Sunday, 28 June 2015

The End of 'Of Mice and Men'

I write this blog with tears in my eyes. Big fat tears are streaming down my cheeks as I contemplate teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’ for the … last…time. Compose yourself, Chris. You can do it. In fact, you can do it!  Again. Next year. Just with Year 9. The lorry that is ‘Of Mice and Men’ is going to be delivered a year or two early for most people.

When I think back to the furore last year about the sudden demise of the novel from the curriculum, I am confused. Part of me adores the book and its subtleties and nuances. Another part of me despises the book because of the exam focus that surrounds it. Then another part of me, because I am a man made of many parts, thinks it is so important that people read the book’s ideas on friendship, disability and outsiders. Finally, a part of me is frustrated that this is the general ‘go to’ book for most teachers when there are others next to it in the stock cupboard. The fact that I have so many conflicting parts is probably one of the reasons I walk funny.

Recently, I sent ‘Of Mice and Men’ off on holiday. For a year, I cleansed my palate with Harper Lees’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Then, I came back to the little old novella I have been teaching for what seems years and I discovered a few things. I don’t think they are mind blowing, but for me, they were gaps in the curtains of something deeper in the novel.

‘those Western magazines ranch men love to read and scoff at and secretly believe’

When looking at the description of the bunkhouse, one student piped up, looking for a way to avoid doing work, ‘Can we watch a Western?’ Usually, I skim over this, but this time, looking for an opportunity to do some more work, I said: ‘Yeah.’ Now, I am not a big fan of Westerns and, to be honest, I have never read one or seen one. Therefore, I got researching.

These points I discovered:

·         There is very little moral ambiguity in the story. The villains and heroes are clear from the start. Often the hero wears a ‘star’. The purpose of the story is to purge the bad elements from the community or story.

·         There is an ongoing battle with nature. The Western tends to set in physically harsh environments. Men try to live in barren and inhospitable places and if they succeed they have beaten nature.

·         They tend set in the furthest reaches of humanity. The further away from mankind you are the closer you are to discovering something new.

·         There is usually a power struggle at the heart of the story. Let’s call it a showdown. Two people have to meet at midday in the centre of town to shoot it out. Only one person can win.

·         There is a big contrast between the barren external environment and the exciting places inside – brothels and bars.

·         Oh yeah. They always feature horses, hats, guns and nice boots.

The simple throwaway comment from a student made me see the novel in a new light. What is the novel’s link to pulp Westerns? They were incredibly common and popular at the time, so people reading the books would have known the reference and the allusions that maybe fly straight over my head.

It is interesting to note that, in way, John Steinbeck’s story can be seen as an ‘anti-Western’ story. The characters aren’t clearly defined as heroes and villains. We are made to feel sympathy for Curley’s wife, and in some ways, Curley. They show unpleasant characteristics in their behaviour, but these usually stem from an insecurity or a fear and not out of pure hared or greed. The heroes commit bad deeds, but for good or misguided reasons.

Then, look at the way that nature is used in the book. Mankind rules nature throughout the story. It farms it and controls it, but the start and opening contain dominant images of nature in control. The world is beautiful yet man is dangerous. Compare this view of nature to that of a Western. The world is ugly and dangerous and man has to fix things and make it habitable.   

We even have a showdown in the form of Curley and Lennie. It isn’t a gun and quickness that defeats the other person. It is pure physical strength. In a Western, the fastest gunslinger is the winner in society. In Soledad, the strongest and smartest is the winner in society. Lennie sadly learns this lesson.

In fact, if you look at the book from a ‘Western’ perspective, you see how the novel is an inversion of the typical cowboy story. It is often commented that Steinbeck worked hard to be realistic with his storytelling. However, I’d suggest that he isn’t being realistic, but writing a Western with humanity. Or, a modern Western.  

There are usually seven types of Western stories.

