Lessons from a Garden Spider

By Kate Lyman

Illustrator: Roxanna Bikadoroff

Illustration: Roxanna Bikadoroff

“You’re the best teacher in the whole world,” said Maisee,* as she hugged me. Actually, it wasn’t I who was “the best teacher,” it was our new guest, a strikingly beautiful black and yellow garden spider.

Juan had found the spider in the bushes outside our classroom door, and I had set her on a wooden frame on a bookcase in my third-grade classroom. Overnight, she had made a dazzling symmetrical orb web. My students watched in amazement as the spider pounced on a grasshopper and quickly wrapped it in silk. The “awesomes!” soon overtook the “ewwws!” as the students watched the spider feast on the grasshopper’s blood.

In the few weeks that Charlotte (as my students named her) graced my classroom, the students learned many lessons from her. They learned about the web of life, the interdependence of predator and prey. Many changed their relationship to spiders from one of fear to one of respect.

They learned about the sad, yet ever-renewing cycle of life. They also learned many facts about spiders, their body structures, and their different habitats and mechanisms of survival. And in a world that will lose about a quarter of its wildlife in the next decade, I believe that observing and caring for one single spider helped us bridge the gap between the human and natural worlds.

Charlotte was an excellent team teacher. How could she have known that I had planned to do a lesson on food webs on the day that she first demonstrated her insect trapping skills to us? (See sidebar.)

As I watched my students hard at work on creating food web drawings, I thanked Charlotte for having provided a real-life demonstration of the concept. Teaching through words-even with the aid of illustrations in books-just didn’t work with this class where 10 out of 14 of my students are learning English as a second language. (Six have Spanish as a first language, two have Hmong, one Khmer, and one Albanian.)

My classroom reflects the increasing diversity and pockets of poverty in areas of Madison, a city more commonly known as a white, well-off university town. About 60 percent of my school’s families live on incomes below the poverty level, with about the same percentage from minority groups and about 22 percent English Language Learners (ELLs). Most of the ELLs are pulled out for 45 minutes a day for English as a Second Language (ESL) support. An ESL teacher works in the classroom during math instruction, but the support doesn’t begin to meet their individual needs.

Not surprisingly, as the school year began, only five of my students were reading at grade level, and they all scored low on district tests. As I went over my class’s test scores with my principal, I was reminded that more tests were looming: the third-grade writing sample and the Wisconsin Third Grade Reading Test. I thought of all the standards that I was expected to meet.

I felt overwhelmed by the challenge of meeting the standards and bringing my students’ test scores up while at the same time making school meaningful for them and inspiring them to learn.

The challenge of teaching diverse learners is multiplied by the testing regimes and the standards that give teachers little freedom to adapt the content and methods of their teaching to meet their students’ needs. For example, our district now requires us to teach science through “FOSS” (Full Option Science System, developed by the University of California at Berkeley and published by Delta Education). It’s a packaged program, complete with teacher training videos, step-by-step lessons, and packaged materials. We are supposed to teach science exclusively through FOSS and strictly adhere to the format of its lessons.

FOSS does have some advantages: Teachers find it helpful for teaching an area of science in which they may not have expertise. It also provides a structure and materials for beginning teachers. But many of us dislike the packaged, scripted manner in which FOSS is presented. I think it doesn’t provide enough opportunities for the students to engage in genuine inquiry. I have found the FOSS units relating to natural science particularly objectionable.

For instance, the third grade FOSS “Structures of Life” kit attempts to teach some of the same concepts that Charlotte and I were introducing, but they remove living creatures from their natural habitats and use them as subjects of experimentation. One lesson I taught in this FOSS module explored the concept of habitat through crayfish that came shipped in boxes (many dead on arrival). We were supposed to store them in plastic dishpans, with plastic bowls for their “shelters,” and feed them aquatic plants and cat food.

