Charlotte’s Web

Let’s discuss a terrific, radiant, humble book. Some book, really. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. This book was first published in 1952, and tells the improbable yet heartwarming tale of a friendship between a pig and a spider. It’s also how most school kids learn about death, unless they see The Lion King first.

Pre-reading Activity: Writing About Friends
For anyone who can write letters

Materials needed:
Construction paper or cardstock
pencils, pens, or markers
white glue and glitter

This activity is meant to help students think about the nature of friendship and consider the words we use to describe a true friend. Give the following instructions to each student:

E.B. White was a famous writer who chose his words carefully so that he could express exactly what he needed to. His character Charlotte the spider was no different. Her words were carefully chosen to describe her friend Wilbur and to persuade the humans who met him to value him as much as she did.

Choose a friend or someone that you admire to think about. In the same way that Charlotte chose words to describe Wilbur, select a word that describes that person’s best characteristics. On one side of a piece of thick paper or cardstock, write the name of the person, the descriptive word and its definition. More advanced students should also look up and write down the word’s etymology.

Turn the paper over. Draw a spider’s web using a pencil, pen, or marker. Using glue, write the word they have chosen on top of the web. Sprinkle glitter on the glue and allow to dry, then shake off the excess glitter into a trash can. A squeezable tube of glitter glue is a less messy alternative.

Pictures can be hung up in the classroom windows for the duration of the Charlotte’s Web unit.

Chapter 1 Activity: Injustice

Give students this writing prompt after reading Chapter 1 of Charlotte’s Web.

Fern Arable stops her father from killing a newborn pig because she sees it as an injustice. Injustice is a Latin word that means “wrongfully and unreasonably oppressive.” Research a current or historic example of injustice, then write an essay in which you describe the injustice. Explain how you would correct that injustice if it were within your power to do so.

Chapter 17 Activity: Quarters, nickels, and dimes
For First or Second graders

Materials needed: several quarters, nickels, and dimes for each student

Give each student some coins. Encourage students to use the coins to help them with calculations. Equations can be visualized by arranging coins on a table and then moving them around. Then present the following problems:

1. Mr. Arable gave Fern two quarters and two dimes. He gave Avery five dimes and four nickels. How much did each child get? Was it the same amount? Answer: Yes. They received 70 cents each.

2. Ferris wheel rides cost 10 cents each. Fern’s mother gave her 40 cents. How many times can Fern and Henry Fussy ride on the Ferris Wheel together? Answer: Twice.

3. Fern and Avery each had 70 cents to spend at the fair. If you had 70 cents, what would you spend it on? This is how much each thing costs. Would you spend all of your money or save some of it?

Spin the Wheel game – 5 cents
Jet Plane Bumper Cars – 20 cents
Balloon – 10 cents
Frozen Custard – 5 cents
Cheeseburger – 10 cents
Raspberry soda pop – 5 cents

End of Reading Activity: Charlotte’s Crossword Puzzle
For Third grade and up

Materials needed: One crossword printout per student and a pencil

Print out the following crossword puzzle and have students complete it on their own or with help. There are two versions — one with American spelling and the other with British/International spelling. This crossword should be given after reading the book and can work as a vocabulary and spelling quiz. Younger students may need to see the list of words when completing the puzzle. More advanced students should be able to recall the words from memory.

Charlotte’s Web Crossword – American English

Charlotte’s Web Crossword – British English

Vocabulary terms used:

Anesthetic (American) / Anaesthetic (British/International)
Magnum Opus
Some Pig

Animal Farm

George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is a delightful little fairy tale about the failures of Stalinism and the best possible introduction to twentieth century politics for high schoolers. The story itself is quite enjoyable, but it’s only properly understood as a symbol for everything that went wrong in the Soviet Union. Rather than becoming a worker’s paradise, daily life there for the common person just went from drudging away for one-all powerful boss to drudging away for another one. Orwell’s perfect prose and sharp with served as a prophetic warning during the last days of World War II to anyone who realized that, while the Nazis absolutely had to be vanquished in the short term, it would be the Soviet Union that posed the more long-term threat to the people of Europe.

