Saturday, 30 November 2013

Preparing for the end

It is that time of year again! No, not Christmas. I mean the seasonal regeneration of Doctor Who. Like the makers of ‘Downton Abbey’  and ‘Eastenders’, there seems to be nothing more Christmassy than a death*.  It could be a psychological trick to make us feel happy. You might be bloated with a combination of Roses’ chocolates and sprouts (Did I ever tell you they were sexy?), but at least you are not dead. Or, maybe on a far deep-rooted level: the death of a well-known character in a show displaces and embodies the secret feelings we have towards an annoying relative. You may be stuck in a living room listening to an uncle or aunt fart and spout rubbish at you, but there on the shining television is a character that if you close your eyes you could imagine taking the form of your uncle or aunt.

Anyway, the Doctor is being bumped off and while I am waiting for the inevitable to happen I was thinking about the ending of novels, and in particular how we deal with the ending of a novel in lessons.   I teach and have taught lots of novels and plays and the ending is always an interesting thing to concentrate on in lessons. It is the culmination of everything you have done. It is the showstopper. It is the climax. It is a make or break moment. You often love or hate a book, film or novel based on the ending.  We always hear: ‘It was a great film apart from the ending.’ Or: ‘Wow- what an ending. I can’t possibly say why, but you have to watch it for the ending’.  In fact, I have become one of those sad people that are the last to leave a cinema, because somewhere in the credits there will be another ending tagged on that is ‘like amazing’.

For an English teacher, the ending has become a tactical nightmare. My opening talk on ‘Of Mice and Men’ is like the opening of ‘The Fight Club’:

The first rule of reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that you don’t look at the last page or chapter.

The second rule of reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that you don’t talk to a student in another class who has read the novel.

The third rule of reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that you don’t talk to your parents about reading the book, as they will probably have read it.

The fourth rule of reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that you don’t type the words ‘Of Mice and Men’ on any search engine.

The fifth rule of reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that you don’t mention anything, if you find out, about how the story ends.

The sixth rule of reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that you don’t discuss the book or these rules.

I know: it is all a bit convoluted. I should just say: ‘George kills Lennie, but you don’t know why, so let’s read the book.’ But I don’t. Instead I have this tightrope act of balancing between spoilers and secrecy. Usually, a crafty student discovers the ending and plants massive hints when we predict future events in the novel.  This is further evidence for teaching a wider variety of books at GCSE.

I hear of legends where students have openly cried in lessons over the ending of a novel.  Mine just cry with relief that they can talk about the ending, which they have known of since the first lesson.  It seems that everybody knows because Tim shouted it out on the bus home.

So what do you do when they have finished reading the book then? Well, here a just a few things that I do, or have done in the past.

Rapid Reactions
This is something that I have used again and again with endings.  All too often we have a big intelligent question to ask students when we finish a book and we neglect the emotive response to the ending.  When I close the book, I ask students to not talk and just fill in the sheet of paper, explaining I want their first impressions.

The sheet usually has the following things on it:

Event that sums up the novel:

Greatest scene:

Realistic moment:

Wasted opportunity:

Character you empathise with the most:

Character you loved to hate:

Character most like you:  

One thing you would improve:

Best line:

The beauty of this is that it always generates discussions. And the most surprising of things are found. I did this recently with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and I was surprised that when a student said they thought the visit to the church was the most important scene.  She was right as it was a symbol of harmony in the novel and that is something we never see in the trial, which is the scene the majority of students picked.  

Evaluate the ending
I used to teach the WJEC GCSE exam and in some ways I hated and loved this question at the same time:

How satisfying is the novel’s conclusion?

For the most able, it was a challenge to justify the resolution by linking it to the structure, language and themes of the text. For the rest, it was a simple task of retelling the story and explaining why the ending was so good – something they thought the Examiner would be happy with, as if he had written the book.  However, with a bit of structure students can achieve a lot with this question.

Rewrite the end
There are several books I wish had a different ending.  A few years ago I got fed up with modern novels and their postmodern ways. I escaped this with Victorian novels.  I just got tired of the silly ways that contemporary novels ended. Trying to be too clever often ended with vague wishy-washy conclusions.  All too often the protagonist was left like they had smelt a fart, looking pensive and worried about the future. Cue the Victorian novel. A nice neat ending with no loose threads.  Baddies punished. Tick. The good guy or woman live happily ever after. Tick.

How different would the novel be if George was killed alongside Lennie?

How different would the novel be if Boo was stabbed at the end of the book?

Making links
Write a brief summary of the ending and get students to work backwards and label it with connections to other sections in the book. Students then easily see mirroring or foreshadowing.

I have done this a few times.  Students fill a shoebox with items that link to the plot. They justify putting the item in and then as a bonus I use the shoebox with another class when we start reading the book for the first time.


Some endings are clearly predictable and they were sign posted from the beginning. Others take you by su………


  1. Have you taught 'Tom's Midnight Garden' at Key Stage 3, Chris? I used to struggle with it because the ending ALWAYS made me cry....

  2. No, I haven't sadly. I can imagine it being a sad one. Just finished 'Two weeks with the Queen' and that is tough. Left quite a few of my Year 7s stunned.

  3. Haha! So here's a brilliant way of going about reading a book. Not only does one enjoy the reading, one may explore aspects attached to the reading as well. I'm definitely trying out the character summary and changing the end part with the book I'm reading currently!

  4. wow.. great... thanks for sharing...


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