Fellows' Reflections: Hazlett Henderson

I am having trouble teaching Charlotte’s Web.

You would think that after four years of studying Arabic and Islam, working with a Jordanian boss in high school, studying abroad in Morocco, and hanging out with various friends from the MENA region over the years, I would have realized that Wilbur (the main character of Charlotte’s Web) could present a problem. Of course, I did not.

Trying to work out how to teach a class book is its own thing, so I was happily focused on dividing up the book, pulling out vocabulary words, and developing character and plot analysis lessons. I have an elementary school librarian in the family, and she had assured me that my main trouble with teaching Charlotte’s Web for the first time would be its difficult ending.

But a few weeks ago, after I had sent home the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web, comprehension worksheet and all, I could tell something was wrong. When my students came back to class the next week, their little faces were scrunched up, their lips curling, and their eyes accusing me of something. As soon as I mentioned Charlotte’s Web, I heard the dreaded, “Mssssss!” (The students know their teachers’ names. Regardless, we are all “Ms.” Unless a teacher happens to be a man, in which case: “Mr.”)

“I can’t read this story because it’s a pig!”

“Pigs eat trash!”

“I hate pigs!”

My students told me that pigs roll around in the mud, that they’re dirty, that they eat and hang out in trash. This is consistent with Islam’s teaching regarding pigs: eating “the flesh of swine” is forbidden, along with “dead meat” and “blood.” In Christianity, eating pigs is also haram (see the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah), but Christians tend to be less stringent about that particular prohibition. (You are probably also aware that Christians are not supposed to touch pigs’ carcasses because they are “unclean” animals. See: American footballs.)

I did not know how to respond, to say the least. One parent suggested her daughter pretend Wilbur was a cat. Okay. I suggested we embrace our “American children’s literature immersion experience,” at a total loss to defend one of the best-known and most popular children’s stories in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, my students were not thrilled by that prospect. I gave one particularly religious student the book I had started with my other class to read instead, only to realize that the subplot of Holes also features a pig. Not going to work.

Finally, I realized something. It would not help me with my pig problem, I thought, but I figured out that I should actually be reading the majority of the class book in class, in order to get my students engaged and thinking about the story as it unfolded for them. I hoped this would combat some of the “This story isn’t fun” and “It’s so boring” comments I had been getting. And it has done that: my students asked more questions, reflected more on the characters and events, and seemed to get the story more this week than they had in the past.

But reading the story aloud (and, as we progressed, learning more about Wilbur’s thoughts and feelings) also let my students identify more with Wilbur the pig. When we finished our most recent chapter, I heard students considering Wilbur’s motivations and fears, not commenting on his pig-hood. We spent time discussing the goose, that tricky, repetitive advice-giver, and Wilbur’s limited experience with the world outside his fence. In short, at least during that class time, we moved a little bit past the cultural difference.

I am frustrated that some of my most religious students still look at me askance in class. I wish that I had anticipated this problem, and I think I could have if I had considered my class book choice at more length. This week, however, I am happy for the reminder of the differences between my background and those of my students. It makes the connections we are forging (outside of Charlotte’s Web!) all the more meaningful.