I can make such a bold statement with veracity (she would approve of that word), because I’ve shared this book (and hundreds of others) with many classes over the last thirty years. I’ve read Charlotte’s Web to first graders. I’ve read it to second graders. I’ve read it to third graders. I know her well. This wise book seems most at home in the third grade. E.B. White has a reverence for eight year olds. The book opens with Fern Arable’s voice, “Where is Papa going with that ax?” Fern is eight. And she is bold enough to take up for the runt of a litter of pigs with her words.
We sit in a circle. Each child in my class holds a copy of Charlotte’s Web. We turn the book into a kind of Radio Theater: different children take turns being narrator, while others read the different parts. We switch it up as we move from chapter to chapter or, sometimes, from page to page. I always take the part of Charlotte. Charlotte’s love of vocabulary makes her part a little more difficult to read, but that isn’t the only reason I take her part … I read Charlotte to make sure her strength and beauty and encouraging words wash over my students.
Charlotte understands that everyone has a gift and a role in the balance and beauty of community. And that everyone desires and is capable of meaningful work. Even Templeton, the disparaged rat, is put to work for Charlotte’s cause. He ends up with a very important job: he uses his much maligned scavenger skill to find the right words—words that are perfect enough to save a life. Charlotte reminds him that the right word will help others see Wilbur’s nobler qualities. Wilbur matters. Templeton matters. Words matter.
Words matter in the classroom, too. Our words help children see where they are going—what they can do instead of what they can’t do. Our words help children see and celebrate their nobler qualities.
I have been thinking about this important business of words. What, I wondered, do my students hear when I speak? What words stick in their heads? What do they think that I say over and over again? This led to an idea for a class book and a quick review of quotation marks. I handed each child an index card. In five minutes our book was done.
“Be kind, fair, and responsible, says Mrs. Campbell.
“Put like with like,” said Mrs. Campbell.
“Getting started is half the battle,” said Mrs. Campbell.
“If you want to get done, get started,” said Mrs. Campbell.
“Look at the world with the eyes of a writer,” said Mrs. Campbell.
“Make your desk an invitation to learning,” said Mrs. Campbell
“I have 180 days to teach you for life,” exclaimed Mrs. Campbell.
Oh, there were others—those preachy nagging reminders make their way into my teacher-speak, too. There were phrases about keeping quiet in the hallways and not leaning on the bookcases.
“I only have 180 days to teach you for life,” said Mrs. Campbell.
Peter Johnston in his amazing book, Choice Words, reminds us that our choice of words has the power to increase children’s agency as readers, writers, and citizens. Our choice of words has the power to increase a child’s sense of belonging. Our choice of words has the power to help a child see who they are. And Charlotte knew that our choice of words can save a life.
We are coming to the end of Charlotte’s Web. I hear the wren’s song in the roses as she sings in the month of May. I know what it means. In the time we have left, I will choose my words carefully. Words matter.