When faced with the daunting task of selecting a book for our new ‘Love That Book’ series of blogs, the choice seemed somewhat over-whelming. Should I go for something classic (everyone loves a literary cannon debate, don’t they?); or something new (oooh….a chance to show how cutting-edge I am, perhaps?), or maybe something edgy and daring (the ‘I’m not afraid to push literary boundaries’ type-choice). Faced with this impossible decision, I decided to simplify the choice and return to the title of this series. With the notion being about taking a book that you love; a book that you keep returning to and that continues to give you – and the children whom you teach – joy and intrigue, then the options began to reduce. There are many books out there that my children and I have liked, but there are less that we have truly loved. One such book – and the ultimate choice for this blog – actually began life not as a book at all, but as a poem. In this blog, I bring you the dark…the edgy…the somewhat disturbing reinterpretation of Mary Howitt’s classic poem, The Spider and the Fly, illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi.
My first piece of advice is to choose your moment for sharing this text wisely. It is best shared when the days begin to shorten…as the light begins to change from bright, brilliant sunshine to muted golds and amber tones. Mid-autumn term would be my preferred timing; during the build-up to Halloween would be near perfect. With the shorter, darker days providing the perfect backdrop to this text, begin by setting the scene in the classroom. I suggest inviting the children (and adults – I have delivered this session to both) into the classroom through a web-covered door. Place some spiders into the web and the squeals of delight and horror will be rippling around the classroom before you have even introduced the text. My next step on this terrifying teaching sequence is to immerse the children in the words, images and rhythms of the poem. I read it in its entirety, modelling expert prosody and really hamming up the villainous charisma of the spider. Then we read it again together with the children echoing back the lines/phrases/verses accordingly. Immersion and engagement is the key to making these repeated re-readings motivating; providing the children with simple puppets to represent the two characters (I favour lollypop sticks with stuck-on images of flies and spiders) gives the children a reason to read the text again and take note of which character is speaking. Alternatively, providing the children with simple paperclip bow ties, and strap-on wings can really help to get them into role. Following these meaning-laden re-reads, much of the surface meaning is revealed to the children without the need for teacher-heavy direction.
Next step: fine-tuning our understanding. Together, we work our way through the poem unpicking the more concealed meanings, for example, what the spider might mean by his ‘table’, and tracking the flies treacherous shift from outright rejection of the spider’s advances, to acceptance of his fatal flattery! We explore in detail the conflicting narrative that might be flitting through the flies head as she makes her decision to step into the spider’s parlour. This understanding is helped along by a fun game, a take on the pre-school party classic, ‘What’s the time, Mister Wolf?’. For this activity, I select one child to work in role as the spider. This child turns away from the line of ‘flies’ who wait behind an agreed line. The ‘spider’ selects a card from a pile in front of them and reads the ‘thought bubble’ – the ‘thought’ will either be a reason taken from the text that persuades the fly to take a step forward towards the spider, or a reason to step back.
I wonder what he keeps in his parlour? I simply adore pretty things. Perhaps it would be good to take a quick look.
I’ve heard that his dinner table is full of horrible sights: beetles on toast; cottage flypie; lice pudding! I don’t want to become his next dish!
If it is a persuasive reason (as in the first example), the line of flies step forward; if it is a thought that encourages caution (see the second example), the flies step back. Within the pile of cards, there are hidden a number of ‘Dinner Time’ cards. When the spider turns this card over and reads it aloud to the awaiting flies, it is time for them to flee, for if they are caught by the spider before they escape back behind their safety line, they become a tasty treat for spider’s tea. Again, cue squeals and laughter, alongside deeper understanding of this enticing tale.
When the poem is fully read, then is the time to introduce DiTerlizzi’s graphic interpretation of this grizzly tale. Having read and understood the plot, the children can now delight in the additional detail provided by DiTerlizzi in his grotesquely detailed designs. I particularly enjoy drawing the children’s attention to the spider’s carefully chosen home-furnishings. How do they like his ladybug footstall? Did they notice his stuffed maggot pillow? Do the curtains to his parlour look vaguely familiar? The fine details in the text are what take this poem from marvellous to mesmerisingly macabre.
Following on from the reading, the writing opportunities offered by the poem and text are abundant. I have known children delight in creating devilish menus to describe the feast displayed upon the spider’s banqueting table. I also love the idea of children writing Trip Adviser reviews of their experiences at the dining table of their arachnid host. How about a home furnishings brochure advertising the latest must-haves for a discerning spider’s palatial pad?
My personal choice however would be to invite the children to write in role as the spider attempting to lure another foolish bug into his parlour. This task would suitably accompany a science topic focusing on the close study of minibeasts. Having looked closely at their bug of choice, the children could consider how the spider might exaggerate the beauty of the insects’ attributes – would he describe the Brown House Moth’s wings merely as ‘beige’? Instead, he would most likely liken their colour to the ‘soft, sandy hue of the windswept savannah’? The children are quick to spot that the latter is much more in keeping with the spider’s slick parley.
Finally, to end on a high, invite the children to try out their charm offensive. In order to provide a real ‘audience’, the listener must take on the role of the unsuspecting bug. When listening to their partner’s prose, they must stand opposite them and take a small step forward every time they feel charmed by the spider’s flattery. If the bug has ended up stepping on the web (placed at the base of the writer’s feet) before the speaker has finished his text, then the bug is trapped and the spider can enjoy a well-deserved treat for tea. If for whatever reason, the flattery has not succeeded in luring the listener forwards, then feedback can be provided about additional lines to be added, or adaptations to be made to make the text more enticing.
How ever you choose to use it, this dark tale is sure to delight and terrify in equal measure.
To find out more about this teaching sequence, and gain access to the resources needed to bring it to life, please join us for our annual conference, Love That Book, on the 6th February 2019 where this text will be the focus of one of the many text-based workshops on offer.
A resource to support this unit, showing how model text can be aligned to the NC 2014 PoS for each year group (EYFS to Y6), can be purchased from the Herts for Learning online shop: Models for writing.