Posted in Reading, Teaching

Why I’m Grateful for The Spider and the Fly

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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.

MotherGoose
“There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, She had so many children she didn’t know what to do…” Anyone remember how this nursery rhyme ends?

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.

Wrong?

“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.

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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.]

Posted in Teaching

Your Parents Don’t Want Me to Know That

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Amazing Artwork by Carie Juettner

 

Your Right To Privacy Has Been Revoked

These days, we are constantly cautioned against revealing too much of our personal information online. Be careful what you share on Twitter. Don’t post your home address on your Facebook page. Never give your social security number to a stranger. Blah, blah, blah.

The way I see it, anyone who has a child has already given up their right to privacy anyway, so what does it really matter? Seriously, if you are considering having kids and currently have a nifty little “Pros and Cons of Procreation” t-chart on the fridge, go ahead and jot this down in the cons column: Kids tell people everything. I know, because I was their teacher.

And don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’s just the little ones that blurt out embarrassing snippets from home. Nope. I taught seventh graders. That’s right—your offspring are just as likely to reveal your dirty little secrets at age twelve as they are at two, and what’s worse is they’re more articulate. (Well, most of them.)

OMG!  TMI!  LOL!

Over the course of my middle school teaching years, I developed a line that became useful in handling awkward conversations with students. Whenever a girl or boy shared something about home that was shocking, embarrassing, or disturbing (while not being illegal, abusive, or counselor-worthy), I simply responded with, “Honey, your mom/dad probably doesn’t want me to know that.” This would cause a brief look of wonder or enlightenment to cross the child’s face before they either blushed and hurried away or shrugged their shoulders and continued to prattle on about their family’s strange ways.  (Parents out there, consider this right now: Which type of child do YOU have?)

Comments which warranted my cautionary mantra included, but are not limited to, the following:

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Super Grover
  • Boy – “My mom gets so mad in the car. She’s always flipping people off and cussing them out. The thing is though, SHE’S the bad driver.”
  • Girl (pointing to the Grover stuffed animal on my shelf) – “Hey! My mom sleeps with one of those.”
  • Boy – “My parents got divorced because my dad was my mom’s boss and she didn’t like him telling her what to do all day.”
  • Girl (upon receiving a note that she’s leaving school for a dentist appointment) -“Oh, I’m not really going to the dentist. My mom’s taking me to get my nails done for the Taylor Swift concert tonight.”
  • Boy – “My mom can’t pick me up today. She’s getting a new tattoo on her butt.”
  • Girl – “Whenever my dad gets a bad sunburn, he peels off all the dead skin and eats it.”

(Ok, yes, if you are keeping track, there are a lot more embarrassing details shared about moms than about dads. However, the dad one is by far the most disgusting.)

Dear Carie, How Can I Prevent My Child From Embarrassing Me At School?

The good news is, there are ways to keep your kids from airing all your dirty laundry in public. Simply never swear, never lie, never fall down, never speed, and, for goodness sake, never peel off your skin and eat it in front of your children. Just lead a perfect life and you have nothing to worry about.

 

[To read more stories from my teaching career, check out my Teaching Stories page.]