In Part 2, I talked about the dreaded “D” words – death and dying – that teachers and parents fear. I introduced a gentle and friendly book, City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems, that may be helpful in starting a dialogue with children. Ask. Listen. Answer. Talk. And read aloud.
Death is really the grand finale to the circle of life. It encompasses all we experience; friendship, sadness, love, fear, joy… it is a fitting end to the memories of living. One book that gives the greatest tribute to life, death, and everything in between is Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. It is my #1 read-aloud every school year.
When I finish reading our first chapter book of the school year, Charlotte’s Web, children are engrossed in this book because it is a story about the heart – and my most important job is educating the heart. As such, they begin to understand the depth of true feelings. Charlotte the spider died. That opens the door for questions, and some of those questions are in the form of silence. That’s when I put down the book and talk with the children, and listen.
Death isn’t an easy topic with children. Addressing death and dying with young children, and with their families, is typically not part of a teacher’s curriculum, or even part of the books and stories they read. When Charlotte died, here is what I wrote home to the children’s families:
Yesterday we finished our first chapter book of the year, Charlotte’s Web. It is a wonderful story, and your children loved it. Chapter reading is one of the favorite times of the day because children are captivated by words alone. Those words make the pictures in their heads, and those words make their minds think and their hearts feel. That is the power of reading aloud.
“Can’t you just read more?” is what children ask when we stop reading. That means they are listening and comprehending. Chapter reading is a bridge from understanding a book to feeling a book. That’s a big step for children. In Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur the pig makes his best friend with Charlotte the spider, yet he suffers through sadness and loneliness. Charlotte the spider dies at the end, as all spiders do. These facts are part of the story, yet are vastly overshadowed by the storyline itself. That is why a good book imparts a tremendous opportunity for learning.
Death and dying happens, and when it can be introduced to children in this way, it can better give them tools of understanding. It can also be a soft step to real events in a child’s life. When a grandparent dies, or even when a classroom pet dies, perhaps Charlotte’s Web gave a child understanding and compassion. Did we talk about Charlotte when we read the book? Of course we did; not only her death, but her children (all five hundred and fourteen), and the words she wrote in her web. And, we will continue to talk. Often children bring up questions months later, and we listen and answer.
My co-teacher and I have a wonderful dialogue when we finish a book. I become very sad and a little teary. She asks, “What’s the matter, Jennie?” I reply, “The book is over. I don’t like that! It was so good. I’m really very sad.” She perks up and says, “But we get to read another new chapter book.” I reply, “Really? When?” She says in a big voice, “Tomorrow!”
That’s our circle of chapter reading, much like the circle of life.
When I first started teaching, our school’s director always stressed the importance of teaching families. She understood that in order to educate the child you also need to guide parents and families. She was emphatic about sending newsletters home, and adding one paragraph that would teach something to families. She was right. She also felt that educating children and families about death and dying was important. Gulp! For many teachers that was an uncomfortable topic to address.
A few years later our beloved classroom guinea pig, Elliott, died unexpectedly. I was devastated. First I knew I had to tell the children, then I knew I had to tell their families. That was my diving board, and I put my fingers to the keyboard and wrote. I talked about letting children ask questions and giving them an opportunity to say goodbye. I talked about being honest. I talked about how perhaps experiencing the death of a pet can help make the death of a loved one down the road a little easier. The words flowed.
Over the years there have been many classroom pets who have died, and many stories and books about death. I listen. I ask questions. Children always have a voice. Chapter reading really is much like the circle of life. I am educating the heart.