Archives For Of Mice and Men

The English I Honors teacher in my department recently suffered a serious concussion; no reading or writing for several weeks. Her classes must go on, however, and the new unit on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is next in the curriculum.  A long term substitute is scheduled for next week, and the students could easily read the novel before her arrival.

Moreover, there is a packet of information and worksheets in the file cabinet with background information on the 1930s and the author, John Steinbeck. The practice of providing such a lengthy introduction, however, is associated with “over-teaching”, a practice now discouraged in the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. In statewide tests students will have to meet the standards of the Common Core, and they will encounter texts from many different sources. The recommendation is that students should practice “close reading” where they can independently mine the language of the text for meaning:

“Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally” (ELA Common Core)

The 9th graders could be staggering indeed; they have just completed a unit on Greek tragedy using Oedipus the King. Some students might suffer whiplash in the jump from 5th Century BCE Ancient Greece to 20th Century California in the Salinas Valley. There needed to be a powerful “bridge” to prepare students for this leap in time and ensuing debate between free will and fate.  What could be accomplished without the teacher directed lecture, especially if the teacher is not available? What format could saturate students in an environment of the 1930s?

A few minutes of research on YouTube provided an answer; I could have a substitute show students several versions of the Bing Crosby’s song recording of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s anthem for the Great Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

The historical accuracy of some of the photos in this first rendition may be questionable, but the message of an average man’s struggle to find employment in the early 1930s is made very clear. The second version below is a sing-a-long-version that is particularly good as a karaoke opportunity. After watching the first version, all students sang along, some with more gusto than others, following Crosby’s cadence in the second version:

After singing, the students reviewed the lyrics:

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”

lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Why don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

These lyrics provided students an opportunity to “close read” the context of the Great Depression, particularly in the lyrics “Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell” and “Half a million boots went slogging through Hell.” While they understood that after the stock market crash there were unemployed men who had helped in the building of railroads and towers, more than one student made the connection that there are currently soldiers who have returned from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan who have not found employment either. Their brief discussion was enough to set up Steinbeck’s tale of Lennie and George, who share a dream of finding employment to be independent farmers raising rabbits.

Once the background was established, students could then read the novel independently, the way the Common Core recommends in the reading standards. Additionally, the long-term substitute can now complete the leap from classical to contemporary tragedy without having to dwell on historical context. The only downside might be getting rid of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”… a song-worm now in their brains!

Spoiler alertEnter the spoiler alert. Because the number of ways people hear about stories is increasing, spoiler alerts for books and films are offered as a “heads-up”, a means to prevent plot details from becoming public.  Knowing the end of a story might mean that the strategy of “predicting” a story has been compromised, however, there are genres of stories that absolutely count on predictability, for example, Nancy Drew will always solve a mystery with her best friend, Bess and George, while on TV, predictability has a time limit; the shipwrecked crew will never leave Gilligan’s Island (30 mins) and House will solve a medical mystery (60 mins).

Predictability means to state, tell about, or make known in advance, especially on the basis of special knowledge, and students are taught at an early age that making predictions can help them to determine what will happen in a story.

I noticed how predictions are important even if the end has already been decided when my six-year-old niece was watching the Disney film Running Brave. This was her favorite film, and she watched the VHS tape every afternoon. On one such afternoon, I noticed she was drifting asleep, so I made a move to turn off the video.

“Wait,” she cried out, “I think….I think he’s going to win again.”

From her perspective, the outcome of the race was still in doubt. The cinematic elements, the tight editing of shots , and a triumphant soundtrack created suspense where the viewer might doubt the inevitable. Krista had seen the movie hundreds of times, but she still was “testing” her prediction.

I admit that I have felt the same way watching Miracle, holding my breath for the final seconds wondering if the US ice hockey team would still win the Olympic medal. Krista’s experience is also mirrored in the classes where students often choose books based on a movie that they have seen.