  1. The Union Pacific story. The plot concerns construction of a railroad, a telegraph line, or some other type of modern technology or transportation. Wagon train stories probably fall into this category.
  2. The ranch story. The plot concerns threats to the ranch from rustlers or large landowners attempting to force out the proper owners.  – Curley clearly fears this happening.
  3. The empire story. The plot might involve building up a ranch empire or an oil empire from scratch, a classic rags-to-riches plot.  – The dream of the farm
  4. The revenge story. The plot often involves an elaborate chase and pursuit, but it may also include elements of the classic mystery story. – Curley search for Lennie  / the death of Curley’s wife   
  5. The cavalry and Indian story. The plot revolves around taming the wilderness for white settlers. – There is the constant farming on the ranch, but also the taming of characters such as Lennie and Curley; they make the ranch inhospitable
  6. The outlaw story. The outlaw gangs dominate the action. – Curley’s actions go against the natural law of the ranch  
  7. The marshal story. The lawman and his challenges drive the plot. – George


The characters make an interesting point of comparison too. I think that we can safely establish that Slim is the typical cowboy. He is a foil for the other characters. We see how Curley fails to meet the typical view of a cowboy. Look at some of the adjectives Steinbeck used to describe his and Slim’s physical appearance:

Slim: tall, long, black, damp, hatchet, ageless, slow, large, lean, delicate, calm

Curley: young, thin, young, brown, brown, tightly curled

Our image of a cowboy does not feature a tight perm. The curly hair of Curley highlights how biologically he is on the losing path already. (I suggest he invests in a pair of GHDs.) Then, there is the body. One is ‘lean’ while the other one is ‘thin’. Then there is experience. One is ‘young’ whereas the other one is ‘ageless’. I could go on with the comparison between Curley and Slim. In fact, all the characters contrast with the typical view of a cowboy. Even, George is short. They show how the ‘normal’ man cannot ever match up to this idealised view of cowboys. Look at how Slim is presented as a divine being. He represents what the others want to be. It is quite telling how the character of Slim is never really developed beyond being the nice guy that calms the situation down. Yes, he is the Sherriff of the set up, and, isn’t…. he ….dull. That is the problem with Westerns: they don’t make interesting characters. They make great cardboard cut outs, but very limited characters. Does Slim have a wife? Does Slim have a hobby? Does Slim have an interesting backstory? He doesn’t. He fixes things and that is it.

So, if Slim represents the typical Western character, the position he holds in the story is to highlight how real the other people are in the story. He also symbolises the idea that Westerns are something to ‘scoff’ at. Slim is too good to be true, yet all the characters ‘believe’ in him. This blind acceptance is at the heart of the story. We accept things when we know that they can’t possibly be real, true or possible. Nobody can be like Slim. He is just too good to be true, but nobody can blame a man for trying. That’s what society does. It puts images of things that look attainable and achievable, but the reality is that nobody can attain to that level of perfection. We can try, but we will never get there.  

‘those Western magazines ranch men love to read and scoff at and secretly believe’

Every Year 10 / 11 student remembers what magazines were in Crooks’ ‘room’, but interestingly he doesn’t have a Western magazine. Why? Maybe Crooks doesn’t ‘secretly believe’ in the Western stories. He is constantly reminded by others of his non-conformity in a world. Crook is the complete opposite of Slim and so has to travel the most to become like him.  However, his routes of escapism is probably more realistic than any of the other characters. And, that is a tough thing to say given the historical context. I always teach my classes to see that Crook’s is the most intelligent character in the book. He reads books to improve himself and escape from the world he finds himself in. The classic Western story is a world not populated by black people, so not only is the world not accepting of black people in those days, but the dreams and ideals are also not accepting of Crooks.

Then, we get to Bill Tenner.

“’Dear Editor,’” Slim read slowly. “’I read your mag for six years and I think it is the best on the market. I like stories by Peter Rand. I think he is a whingding. Give us more like the Dark Rider. I don’t write many letters. Just thought I would tell you I think your mag is the best dime’s worth I ever spent.’”

