Breakfast in my house today:
“Dad, that cloud looks like a spaceship!” said one twin, munching her way through a slice of toast.
“Where?” I said bemused.
“Outside. In the sky. That cloud looks like a spaceship.”
“Are you sure? Looks like a face to me.”
“Look, there’s the wing and that’s the top of it,” smiled a marmite covered child.
“Oh yeah. I see it now.”
In teaching, there are so many different ways that something can be interpreted. What is an outstanding lesson to one person may be a poor lesson to another individual. I am particularly haunted by my experience of teaching a student in my PGCE year and a difference of interpretations. The child, I was teaching, was the son of a teacher – an English teacher - and he didn't say much in lessons. Anyway, I was teaching a class of A-level students a text for an exam about a play. I worked day and night to do my best , yet this child muttered to the class that his dad had informed him that he wouldn’t have taught the text in the way I was doing. This left me broken. Did I change my ways and try the other teacher's ways? No, because I felt that my way was right for the class I was teaching. He didn’t know the class.
I have heard the phase ‘I wouldn’t do that if I was you’ often in my teaching career when referring to lesson ideas. I am not a ‘crazy’ teacher that has students standing on tables like the ‘Dead Poets Society’ but I have done some things that some people would view as unorthodox. Once, I brought shadow puppets to one school and performed ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Jabberwocky’ to Year 7. Jabberwocky - that's fine. The Ancient Mariner - are you mad? But, I think that is what is so great about teaching is how we interpret the same things differently. Whereas one person will see a poem as being the perfect excuse for writing another poem, another may see it as an excuse to create a bit of drama.
It is with this issue that I come to ‘Of Mice and Men’. Even as a type this, somebody somewhere is asking a class to draw a picture of a setting in ‘Of Mice and Men’. Oh, and they are labelling it too. Now, for most English teachers, this is a particular regular task to do with the novel and it is one I shall shortly do as I am currently teaching a Year 10 class John Steinbeck’s book, but I want to know what things other teachers have they done with the text that I haven't done. How have they interpreted the teaching of it? What have they seen about the book that I could try using in my lesson?
The Internet is brilliant for resources, but I rarely use any of them. That’s not because I am a snob. It is because I am more interested with the ideas than the resources. What have they done differently? How could I adapt that in my teaching of a different text? When planning, I often pool resources off the Internet and then I look and pick ideas. Teaching English is an idiosyncratic thing. I don’t teach in the same way that my neighbouring teacher does or someone else in another school. Try teaching from someone else’s SOW. It isn’t easy. We all have our own style and approach and it is mainly down to our interpretation. I only hope that Ofsted sees this and understands this. I know that my way of teaching something isn’t the only way. It is one way among others and I want Ofsted to embody this notion. We should never have a one way fits all method in teaching, which is what the new EBacc or the Gove qualification, as I call it, suggests is the way we are going.
Back to ‘Of Mice and Men’, this is what I usually do with the novel. See if any of it is familiar:
· Analyse the opening
· Explore the relationship between George and Lennie by analysing their conversation
· Write down the different characters introduced in the second chapter and write down notes about how they are presented
· Write a diary entry from one of the characters
· Draw the bunkhouse
· Close analysis of one or two scenes
· Explore the context by watching BBC context video
· Rank the characters in terms status and power
· Some hot seating of key characters
· Explore the use of themes
· Compare the ending description of the brush with the opening description
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it is a list to give you an idea of some of the things I usually do. Last year, I felt that things were a bit flat. The students were enjoying things, but I just felt something was missing, so I decided I’d start messing about and tried being a bit creative. So, what did I do?
Used PropsAs a parent and a teacher that helps organise the school play, I have access to loads of props and toys. Therefore, I decided to use props in the reading of the book. If a student was reading Candy’s lines, they would hold a toy dog as they read the lines said by the character. I managed to find a number of props so each character could have a prop to hold, use or wear. It became a great laugh as students waited for props to be revealed: the items were only revealed when the character was introduced in the novel.
This made the students aware of Steinbeck’s use of objects and symbols in the novel. Plus, it became a great way to establish the different characters visually. All students knew that Lennie carried a mouse and that Slim wore a hat. It also became a fun game as they tried to guess what prop I’d use for the character and they loved the idea of having a something different.
Word of warning: I don’t think this would apply to every book. I can’t imagine ‘Pride and Prejudice’ working with this, unless you have access to fifteen different coloured bonnets. What colour bonnet do you think Jane Bennett should wear?
The TitleThis happened by mistake, but a very happy mistake. In the past, I have always looked at the relevance of the title, after reading the novel. However, this year, I decided to look at it when analysing the first description of Lennie and George. I simply said: ‘If the title reflects the character, which character is the mouse?’. There followed a lengthy conversation about Lennie being a mouse because of his behaviour and George being a mouse because of his size.
I then carried this on with each character as they were introduced in the book. If George is a mouse, what will Candy be? A tortoise, according to one class. This was because of his age and his inability to do things well and effectively - unlike others in the ranch. This carried on and I got suggestions for Curley(terrier), Curley’s wife (peacock), Slim (panda), the Boss (lion) and Crooks (a donkey). Some suggestions were hilarious and some were really profound. Some suggestions were strange, but students seemed to love suggesting an animal and offering a symbolic interpretation of the character. The best so far has to be Crooks. One student suggested a donkey for him. Then another piped up and said, “It is because he looks like a horse but he isn’t one and he knows it.” I loved it as the students were doing something that Steinbeck does throughout the book – using animal imagery to create meaning.