In the independent reading allowed in our curriculum, the 9th graders can choose contemporary fiction or non-fiction, and many of the titles have movies in circulation, for example:

Some students purposefully choose these books because they know the endings, and in knowing how the book ends allows the reader to pay more attention to the craft of the author in bringing all the plot points together in a conclusion. Take for example, the Harry Potter series. Most readers predicted with certainty that Harry Potter would finally face his nemesis, Voldemort. The how and when, however, were still very much in the air, and J.K.Rowling’s crafting of the series’s magical settings and character development kept readers in a willing suspension of disbelief for the length of seven volumes. The final conclusion was satisfying to her fans who knew all along that Harry would prevail, after all, Good’s triumph over Evil is a predictable plot. Readers and filmgoers were not disappointed in following the story of a boy with the scar on his forehead because in each volume and subsequent film release, they correctly predicted that “I think…I think he will win again.”

So when I teach a whole class novel, I know there are some students who already know the ending. They may have reached the conclusion before others, or been informed by older students who notoriously share their opinions and critical information with younger students. In this case, my role is to impress on students that knowing the outcome will not destroy a well-told story, and to focus their attention on the other elements. This was the case with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

“I heard this is a sad book,” one student said when I assigned the first chapter, “One guy kills another guy.”
Other students looked up for my confirmation.
“Yes, this is a sad book, but the reason for the sadness is really about caring. We will grow to care for these characters.”
“I already don’t care if I already know what happens,” was his reply.
Four weeks later, this student refused to watch the final scene in the film version.
“I know what happens, and I cannot watch,” he said sadly as he walked out into the hall.

The same sentiments are expressed at the beginning of our study of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“Guess what? They die,” said a student as I passed out the books.
“Yes, they die,” I kept passing out the copies.
“So why are reading this?” another asked.
“Because this is a great story,” I responded, “and the story’s ending will mean more after we finish because we will have read how Shakespeare writes about these ‘star-cross’d lovers’.”
“But we already know how it ends!” they whined.

Now that we are in Act III, no one cares that they know the end, instead, they are recognizing how Shakespeare creates the tragedy. They notice the “hints”: Juliet seeing Romeo “As one dead in the bottom of a tomb”, Friar Lawrence’s herbs of “Violent delights”, and “Love devouring death”.

This discovery of an author’s details makes students more appreciative of the craft in writing as they still try to predict. They notice Shakespeare’s allusions: “Such a wagoner/As Phaeton would whip you to the west/And bring in cloudy night immediately” (3.2.2-4), because we had studied the Phaeton myth earlier in the year.

“Uh-oh. That’s not good,” I heard one say, “Romeo’s gonna crash and burn like Phaeton.”

That kind of analysis is exactly what the English Language Arts Common Core would like to see in a close reading of a text. How interesting that students who already know “what happens” may be better at picking up on an author’s craft that a close reading generates.

Spoiler alerts do warn those readers or viewers who want to be surprised, but knowing the ending does not necessarily ruin the reading or viewing experience. Want to experiment? Here are 50 plot spoilers for 50 novels. I predict that each novel will not disappoint, even if you already know the ending.

Our English classrooms have been provided net books to use in class this year, making each classroom  a 1:1 classroom. Teachers have been using these net books for student blogs with seniors, or in responses to literature. The Freshman class was blogging about Of Mice and Men using Google’s Blogger software. The combination of reading with authentic writing was the incentive for one of my New Year’s resolutions in 2012, to improve student blogging beyond the “I like your post” response.

Our 9th grade team blogs are organized across the grade; students from different class periods or with different teachers collaborate as a team on the blog. For this assignment, we developed four journal questions in order to engage the students in discussions related to the universal themes of  Steinbeck’s novel; questions were centered on the ideas of goals, dreams, loneliness, privacy, and companionship. These journals were posted two or three days apart as students read the novel in class during silent sustained reading (SSR) or at home. An audio tape of the book was also available for some students who needed support with reading independently.

In order to begin the discussions, students first needed to post a response to each journal question, then they need to respond to another teammate’s post. Since the goal was to improve student responses to another student’s post, a set of criteria was suggested to help student in their response:

Good Student Response to another student on a blog will be:

  • thoughtful
  • consistently positive
  • respectful

Good Student Response to another student on a blog will also:

  • clearly add to the original discussion (compare, contrast, contribute, ask questions)
  • take advantage of the medium (linking, video, audio)
  • follow the standards of good writing

There were four journal prompts to Of Mice and Men; student responses to another student’s post are below each journal prompt:

Journal One:  What is your hope for life, goal, or even dream?  What do you think you want from the future?  Not the fairytale, but the reality?   What could you live without, dream-wise?  What couldn’t you live without? What matters, what are your priorities?