This is always one of the oddest things in the book and don’t get me on to the talking rabbit. One day I will solve that ‘elephant in the room’ or ‘talking bunny in a dream sequence’. The men see this letter as a sign of success. There is one person that has made it. But, what has he made. He has written a letter. That’s all. Bill has not made a family. Bill has not started his own ranch. Bill has not won a million pounds. No, the sign of success is a letter that has been published. Not a farm. Not a ranch.

It is interesting to see that success is closely linked to the Western again. He is successful because his name is printed next to a Western story. The closest thing to being in the story.  He has achieved his dream by being linked to a Western story in a magazine. Bill hasn’t become a cowboy, but he has become the next best thing. So is that what John Steinbeck is teaching us in the book: You cannot achieve your dreams, but if you can settle for the next best thing, you will be happy.

I am sad that I will not be teaching at GCSE ‘Of Mice and Men’, but I am happy because I can teach this rich text with another year group. But, do you know what? There are benefits to having a break from studying a text for a bit. You get to see things again in a new light….

The saloon bar doors swung open. A girl was standing there looking in. The piano stopped. Heads looked up from their table. The sunlight silhouetted the girl.  

She had full, rouged lips and widespaced eyes, heavily made up. Her fingernails were red. Her hair hung in little rolled clusters, like sausages. She wore a cotton house dress and red mules, on the insteps of which were little bouquets of red ostrich feathers. “I’m lookin’ for Curley,” she said. Her voice had a nasal, brittle quality.

Nobody answered her.

The two new strangers to town held their heads down, avoiding any contact. The larger of the two men couldn’t help but look up. The other man punched him hard in the arm.

She looked around again. ‘Any of you?’ An old man with his lame dog hidden at his feet by the bar continued wiping the bar down, ignoring her.

The Sherriff was at the back of the room. His head was down covered by his Stetson. His ageless face obscured by the hat. His hand gently went to gun on the table. He sensed trouble. It always walked into his town, his way, his life. This time it wore red.

The sunlight held dust in the air and painted the room with like a thin layer of gauze.   


Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 14 June 2015

Notes on a scandal. I mean: Notes on a new GCSE spec!

In my head, everybody is working on their new GCSE specifications. I am sure my local butcher is busy working on it. And, the car mechanic. Even the florist down the road is thinking about how it will impact on lilies.  The whole world is changing and everybody is dealing with it. Okay, maybe not everybody. Okay, maybe not every subjects. Okay, may be not every teacher. Well, the English teachers are.

Changing GCSE specifications is the metaphorical equivalent of redecorating your house. You pick the paint, move the furniture, prepare the room, and then you paint. But, then you decide a few years later that you picked the wrong colour and you do it all over again.  In my short time teaching, I will have taught eight different English GCSEs. I have gone through the process several times and there hasn’t been many changes between specs. This new specification, however, has a slightly different texture to it. I can cope with the closed book aspect. I can cope with the pre1914 text aspect. I can cope with older non-fiction texts. The exam papers are a different thing.

 This blog is about my first thoughts on Paper 1 on the GCSE English Language exam. As a department, we set Year 9 students a paper based on an extract from ‘Oliver Twist’. We used similar question to those used in the specimen paper provided and we marked using the mark scheme provided.  We didn’t prepare students for the paper, because we wanted to see how they dealt with the paper and see what the major problems were. The paper will be a baseline assessment for teachers in Year 10. I wanted us to engage with the new format and look at the nuts and bolts of the paper, rather than spend six meetings deciding on the name of units of work instead of dealing with how to teach things.


Question 1: List four things from this part of the text about X.

This was a pretty straightforward question. Most students did well on this, but the most able struggled with it as, at times, they felt that something more complex was needed. Therefore, they overdid it. We all know examiners like to build students up with the questioning on papers, but with most able students they want to impress from the word go. Every question is an important question in their eyes. So it is no surprise that some students wrote a whole page, squeezing every last idea out for four small marks.


Question2: How does the writer use language here to describe X?

