “The House at Allen Cove“, White’s Maine abode, now for sale.
… Melissa Sweet‘s picture book biography Some Writer: The Story of E. B. White. (Look around here if you don’t know why. To say I’m a fan of Charlotte’s Web is to put it mildly.) And I have to wait until October? The little I’ve seen (Melissa shared a smidgen at an ALA presentation last summer) is mouthwatering. Here’s the current blurb (no cover image yet) from the publisher:
In this stunning, first-ever fully-illustrated biography of legendary author E.B. White, Sibert medalist and Caldecott Honor winner Melissa Sweet uses White’s letters, photos, and mementos, as well as her original collaged art, to tell the true story of one of the most beloved authors of all time.
A farmer allows sentimental drawings by a bug to prevail over economic necessity and refuses to value his prize pig, Wilbur, by processing and selling him on the open market. Presumably, the pig still dies eventually, only without profiting his owners. The farmer’s daughter, Fern, learns nothing except how to become an unsuccessful farmer. There is a rat in this movie. I quite liked the rat. He knew how to extract value from his environment. —Two stars.
At the New Yorker, of course (where she takes on a bunch more, among them”Mary Poppins and Willy Wonka” —that last she likes).
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.
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:
- Reading Charlotte’s Web
- In the Classroom: Annotating Charlotte’s Web
- In the Classroom: 4th Grade Scholars
- Charlotte’s Web Redux
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:
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.