CirclesThis is something I found in book a long time ago, and in another school. It’s complex idea about a character’s personality being represented by circles. The character’s personality is represented by a large circle and all the circles inside it represent different parts of them. Their thoughts. Their fears. Their dreams. The larger the circle, the larger the thing is to their personality. If the circle is near the outside, it can be seen on the outside of the person in their behaviour or body language. If the circle is near the middle, then it will not be seen – it is hidden and secret.
It is quite a hard thing to do as it takes a lot of thought and emotional maturity, but when explored and developed it makes for some interesting conversations. One example I had was about Candy’s worthlessness. Is it something we can see openly? Or, does he keep it secret? This gave one group a 10 minute conversation. Now, that conversation was created by the circles. I wasn’t responsible for that discussion and it would have taken ages to repeat a similar one in class by asking questions. This works, I think, with a particular bright class or a class that is quite happy to be creative.
First hexagons and now circles - whatever next? Diamonds - Oh, done that with diamond ranking! I am running out of new uses for shapes.
PoemsAgain this idea wasn’t my own, but it created a great task and some interesting discussion. The students created a poem about the brush in the opening chapter by only using words in the first few pages.
Warm twinkling over the yellow sands
It made for one of those fun lessons exploring the choice of language indirectly by selecting and reorganising the text. The students loved it and it produced some interesting results as students changed the emphasis on certain things.
Thanks to @missjillyteach for the suggestion of using http://www.piclits.com/compose_dragdrop.aspx?PoemTemplateId=508 this idea.
Thanks to @missjillyteach for the suggestion of using http://www.piclits.com/compose_dragdrop.aspx?PoemTemplateId=508 this idea.
A Bit of DickensSeveral years ago, I taught ‘Oliver Twist’ to a group of students before teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’, and, this meant that I often used their knowledge of Dickens as a point of comparison, when exploring the text. Students were able to see how Steinbeck worked hard to create realism and Dickens worked hard to create theatrical and iconic characters. As a result of this, I now compare Steinbeck with a description of a character from a Dickens novel all the time. It makes some great similarities and differences.
Characternyms Nicknames symbolise character
One or two characteristics exaggerated One unique characteristic
Written for comedy Written for sympathy
Evil characters are obvious Evil characters are not obvious
Narrator informs reader of character’s No narrator
thoughts and feelings
I have quickly summarised the general points, but you can see clearly how they differ. The students then discussed why Steinbeck made these choices about the characters. I found the whole experience fun as it meant that I was expanding students reading and exploring texts rather than just feature spotting.
Treating the Book as a Mystery
See my blog called 'Teaching the Novel'.
A ChartI started teaching the novel with a big display. It had villain and victim written at the top. As we progressed through the book, I moved a character’s name, based on a student's suggestion, on the display from victim to villain or villain to victim. I found this really useful as it placed the categorising the characters at the middle of the learning. Students were able to see how complex the story was in terms of characterisation. Characters that started as villains became victims and characters that started as villains became victims. It was amazing seeing where the dog ended up on the chart! And some people were in the middle, neither victim or villain.
It didn't look like a spaceship!
I could have looked at that cloud all day long and still not found a spaceship. My daughter saw it and pointed it out for me. I think talking to teachers and other people is so helpful; it allows us to see the new ways of doing things or new interpretations of the same text. I dare you to post a question or issue on Twitter and see what happens. I did it not so long ago; I needed some poems about the experience of childhood, and within minutes I had some new poems I never heard of and some ideas of how to teach them. Twitter is brilliant for this sort of thing.
Thanks for reading,
P.S. I know you are thinking about Slim being a panda. Crazy, I know. Well, the students thought that he was popular, like pandas, and very strong, like pandas. It wasn't the first animal I would have thought of for Slim. However, it was an interesting one!
People have been giving me some new ideas for teaching 'Of Mice and Men'. Here are a few:
- For chapter four, the teacher pulls items out of a bag that are featured in the room. Students guess what each one suggests about the character of Crooks. Thanks, @hgaldinoshea.
- This happened by accident, but one person found students comparing Chris Brown and Rhianna with Curley and Curley's wife quite fruitful - it is my starter tomorrow. Thanks, MissJlud.
- Fran offered this great idea - Which one would you...? Students had to pick the best student for going to a party, for example.
- Pick some pictures of actors, preferably unknown or not popular actors. Students have to decide the best actor to play a part.
- There is also the obvious the balloon debate. Which character is the least important?
- Design the set for the stage play version of the story.
- Compare a page from OMAM with a page from another Steinbeck book. What are the similarities? Identify his writing style.
- Rewrite a page from the book and tell it from a first-person perspective. Get inside a character.
- This I did recently. I am saving the opening a as poem for later, so the first time we read the brush description I got students to rewrite it. I said I wanted them to make it better. They could only change the odd word or add a phrase. We discussed the changes and explored why Steinbeck made his original choices. Great for getting them engaged with the writing from the start.
- Thanks to @digitaldaisies for this one. As well as using the BBC Learning Zone's video on context, use pictures from: www.multimedialibrary.com/framesml/im13/im13.asp
Please let me know of new idea and I will add them to this list.