This is probably the one question that has changed things for us. Looking at the examples provided, I am worried. Because: simply this question seems to be about technique vomiting. Chuck everything at the reader and hope some of it makes sense. We have always spent time trying to build students up to make detailed and developed interpretations of a text and explore multiple meanings and ideas. We have always wanted students to explore choices made by referring to the wider meaning of the text. But, now the subject terminology is at the forefront of the analysis. In fact, it is the driver of the thinking. Whereas before the technique used to be an indicator of the writer’s ideas and thoughts, the new questioning focuses on the techniques and a brief explanation of the feeling it creates. Yes, there may be some implicit meaning, but the focus is clearly on the technique and its effect and not the whole text and the writer’s purpose.

I’d say that this question could possibly be the worst going by the full mark example. It goes a bit like this:

The verb ‘vomiting’ reflects the disgust of process and the use of colon highlights the importance of things as the writer is introducing a new idea. The writer also uses complex sentences which show the complexity of the process. The pronoun ‘us’ is used in a collect sense and then changes to ‘we’ in the second sentences, highlighting the different people out there.  

Our students fell down because they didn’t list techniques. They logically, as we have always taught them to, worked through a point and explored it. They highlighted a feature and then developed it in several sentences. The example provided suggested that sentences in response to the question need to combine the technique and effect in one sentence. The X has the effect of this. The context of the writing is lost when the development is limited to a sentence.

The terminology wasn’t so much as an issue for our students (thanks to KS2); however, there is clearly a need to make sure every student knows a noun, verb, adjective, adverb and pronoun. I think the speed at which students have to list this terms is a problem too. Students get to them in the end, but they are not used to the parrot fashion of looking at a sentence and spotting noun, verb and adjective. I see across the land hundred of teachers making PowerPoint getting students to spot a noun, a verb and an adjective in an extract.

Plus, some of the technique spotting is dodgy. A complex sentence is referred to in the example and I’d say it is clutching at straws. How could you explain the use of a compound, complex or simple sentence and its effect?

A complex sentence highlights how complex the issue is.
A complex sentence highlights how there are two things and one cannot function without the other.
A simple sentence highlights how simple the man’s thoughts are.
A simple sentence reinforces how there is just one person in the room.
A compound sentence highlights how there are two things joined together.  

Now, don’t even get me on the indefinite and definite article. I don’t give an ‘a’ or a ‘the’ about it. Seriously, we are going to be having students clutching at straws to interpret meaning. Tenuous is the term that springs to mind.  I also seem to recall that exam boards stating that technical terminology wasn't necessary for success in the exam. It seems that that is the opposite now.

I think from now on my classroom conversation will centre on using phrases like ‘ the noun highlights….’ and ‘the preposition shows’. I do think this question is a game changer. Repeat after me students……

A verb shows action

A list of verbs show a continuous action

A present tense verb shows it is immediate.

Furthermore, I think the model of point and develop will have to change. Paper 2 has more of the old style PEE potential, but this question will change the way we analyse a text.


Question 3: How has the writer structured the text to interest you as a reader?

This question I enjoyed. It is fairly straightforward. Students did better when they approached the text in a logical fashion and then made links back to the rest of the text. They were also able to explain things in depth with this question, so they did better because they were able to talk about writing, which is what we want our students to do. Talk and discuss it. Not list things.

It is again an interesting point that ‘subject terminology’ is plastered all over the mark scheme, yet I am struggling to find such terminology in the examples. I am convinced that there are none. But, this is the problem: there is very little terminology for describing the structure of a text. I can think of a handful and I studied English at university. So this aspect of the exam paper confused me.  

Aside from all this stuff, I have noticed a new word in the mark scheme: judicious. We are now expecting students use quotes judiciously but not conservatively or liberally.   

Question 4: A student said this: …… To what extent do you agree?