The plastic bowls proved to be a very unsuitable habitat, as the crayfish proceeded to eat each other. This wasn’t part of the planned FOSS curriculum, but the students and I discovered through further research a fact that was only briefly mentioned in my guide. When crayfish molt, they need to hide under rocks until their shells harden. Otherwise, they fall victim to predators, which, in our inadequate habitat, turned out to be other crayfish. This in itself would have been a great opportunity for further exploration. Looking back, I wish I had pursued the matter further. I could have encouraged the students to write to the creators of FOSS. At the time, I was happy only to separate the crayfish that had molted and to spare my students from coming to school to discover more half-eaten bodies.

Further on in the module (which, after the crayfish disaster, I decided to skip) students are directed to “harness” snails with thread and duct tape and attach the thread to paper clips and metric weights. The expressed aim of the lesson-“to investigate the pulling strength of land snails”-seemed to be in direct conflict with the first goal presented in the introduction to the kit, to “develop an attitude of respect for life.” I read through this lesson several times with horror. I could not figure out its purpose. When students are finished with the snail experiments, teachers are advised (if they cannot keep the snails or find another teacher who needs to use them) to “euthanize” the snails by putting them in a freezer. (“Terminate” is the euphemism used in other FOSS kits containing living creatures.) The FOSS guide warns teachers that students might ask where the snails went. Its recommendation? “Tell them that you returned them to the place where they came from. Let them extract from that what they will.”

Charlotte, on the other hand, was a respected guest in our classroom. My class knew that she was borrowed from the bushes outside our classroom and that our plan was to return her. Never once did I see a student poke at her or disrupt her web creations. When students from other classrooms or my students’ brothers and sisters came to visit Charlotte, my students taught them how to treat Charlotte with respect. My class became concerned about our spider’s welfare at our school’s Open House, when many families would be visiting with younger children.

Emily volunteered to write a warning note, which she taped to the bookcase:

Charlotte here! This is a garden spider. The garden spider’s name is Charlotte. Don’t move the bookcase or the spider might fall. Charlotte is very kind. Do not touch her web. She made it to catch flies for our classroom. Don’t take nothing from the bookcase. Don’t touch the spider or she thinks you will hurt her. Please stay back. And her favorite food is grasshoppers.

In the next several weeks, as we continued to observe Charlotte, we learned about many different kinds of spiders through books and videos. Juan, a low reader and extremely reluctant writer, went through a small transformation after finding Charlotte. Even the teacher across the hall remarked at how he came to school every day with a smile on his face. Every day during independent reading time, I’d find Juan reading spider books. And now he was writing four or five sentences at a time about spiders.

We learned about a garden spider’s life cycle. Charlotte again came through by laying her eggs and weaving an egg sac. There was some controversy over what to do with the egg sac.

“Let’s keep it in our room,” suggested Chou. “Then in the spring, we’ll have a whole bunch of baby spiders in our room!”

“No!” protested several students. Much as they appreciated Charlotte’s company, several objected to having hundreds of spiders running around our classroom. Lilly suggested we place the egg sac back on the bushes where Juan found Charlotte so her babies would be born there. But other students worried that kids from the school might disturb the egg sac. Eventually, we agreed to bring the egg sac to the Aldo Leopold Center, a nature preserve that we had visited on a class field trip.

Charlotte’s Exit

The students knew from our studies that after creating her egg sac, the garden spider dies. At the start of every day they ran over to the wooden frame to see how Charlotte was faring. She surprised us by weaving a few more webs and continuing to eat grasshoppers. But then she moved to the corner of the frame and stayed there for several days. What Rosita wrote at that point proved that my students’ connection with Charlotte transcended language barriers. Rosita is able to read and write in Spanish but knows only a few words in English. Because most of the instruction is in English, Rosita rarely appeared to be paying attention. But she was paying attention to Charlotte.

This is what Rosita contributed to our class newsletter:

Tenemos una araña en la clase que se llama Charlotte. Es una araña de jardin. Ella atrapó saltamontes y los envolvió con su telerana. Charlotte ya tuvo sus huevos. Charlotte hizo una bolsita para que los metiera sus huevos. Charlotte ya no está en la tela que hizo. Charlotte está en la esquina. Charlotte ya no tiene el color amarillo. Ahora el color que tiene es gris. Charlotte no se mueve de su telarana. Charlotte se va a morir cuando nacen los huevos.