Activity: Balancing Power

Arrange students in discussion groups. Have students consider the following prompt, then discuss the ideas they have. Then have each student write a position paper explaining how they feel how power should be split between citizens and leaders, and which people should be allowed to have a say in government. Discourage students from critiquing the exact sort of government they currently live under, rather encouraging them to be more theoretical, as if they were designing an entirely new nation themselves.

Prompt: “How much power should be in the hands of ordinary citizens, and how much should be given to leaders? Who should be allowed to vote? Should factors such as age, sex, ethnic background, citizenship status, mental abilities, military or other national service, ability to pass a civics test, or service to the community be factors? Are there any sorts of people who should be excluded from voting, or who should have their voting rights taken away? Consider the greatest good for a nation when forming your philosophy and explain your reasoning.”

Activity: Political Slogans

All good political slogans are catchy. The best ones look great on a bumper sticker. Some are very straightforward, such as “I Like Ike,” which was used to help elect General Dwight D. Eisenhower as president in 1952. Others are more of an ideological statement, such as “Better dead than Red,” another slogan from the 50’s that expressed the idea that death was preferable to living under communism. In Animal Farm, “four legs good, two legs bad” is the slogan that’s meant to encompass the basic principles of Animalism, but it quickly becomes a mindless chant that is used to keep the animals from discussing complex ideas.

Have your students choose a political slogan from some point in history. Then have them analyze whether this slogan is a straightforward statement such as “I like Ike,” or if it’s meant to push a dark agenda, such as “blood and soil,” an expression used by Nazis and neo-Nazis. Some slogans express an political position, such as “no taxation without representation,” and others send a mixed message, such as “Make America Great Again,” implying that America isn’t so great compared to what it was in the past. The student’s essay should explain the historical and political context around the slogan, and then take a position as to the effectiveness of the slogan in the way it expresses the explicit and implicit meanings of the words. If a student wanted to stay close to the text of Animal Farm, he or she could compare the difference between “four legs good, two legs bad” and “four legs good, two legs better.”

The Nutcracker

Tchaikovsky’s music is defined by soaring but bittersweet melodies, a reflection of his own personal struggles and victories as a closeted gay man. His ballets focus on hidden identities and quests for freedom and true love, things that would elude him until his untimely death from cholera. The Nutcracker was the last of his three ballets, first performed only a year before his death. It was a commercial failure, although the big hits of act two were well received. But some thirty years after the composer’s death the ballet was revisited and became a smash hit globally. It’s now a permanent part of the western holiday tradition and a magical story for generations of children.

Activity: Watch the show!

There are many, many recordings of The Nutcracker. My two favorites are a stage performance by San Francisco Ballet and a cinematic version directed by Carrol Ballard with sets and costumes designed by Maurice Sendak. Dress up as if you were going to the theater, get some special treats, and enjoy the show from home!

Music in this Episode:

Royal Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of London. (1955). The Nutcracker [Vinyl recording]. London: Artur Rodzinski, Conductor. (1955)

The Rainbow Fish

Is Marcus Pfister’s The Rainbow Fish a nice little story about sharing, or is it the disturbing tale of an aquatic dystopia in which bullying is the preferred tactic to enforce absolute conformity? Join us for an episode that will make you realize for the first time that you’ve been reading a book about the worst possible form of communism.

Activity: Should Government Be Involved?

Have students fold a piece of paper into thirds to create three columns. At the top of the columns write “always,” “sometimes,” and “never.” List various aspects of public and private life, such as education, marriage, parenting, transportation, health care, banking, dietary choices, product safety, imports and exports, the environment, careers, public safety, and so on. Have students write which things should always, sometimes, or never be regulated by the government they live under. Do not influence the students by telling them where you would place a certain item, but do ask questions that encourage them to think thoroughly about where they would place a certain topic and why. Encourage students to think about how not all societies are the same, and how something that works in one political setting may not work in another due to factors like demographics, population size, the level of economic development, and available financial and material resources. Remind students that their views may change over time, and it’s good to think about these issues from time to time.

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible works to modern readers, and its themes will be very familiar to young people today, since they still have to deal with the issues of gossip, relationship drama, and toxic people who just want to tear others down. Teenagers will enjoy this play not only for its fantastic wordplay and raucous plot, but also they way it addresses problems that affect trust, friendship, and forgiveness that will be very familiar to them.