Patrick, I think your blog is good! It shows that you really want to be stable with your life. That you don’t need big things but you just need the things that make you happy and not stressful. We both don’t want to be stressed out and that’s something that a lot of people don’t want I think!

Sean, I think that my house would be similar to yours. I too would like to live in the woods away from big cities and government. I think it would be great to live in a log cabin style house with a large woodstove too. It would really give off that self dependent feeling, were you would have to chop your own wood, and produce many of your necessities.

Sara, It seems to me that you seem to know what you want to do when you grow up. Well, I have no idea really, so I envy you. I am disappointed to see you would move away from here, I love it here. good luck with all your plans!

Journal Two:  Do you have a pet? a younger sibling or cousin?  If so, describe your feelings and relationship with them.  If not, what do you think it would be like to have them?  How do/would you feel as the one on whom they depend?  How important do you think it is to care for or nuture others?  Do you want to be a mother/father?  Why?  What do you think about the role of parents, brothers, sisters, and family?

Johnny, I think you need to appreciate your sisters a little bit more!! Even though they can be a pain, they’re still always there for you and won’t leave your side.

I am commenting on Regan’s post: She did a very good job, she went into detail about each question such as when she explains how it makes her feel “It makes me feel good when he looks up to me and tries to do stuff that I do because It lets me know that I do have an effect on his life and when he does.” It is simular to mine because our brothers act the same way, she gets along with her brother too and we both have younger brothers.

 I’m commenting on Sara’s…I can definitely relate to when people say they want a sibling and you’re thinking ‘NO WAYYY….’ because they haven’t lived with one their whole life! But I’m also the same way with how I realize that I do have an effect on my little brother’s life and choices… it just wakes you up and helps you make good decisions.
Journal Three:    How important is privacy and space to you?  Can having privacy get too much like being lonely?  What about being with people all the time?  Which is worse, being always with or always without others?  How much alone vs. social time do YOU need?  Why?  When do you most need each (alone/social)?

I agree with you, Zach. Like when I was around mt best friend. We did EVERYTHING together. At first, it didn’t really bother either one of us. We where content always being in each others business. We knew EVERYTHING about each other. And by accident one of us (not saying who), spilled a big secret. That’s why it’s not a good idea to be around the same person ALL the time!

Riley I think your take on privacy is very good. I agree with you about how there are times that you dont want to be around people and if you are it can be annoying and distracting at a time where you’re trying to do your homework. What are some times that you do like being around people? Would you rather be alone or with someone else? Overall, you did a good job, those are just some things you could have included.
Journal Four:  What would you do to avoid losing your dream?  Are dreams easy to replace?  What would life be like if you didn’t have a goal, dream, or hope?  Can others take away your dream or not?
I am responding to Taylor’s blog. I have similar dreams to Taylor’s, how I dream of what I like to do. I dream a lot about going to the beach with my friends. Also I agree with Taylor’s thought of dreams being “easily replaceable”. I think that some dreams are hard to replace if they mean a great deal to you. Other than that dreams come and go very often. I also agree with Taylor that life without goals will not be very boring and you would not have anything to achieve!
 Agreed, Emily. I haven’t really thought about it that way, but after hearing your opinion, I have to say, I agree. If your dream doesn’t come true, it means that your destiny lies somewhere else. Unfortunately, destiny rules over dreams. Just like with Lennie, it wasn’t his destiny to “tend to the rabbits”, he was too strong and dumb to do that.
Ultimately, there has been some improvement in student responses on the blog. Many students wrote thoughtful responses which indicates that they understood that simply praising another writer’s blog was not sufficient. Students did like reading the post responses, however, I was actually surprised how empowered some of the students became and did not anticipate how seriously they would enforce the criteria in the original posts.
The only problem I see here is that you did not describe how you look up to your family… Everything else is very well done. I see no errors in spelling and no errors with how you described the way they acts, but remember to try and stay on topic” 
Your blog was good but it was not 200 words and it needs more detail so you should answer more questions in your blog to make it flow and so you make it longer and to answer the question more clearly.”
One month into the New Year 2012, and the 9th grade students are improving their ability to respond on a blog with something other than “good work!”
I’d say that is “great work”…but I obviously need to improve on my response!