We have a spider in the class whose name is Charlotte. She is a garden spider. She catches grasshoppers and wraps them with her web. Charlotte already laid her eggs. Charlotte made a little bag to put her eggs in. Charlotte is no longer in the web that she made. She is in the corner. Charlotte is no longer yellow. She is gray. She doesn’t move from her web. Charlotte is going to die when her babies are born.

Rosita’s observations were borne out the next morning.

“Oh no, Charlotte is dying!” moaned Maisee.

“Look at her color. She is turning gray,” noted Chou.

“She’s getting smaller,” said Juan. “Why is she getting smaller?” Several students gently touched Charlotte.

“She is officially dead,” concluded Lilly. Several moans and many sighs followed.

“Our only spider!” said Maisee.

“She was a good trapper,” added Emily. “We will need to bury her.”

Emily put herself in charge of the funeral arrangements, labeling a small casket (an earring box), “Are best friend.” Emily and Maisee drew pictures of Charlotte to be placed by her grave. Lilly wrote her gravestone inscription: “Here Lays Charlotte. Room 27’s Spider!” We discussed where to bury her. Juan said that she should be buried outside of our classroom, near the bushes where he found her. We planned the burial for the next day. At the end of the day, Chou ran to his locker and pulled a wilted bouquet of purple flowers from his backpack. Selfishly mistaking his intentions, I took the bouquet and thanked him. “Are they from your garden?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered. Then he added shyly, “They’re for Charlotte’s grave.”

The next day, we had Charlotte’s funeral. Twice, by student request, we passed the box around the circle as students gravely inspected the dead spider. That afternoon, the class watched as I dug a hole and placed the box under the dirt. Lilly taped her eulogy to a tongue depressor and placed it in the dirt. Emily and Maisee added pictures that they had drawn of Charlotte. “So we’ll always remember her,” said Maisee. Denitra thanked Charlotte for being part of our class. “Thank you for teaching us how you spin webs and how you catch grasshoppers. You were a nice spider. We will miss you.” We went around the circle. One student at a time thanked Charlotte.

Denitra asked to speak again, “And I hope your babies will be born here and make their own webs.”

I have no doubt that Charlotte helped teach my class our district’s science standards relating to “characteristics of organisms” and “life cycles of organisms.”

She also engaged my students in learning and inspired them to expand their reading and writing abilities. Even after her burial, students continued to write about Charlotte.

Charlotte has even helped me teach multiplication, since story problems about multiple legs have endless possibilities.

Looking Forward

Where do I go from here? Moving on from studying spiders to insects, we will compare and contrast the body structures, behaviors, and life cycles of a variety of insects. Although I will use some lesson plans and student sheets from FOSS, we will observe the insects in the schoolyard and only borrow living things that we can return.

We will not limit our studies of insects to observations and worksheets. Instead we will learn and share our learning through literature and videos, visual arts, music, and drama.

As the weather gets colder, I will continue to have guest animals in my classroom. But they will be homeless companion animals from the Humane Society instead of wild creatures. Most of my students live in apartments and few can have pets, so the opportunity to get acquainted with and care for a pet is a unique and exciting experience for them. (So far, I’ve been the only one with allergy problems.)

We will further explore life cycles as we examine human beings from birth to death, and we will share and write about our own personal and cultural histories. We will continue our examination of nature’s cycles by studying the moon and its phases.

Later in the year, we will return to topics relating to life and environmental science. Charlotte has taught my class to care deeply about the fate of one spider. I could easily see those feelings transferring to a project of saving an endangered species or lobbying to preserve a local wetlands habitat.

Charlotte has also taught me many lessons. She has taught me not to underestimate my students. They will improve their reading and writing. They will learn multiplication and science concepts.

With motivation, trust, and classroom experiences that touch them as deeply as Charlotte did, my students will learn. As our spider’s namesake in E.B. White’s book points out, spiders are “naturally patient.” They know that if they construct a well-designed web and wait long enough, their efforts will pay off. Teachers have a lot to learn from spiders.

Kate Lyman (clyman@madison.k12.wi.us) teaches third grade at Hawthorne Elementary School in Madison, Wis.

*All students’ names have been changed.