Activity: Essay Prompts

Use one of the following prompts for a discussion or written essay about Much Ado About Nothing:

    • If you were Hero, would you have taken back Claudio at the end after he had caused you so much harm? Why or why not?
    • When Claudio accuses Hero, at first her father believes him and not his own daughter. What does Leonato’s angry outbust say about him? Was this just a moment of high emotions or does it show that he isn’t as good of a father as he seemed?
    • Is it ethical for friends to scheme to get couples together, even if the intentions and outcome are good? Where is the line between encouragement of and meddling in others’ relationships?
    • Don Pedro gave his toxic brother Don John a second chance, and sadly Don John used this as a chance to hurt others. How can you tell the difference between someone who deserves a second chance at friendship and someone who will just continue to be hurtful if you stay close to them? What should you do if it seems impossible to know for sure?
    • If you have had a big fight with a close friend but you want to make amends, what is the best way to get started?

Activity: Modern-day Beatrice and Benedick

Choose a scene from Much Ado About Nothing in which Beatrice and Benedick have a “merry war” of words between one another. Rewrite the scene, using the same style of insults and teasing but with modern-day English. The scene could be written as a play script or in prose as if it were in a novel.

Little Red Riding Hood

Cautionary tales about the dangers of encountering a predator — especially ones targeted at girls and women — have been around for centuries. In this episode we take a look at various versions of Little Red Riding Hood from the middle ages to the present day to see what these stories have to say about  how to protect vulnerable young people from the predators out there in the world.

Warning: while this episode contains no explicit language, it does discuss sexual predators and retells a medieval story with some gruesome parts. Parents may wish to review it before sharing with teenagers or listen to it when little ones are not nearby.

The Sneetches

Dr. Seuss is the master of the modern parable, making us all enjoy ourselves so much that we don’t realize how much we really learn from reading his books. Well before the Civil Rights Movement began in earnest, this author was doing his best to teach children about the dangers of segregation, racial bigotry, and treating others unkindly because they are different.

Activity: How Does it Feel?

This activity is best suited for elementary age students. Have students recreate scenes from pages 4, 5, 6, or 7 from The Sneetches. This could be done through acting, drawing, or posing toys to recreate the images. On page 4, a star-belly parent and child walk with their noses in the air past a plain-belly parent and child. On page 5, star-belly children enjoy playing ball together while excluding plain-belly children. On pages 6 and 7, a group of star-bellies enjoy a beach barbecue while plain-bellies are shut out from the warm fire, tasty food, and lively conversation.

After the children re-create one or more of these scenes in their own way, facilitate a discussion about how the plain-belly sneetches feel. Ask the children how they would feel if they were excluded  in these ways. Encourage them to come up with ideas for how they can avoid mistreating others and encourage their peers to do the same.

Activity: Passing

This activity is best suited for middle school or high school students. In The Sneetches, the plain-bellies have stars applied to their bellies so that they can pass as star-bellied sneetches, who have a higher social status and are allowed full participation in society. This is a reference to the phenomenon of passing, in which a person who belongs to an oppressed group is able to look and behave as if they were a member of a privileged group. Passing can be done to save lives; during the Holocaust, some Jews were able to escape being sent to death camps by passing as non-Jews. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, mixed-race African-Americans whose features were European enough, passing could be used to escape slavery or gain access to education, jobs, housing, and societal connections that would not be open to them if their ancestry were known.

Instruct students to select an example of someone from US history who was mixed race and was able to pass as white. Students can give a written or oral report giving a biographical overview of their chosen subject’s life, with the main focus being how and why the person passed for white. There are many examples to choose from, such as Eston Hemings, Jane Morrison, Walter Francis White, James Weldon Johnson, or George Herriman.

The point of this assignment is for students to understand the reasons someone chose to pass, not to judge the individual’s choices or to project themselves into their subject’s situation. Students should specifically avoid judging whether or not a person from history should have attempted to pass, because their frame of reference and personal options are quite different from that of the people studied. A good report will note the advantages and disadvantages afforded by the choice to pass, as well as the ways in which the person was successful at passing.

