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Themes, Themes, Everywhere
When children read a book, they are not concerned about themes. They love the main characters and the story. As teachers, it is our job to draw them deeper into the story and improve their comprehension through a discussion of the authors' themes. In Charlotte's Web, E.B. White discusses friendship, loyalty, farm life, and determination. Work with your students to find examples of these themes, and even talk about examples from their own lives.
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One of the main Charlotte's Web themes is friendship. You can find several places in the book with examples of what a real friend, or true friend, is. Here are some of the examples of this theme in the novel:
- Charlotte works very hard to save Wilbur's life. She comes up with new words for her web to describe Wilbur. She talks to Wilbur when he is sad at the beginning of the book. She is not asking for anything in return. She helps Wilbur because she is his friend.
- Wilbur takes care of Charlotte's babies after she dies. He wants to help Charlotte even though she is no longer here to help him. This is another example of true friendship.
- Sometimes, children have trouble understanding what a good friend is.
- This theme can help children in their own lives. Make sure to point out personal connections (like examples of their friendships) when discussing Charlotte and Wilbur.
- Another activity would be to have students write in their reading response journals a paragraph about why they think Charlotte and Wilbur are good friends to each other.
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Loyalty goes hand-in-hand with the theme of friendship in the novel. Students may understand the term friendship better than they understand the term loyalty, so you many want to start with examples of the friendship theme and then introduce loyalty. It may be helpful to define loyalty for children first and then look for examples throughout the novel.
- Fern and Charlotte are both very loyal to Wilbur. They work hard to save him from slaughter because they love him, especially Charolotte. Even when she is tired or near the end of her life, she is still thinking of how to help Wilbur.
- You can make a joke with children and ask them what Templeton is loyal to. Although this is a little different definition of the word, Templeton is loyal to one thing--getting food. If he can get food, he is going to follow through with a task.
- In the real world, people are often loyal to other people (like family members) or to objects (like food.) Discuss with children the two types of loyalty and see if they have any opinion on which one seems better.
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Depending on where you live and teach, your children may not be familiar with this theme. Students are often horrified when Papa is going to kill Wilbur because he is a runt. They cheer on Fern and her aunt and uncle when they save Wilbur. However, realistic farm life is what E. B. White is first portraying in this novel. Farm animals are raised for food and products. Discuss with students why pigs are raised and slaughtered. Is it cruelty? No, and children should understand this about farm life if you are living in a city or suburb.
Other examples of this Charlotte's Web theme are:
- The animals going to the fair. Many farmers raise animals and show them at county fairs.
- Almost any of the barnyard scenes, except of course when the animals are talking, show what farm life is like. The different animals and their roles on the farm are exemplified throughout the touching, funny, and endearing barnyard scenes by E. B. White.
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One of the most popular themes is determination. Here are some examples of determination in the novel:
- Fern is determined to save Wilbur and raise him.
- Charlotte is determined to show that Wilbur is "Some pig."
- Templeton is determined to find food and eat as much as he can.
- Wilbur is determined to be a good friend to Charlotte and repay her for her help by taking care of her babies.
Determination is such an important characteristic for children to have. If you are determined, you really can accomplish almost anything. Charlotte does this in E. B. White's novel. Wilbur's fate seems inevitable; but by the end of the novel, he is still alive. With this theme, ask students to share what they are determined to do this school year or in a sport they play or in their lives. Ask them to think about how they will reach these goals. Are they willing to work as hard as Charlotte and Wilbur do in Charlotte's Web?
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Using Children's Lives
When teaching about theme and doing activities, it is important to allow students the opportunity to compare and contrast their own life experiences to the main character's. This is how children develop comprehension skills and why we teach lessons on reading skills such as theme.
- White, E.B. Charlotte's Web, HarperCollins 2004.