The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Bridge to Terabithia

If I have done nothing else this year, I hope to have at least passed on my passion for reading to my students. I love to read and I love to share what I read and what I have read with those in my class. Throughout the year, I have read a variety of books aloud to my class. Most of the time,  I have given them the option to either read along with me or to work quietly on other tasks as I read. As we got to the end of the year, I changed the options to read along with me or just listen to the story.

We started the year with Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Then I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler followed by Over Sea, Under Stone. This was followed by Holes and, most recently, Bridge to Terabithia. (I hope I have those in the right order; I think I do.) As we have read, we have talked about the stories, made predictions, and shared connections to the text. I have also paused in reading to help my students decode the meaning of unusual or unfamiliar words and phrases.

For Bridge to Terabithia, though, I did things a little differently. For one, I had everyone in the class read along with me. I did this for many reasons, but the main reason was simply that I love this book, I first read it in fourth grade, and I wanted every student in my class to have had the opportunity to read it. Another reason was simply that I wanted everyone paying attention to the story and I knew they would if they didn’t have any other books or projects to distract them.

Several of my students have seen the 2007 movie adaption of this story, and a few others had read it, so I didn’t ask for predictions about what would come next as we read. I did ask the boys and girls to think about personal connections to the text. I emphasised throughout the reading that Terabithia is a happy story, and I wanted them to think about why that was. We talked a lot about our relationships with siblings, especially younger siblings, or the younger siblings of friends. We talked about Jesse Aarons (the main character of the story) and his younger sister May Belle, who idolises her big brother and struggles with his friendship with Leslie Burke (the other main character of the story). The students were very involved in the read of the book, and so we read through almost an entire chapter every day. I think this also marked the quickest completion of a story we have had since the beginning of the year, seeing as it took about two weeks total from start to finish.

So why do I think that Bridge to Terabithia is a happy story? If you’ve never read it, I would recommend stopping here and reading the story before finishing, because I’m going to give away the ending.

Bridge to Terabithia is not really a story about the tragic death of a young girl, although that is very much a part of it. It isn’t even so much the story of a young boy learning to face his self-doubts, although that, too, it very much a part of the story. For me, it is the story of an older brother coming to understand his relationship with his younger sister and allowing her to be a part of his life, rather than a spectator.

I have a confession to make: I don’t cry; at least, not very often. From December 30, 2000 to somewhere in April or May of 2006, I don’t think I actually cried once. (Don’t ask why I remember the December 30 date. I just do.) The first time I cried during all that long time was sitting outside the College of Education building at the University of Illinois reading, yep, you guessed it: Bridge to Terabithia. I hadn’t read the book for a long time, but as I read it then, I began to cry. Happy tears. Because of the ending. Not because Leslie died, but because Jesse brought his sister, May Belle, into Terabithia and introduced her as the new queen. (The second time I cried after that was when watching Freedom Writers in a theatre while visiting friends in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.)

I was actually worried that I would break down while reading Terabithia to my class this afternoon, but I managed to make it through the book. It is wonderfully sweet and touching and moving in a way that I have a hard time explaining. I think it is mostly because Jesse and May Belle remind me of my relationships with my two younger sisters. I can’t help but think of them, especially my baby sister, who is now 17 years old and in college, when I read the ending of the actual bridge to Terabithia.

After I finished the book, I asked my class again to think about what I had told them at the beginning, about this being a happy story, and then I had them write a quick response. Most of them seemed to understand the point I made, about Bridge to Terabithia being about the bridge, and not the death. I am so proud of my students and their ability to handle tough issues, like death, loss, grief, and family relationships. I don’t think they could have done this at the beginning of the year but now they have all grown and shown a willingness and a desire to rise to the level of the expectations that are set for them.

Now to figure out what book (or books) to wrap up the year with!


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