Today, while I was trapped inside by the quarter inch of ice that shut down Austin, Texas, I attempted to weed-out my picture book collection. I was not successful. Rather than getting rid of a single book, I instead spent forty-five minutes re-reading favorites such as Miss Nelson is Missing and Harry the Dirty Dog and Frank Baber’s Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes that my parents gave me for Christmas when I was one.
During my fruitless search for titles I could live without, I came across Tony DiTerlizzi’s beautifully illustrated version of Mary Howitt’s The Spider and the Fly, and it brought a grin to my face. This cautionary tale about a fly who is foolishly taken in by a spider’s flattery was one of my favorites to use in the classroom.
You may be thinking, Wait, I thought she taught middle school? I did. Children’s books are excellent teaching tools for students of all ages. They’re short, they’re great mentor texts for introducing new literary elements, and they’re crowd-pleasers. It’s amazing how quickly twelve-year-olds will gather on the floor for someone to read to them. Most of us never outgrow of the joy of “story time”.
Over the course of my teaching career, I read many picture books to my classes. I used Jane Yolen’s Greyling to teach plot development, Denise Gruska’s The Only Boy in Ballet Class to teach theme, and Nick Bruel’s Bad Kitty for word choice. We read Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick to brainstorm short story ideas and Scieszka and Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man just for the fun of it. But The Spider and the Fly was always one of my favorites.
As a literary reference, the book has lots of merit—it can be used to demonstrate anything from theme to mood to rhyme scheme to how to punctuate dialogue. But for me, the real reason for reading it came after the lesson was over, when I had the pleasure of having the following conversation with my students.
It goes something like this:
We finish discussing the literary elements of the story, and I tell my students that my favorite thing about the book is that the fly dies at the end, which elicits the expected reaction. The students gasp, accuse me of being mean, and ask the big question. “Why?” I tell them it’s because the story hasn’t been messed with yet.
“Messed with?” they ask. “What do you mean?”
Then, I ask my students to tell me the story of the three little pigs. Without exception, every class tells me the version where the pig who builds his house out of straw runs to his brother’s house when his own is blown down by the wolf, and then both of them run to the third pig’s house when the one made of sticks is blown down too. There, saved by the sturdy brick house, they all survive.
“Wrong,” I tell them.
“The first two pigs get eaten by the wolf.”
What?! The thirteen-year-olds in front of me are shocked. They honestly don’t know this version of the story. When asked why it was changed, I shrug. “Too violent, too upsetting for little kids.” They seem to understand this—some of them look pretty unsettled themselves. They don’t see any problem with the revision. So I probe further.
“In your version of the story,” I say, “the moral seems to be that if you’re foolish and lazy, someone smart and hardworking will save you. What do you think is the moral of the original version?”
They think for a moment until someone says, “Um, if you’re foolish and lazy… you die?”
I shrug, and they get a little nervous.
They ask me what other stories have been changed and I tell them about the evil stepsisters cutting off their toes to try to fit the glass slipper in Cinderella. This also produces the desired effect.
“So,” I say, “back to The Spider and the Fly. Right now the story is still unchanged. It’s a cautionary tale about the dire consequences of giving in to false praise and dangerous temptations. What would happen if someone decided the story was too harsh for children?”
The answers come in bursts, pieces.
“She wouldn’t die.”
“He wouldn’t eat her.”
“The spider would learn a lesson.”
I am nodding, but obviously waiting for more. Then, inevitably, one kids gets it.
“They would become friends!”
I smile. Yes.
One year, a student with eyes wide open in astonishment, said, “She wouldn’t die. The spider would learn his lesson. Then they would learn to appreciate their differences, and they’d become friends and eat pancakes together!”
Exactly. Well, I’m not sure about the pancakes part, but otherwise, yes, you got it. It’s only a matter of time until this tale too is softened, its true lesson buried beneath our fear of scaring children.
At that point, if I had paced my lesson appropriately, there would be just enough time left before the bell for the class to ponder this new revelation. Their stories had been changed. In the real world, flies died, pigs were eaten, and greed could lead a person to chopping off her own feet. These kids were seventh graders. It was time they knew.
These are the conversations I loved when I was a teacher, the moments of epiphany I miss. The lessons not covered in the curriculum were always my favorites.
I keep my copy of The Spider and the Fly as a reminder, a cautionary tale.
[To read more stories from my teaching career, check out my Teaching Stories page.]