by Eleanore MacLean, AmeriCorps member on the Bank of America team serving with Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot K-8 School

The third graders at Young Achievers recently finished their first class read aloud book, which also happens to be one of my favorites: Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. Hearing the book read aloud over the first eight or so weeks of service allowed me to think about why the story resonates with me, and why it seemed to capture 3rd-graders’ attention so well.

First, E. B. White is a marvelous storyteller. We talk about using economy of language with students, and White masters this technique as an author. Each chapter is precisely crafted, funny yet poignant, and lends itself to expressive readings. The class became wrapped up in the story without realizing it, begging Ms. Allen, “One more chapter!” as we reached the end.

Intertwined with my love of White’s storytelling is my love of the setting in which Charlotte’s Web takes place. Driving north from outside of Boston each summer during my childhood, my family passed Allen Cove in Brooklin, Maine, where E. B. White’s farm stands. The barn in which White saw the spiderweb that inspired the novel sits within view of the road. When I read Charlotte’s Web, I imagine this particular barn with its weathered shingles next to a white farmhouse, hydrangeas blooming nearby, and the ocean glinting just down the hill.

I wanted to share this connection between the novel and physical place with the class, so I sent Ms. Allen a picture of the White’s farm to project. While looking for the picture, I came across an NPR piece about the novel that describes how the appearance of an especially intricate spider web in a barn door set in motion a chain of events culminating in Charlotte’s Web. It struck me that Charlotte’s Web began as the same kind of small moment story Ms. Allen’s class has been crafting this year. I sent the link to Ms. Allen, hoping the students would be excited to connect their work with a famous authors’.

What really struck me about Charlotte’s Web this time, though, has less to do with academics. When I was in high school, I asked my English teacher why she liked teaching English. Her response, in part, was that literature teaches empathy. To me, Charlotte’s Web does exactly that:

“Why did you do all this for me?" [Wilbur] asked. "I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you."

"You have been my friend," replied Charlotte. "That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs because I liked you. 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.” (full citation here.)

One of the first astonishing moments I witnessed in the classroom this year was watching Tianna*, who had finished her morning work early, pull her chair up next to Joseph*, a tier three student who benefits from some extra support, so she could help him stay on task with his own morning work. Tianna* chose to work with Joseph* without a teacher asking her to, quietly and patiently helping him to understand what was being asked of him without giving him the answers. Joseph* was able to finish his morning work, and with a huge smile on his face he proudly brought it over to show Ms. Allen, saying, “Ms. Allen! I did it! I did all my morning work. I did a good job!”

Whether or not it’s directly related to reading Charlotte’s Web, it’s been a joy to see students become more comfortable in the classroom and with their peers, and I can’t wait to see how these students continue to grow throughout the rest of the year.

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