Activity: Star On, Star Off

Materials needed:
Duct Tape
Four chairs
Soft balls for bouncing or catching

Cut up slightly more star shapes than there are students in the class. Put a rolled up bit of duct tape on the back of each star so that it can be applied and removed to clothing repeatedly.

Go somewhere where children have enough space to run around safely. In the middle of the room set up two chairs side by side with about three feet of space between them. This is the “Star On” door. In line with these chairs, set up two more in the same manner for the “Star Off” door. Leave enough space between the “doors” for two children to stand. Assign one child to be “Star On” another to be “Star Off”. Star On and Star Off should stand in the space between the doorways.

Divide the rest of the class into two groups of equal size. Do this in an arbitrary way so that the students will not be able to infer the members of each group later. Do not tell the students that they should remember who is in each group.

Stick stars to the sleeves of the children in one group. On your cue, allow the children to run around the room, but tell them they should go through the Star On and Star Off doors several times each. Students with a star may bounce a ball or play catch with a classmate who currently has a star, but if they are tagged by a student without a star they must go through the Star-Off door. Students may not collect more than one star at a time – they must go through the Star Off door after getting a star. As they go through each doorway, Star On and Star Off will apply or remove the stars. The teacher can help with transferring stars from Star Off to Star On if needed.

Allow the children to play for several minutes. Then cue the children to freeze. Have everyone sit down in a group. Ask if any of the children can remember the members of the original group. Unless one student has a particularly good memory, most should not be able to recall how the group was divided. Discuss how this relates to the plot of The Sneetches, and how there really isn’t any important difference between the children that would prevent them all playing together.

Music in this episode

“Round and Round the World is Turning” – traditional English folk song


Hatchet by Gary Paulsen is a survival story, but it’s also a tale about a boy beginning to learn about adult ideas.

Activity: How would you survive?

Have each student write a story about being in a survival situation all alone. They must include:

    • How they arrived at a remote location
    • Describe the location, including plants, animals, and climate
    • What resources or tools came with them to the location
    • What resources or tools can be found or made at the location
    • How they would obtain food, shelter, and protection from nature
    • What dangers they might encounter
    • How they would attempt to be rescued
    • How long they think they could survive in such a setting

The narrative can be a short response or a longer work of art or creative writing. Students should share their work and discuss whether their story is plausible or fanciful.

Activity: What vitamins do you need to survive?

This activity is designed to help students understand why the human body needs vitamins. Students will fill out a chart that lists vitamins, their function, and the food sources which provide these vitamins. Parents and teachers can decide how much detail to go into based on student understanding and ability. It may be better for younger students to only research a few vitamins, whereas older students can learn about the entire list. Students should do as much research on their own as possible.

Begin the activity by defining of a vitamin:

A vitamin is a nutrient that a living thing needs in order to function properly. Vitamins can almost never be made by the organism itself, so they must be obtained through its diet.

Next, provide students with a copy of this chart and instruct them to fill it out after performing research about which parts of the human body are affected by vitamins and which foods are rich in these vitamins. Answers will vary, as vitamins have many different functions in the body and they are found in many different food sources. After this activity students should be able to explain various sources of vitamins, how those vitamins support proper functioning of the body, and why it is important to eat a varied diet to obtain proper nutrition.

Advanced students can also write a research essay answering the following prompt:

In Hatchet, Brian spends fifty-four days eating only choke cherries, raspberries, hazelnuts, fish, grouse, and rabbit. What vitamins would he have been able to obtain from this diet? Which would have been missing? What would be the long-term effects of a diet with these vitamin deficiencies?

Little Women – Part 2

This episode went a little long, but that’s just because there is quite a lot to say about this book. Little Women has flaws, but that just makes it more human. However, somehow we all got the idea that Jo is the March sister to admire and Amy is the one we should despise. If you can set aside the way these characters have been played in film adaptations and just look at what’s on the page, you’ll find that Amy’s the real hero here.

Activity: Debate – Jo vs. Amy

Read the passage in Chapter 26 where Jo and Amy disagree about whether Amy’s friendships are genuine:

“Why in the world should you spend your money, worry your family, and turn the house upside down for a parcel of girls who don’t care a sixpence for you? I thought you had too much pride and sense to truckle to any mortal woman just because she wears French boots and rides in a coupe,” said Jo, who, being called from the tragic climax of her novel, was not in the best mood for social enterprises.

