There is a reason I begin every school year by reading aloud Charlotte’s Web. Besides being a terrific story that children love year after year, the underlying message goes far deeper than the friendship between Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig. Charlotte risks her life for Wilbur; she acts upon her friendship. That is important, especially for young children.
I read this book aloud in September and October, when children are navigating friendships. Frankly, these are the months they are figuring out pretty much everything. Children want to know their place: where they fit into the class and how they will make friends. Their world is family and school; therefore, I have an enormous job on my shoulders in those first few months of helping children find their way. It all starts with kindness and friendship, and Charlotte’s Web leads the way.
As I read the book and the story line progresses, children are making friends at school. By mid-October things get complicated in two ways: making friends now includes conflict, and Charlotte the spider has developed empathy for Wilbur. Yes, empathy.
Empathy is identifying with the feelings or thoughts of others. It means that you care more about someone else than you care about yourself. Charlotte did. My students get this. By the end of the book, we are debating if Charlotte should go to the fair. She knows she is dying, the children know she is dying, yet her best friend Wilbur does not.
What will happen to Charlotte?
That is ‘The Moment‘, the seed of understanding empathy. The children are worried. They care. It’s not about them. And, it all started with literature based on fiction. Children relate to other characters before they can understand themselves. Where the Wild Things Are is a case in point. A child can readily identify with Max, yet not with him (or her) self. Therefore, reading fiction stories about others is the link to their own self-awareness. When I read aloud good literature, I am doing the best teaching of all, opening doors and windows to every human feeling, and to the pathway of empathy.
The books I read aloud always have ‘moments’ where I have to stop. Picture books like Library Lion, Captain Cat, The Lion and the Bird, and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel bring the really important things to the forefront. Chapter reading books go even deeper. I will hang my hat on fiction and literature as the foundation to teach the most important things in life, beginning with empathy.
Children often return to my classroom, years later, even into adulthood. They can’t pinpoint just why; they just want to be there, again. For starters, I think it’s because of Charlotte’s Web.
Garth Williams illustration, courtesy Harper & Row