“I don’t truckle, and I hate being patronized as much as you do!” returned Amy indignantly, for the two still jangled when such questions arose. “The girls do care for me, and I for them, and there’s a great deal of kindness and sense and talent among them, in spite of what you call fashionable nonsense. You don’t care to make people like you, to go into good society, and cultivate your manners and tastes. I do, and I mean to make the most of every chance that comes. You can go through the world with your elbows out and your nose in the air, and call it independence, if you like. That’s not my way.”

When Amy had whetted her tongue and freed her mind she usually got the best of it, for she seldom failed to have common sense on her side, while Jo carried her love of liberty and hate of conventionalities to such an unlimited extent that she naturally found herself worsted in an argument. Amy’s definition of Jo’s idea of independence was such a good hit that both burst out laughing, and the discussion took a more amiable turn. Much against her will, Jo at length consented to sacrifice a day to Mrs. Grundy, and help her sister through what she regarded as ‘a nonsensical business’.

Pair students off or divide them into small groups. Assign each student or group a position to take: Jo’s or Amy’s. Encourage them to consider the following questions in preparing their positions:

    • How can you know when relationships are genuine when popularity is at stake?
    • Is there any difference between Jo’s snobbery against friendships and that of teens who only care about popularity?
    • How can we find the balance between worrying only about popularity and rejecting friendships altogether?

Students can then present their positions and follow up with debate. This activity could also be done as an essay comparing Jo’s and Amy’s position and ending with students deciding which perspective they endorse.

Music in this Episode

“Come Ye Desconsolate” with lyrics by Thomas Moore and music by Thomas Hastings
“He That is Down Needs Fear no Fall” with lyrics by John Bunyan
Selections from Wilhelm Meister with lyrics by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and music by Franz Schubert
“Allegro” – Fanny Mendelssohn
Theme music: “The Hazel Dell” by Derek B. Scott

Little Women – Part 1

In this episode, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott gets knocked off its pedestal. It’s okay if that makes you angry. I can handle the hate mail.


Make Amy’s Pickled Limes

Materials needed:
Fresh limes
half pint mason jars with bands and lids (slices from about one and a half limes will fit in each jar)

Note: If you are making limes for use in a standard classroom, you may wish to use a larger jar to avoid having to clean multiple jars or waste bands and lids. A quart sized jar would hold enough lime wedges for one classroom. Smaller jars are recommended if only a few limes are needed at a time as they have the best taste and texture when eaten very soon after the jar is opened. Also, be sure to prepare the limes three to six weeks before they are needed for a lesson.

Get a saucepan and mix water and salt. You will need a scant teaspoon of salt per cup of water. Warm the water just enough to allow the salt to fully dissolve. Stir to mix it evenly. Let the water cool to room temperature.

Thoroughly clean the mason jars and lids with hot soap and water. Rinse and drain the jars and lids.

Wash the limes. Slice each one into eight wedges of equal size. Gently pack the lime wedges into the jars to fill them, but leave a quarter inch of space at the top. Pour in enough salt water to cover the limes. Put on the lids and screw on the lid bands tightly. Label the jars with today’s date and put them in the refrigerator. Each lime wedge has about 2.5 calories and no added sugar, but they pack just as much flavor as any sugary sour candy.

Allow the limes to pickle for at least three weeks. Treat them like any other kind of refrigerator pickles — they will not keep more than three months as they haven’t been processed. Once the jars are opened it is best to eat the limes right away. Drain and discard the salt brine, then serve the lime slices while reading or discussing Chapter 7, “Amy’s Valley of Humiliation.” Be sure to discard the rinds appropriately to avoid infuriating the teacher.

Music in this episode

The following songs are mentioned in Little Women and were used as background music:

“Come Ye Desconsolate” with lyrics by Thomas Moore and music by Thomas Hastings
“He That is Down Needs Fear no Fall” with lyrics by John Bunyan
Selections from Wilhelm Meister with lyrics by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and music by Franz Schubert

Theme music: “The Hazel Dell” by Derek B. Scott