This is, I think, a dramatic shift in the textual analysis at GCSE. We have had elements of criticism implied in the tasks and the top band has always been marked as ‘critically evaluating’ the text, but I in all my minutes of teaching I have not had to teach this kind of critical discussion at GCSE. Boy, do I love the idea! We do explore the text when teaching, but we don’t make the critical aspect an explicit assessment aspect. And, I am, relishing the thought of it. However, it is a difficult aspect. When students are struggling to recall the key points of a text, they then have to work out if they think the portrayal of  Y is realistic.

 It is true that with the papers I marked the students struggled with this immensely. Yes, it is the last question and worth the most marks so it should be harder, but there has been very little in the past curriculum signalling students to this point. I can see that KS2 is preparing them with a terminology splurge. There hasn’t been an emphasis on critical viewpoints. Looking at documents given, a lot of the emphasis is criticism of the text, but not arguing a defined view. Now this might be a picky point, but, in my book being critical about a text and exploring criticisms by others are two different things. Words like ‘evaluate’ and ‘critical’ are thrown around in English without a thought about what they actually amount to. We struggle to teach these aspects as sometimes, as some people might argue, they are hard to teach as students develop these skills through their breadth of reading. I cannot agree or disagree with the statement that my local restaurant produces the best curries in Derbyshire. Why? Because, I have only eaten curries in a few places in Derbyshire.

Obviously, the quantity of texts students read is important, but also offering critical viewpoints is just as important too. Our KS3 curriculum does include some of these in essays. How courageous is … ?  But now, I think we have to look at embedding this further. Rather than spot and explain a text, we are making a point and challenging it. Read this poem. Frank read it in the pub and he said it isn’t an effective way to show the reality of life. Do you agree with Frank or not?   

Overall, I am happy with the new specifications. I like the shift back to fiction and non-fiction texts and not just non-fiction texts. This now seems to be a happy compromise. It means we can increase the breadth of texts we can use. As long as it is an effective description, setting or character, then you can use it. Looking at the wider impact on our teaching, I think these are the key points we need to build or make explicit in our teaching:

·         Students must have a concrete knowledge of the key parts of a sentence.

·         Students must be able to quickly spot parts of a sentence under pressure.

·         Students must change the way they write analysis so it is concise and follows the identify + effect pattern in one single sentence.

·         Students must be concise with their explanations.

·         Students must have clear terminology for describing the structure of a text.

·         Students must be familiar with different opinions about a text

·         Students must be able to formulate a response to an opinion about a text or aspect.


I might blog about the other paper when I get to it. Nonetheless, I have tomorrow’s lesson sorted out:

Year 10:

One student said: ''Of Mice and Men’ is the biggest waste of time and it is too predictable.’  

How far do you agree with that statement?

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 7 June 2015

Let's talk about lists, baby!

In the mad panic before the exam, teachers throw everything, metaphorically, at the students with a hope that one last thing will stick and be the golden nugget aiding their success. This year I threw a few things and one of those happened to be lists. In fact, I then thought I would throw lists at everything, and everyone, with some interesting effects.

Structurally, there can be three main places to list in a sentence: at the start; in the middle; and at the end.

1] Coffee, Twitter and music keep me sane.

2] I wonder how I ever coped without books, TV and the Internet as a child living in Wales.

3] Wales has a historic tradition of singing, playing rugby and cwtching.

Surprisingly, teaching students to write using lists is at times like going back to the beginning. The simple problem with a list is that it is generally used as a simple functional device: “I need to list these objects I placed in my bag.” However, students don’t actually see it as a tool which can be used to aid meaning.

A list at the start of a sentence can help to bamboozle a reader when you link odd combinations of words.  

Frogs, eggs and paperclips are just some of the things I can draw with skill.

A list at the end of a sentence can cause a sense of drama.

The door shoved open and there stood a man with eyes of pain, loathing and death.

Of course there are other effects, but that is up to the student to discover. However, a list in an unusual or particular place can cause a sense of expectation.

 On the cold, dark and lonely moor nestled a cold, dark lonely house where sat a woman in a window with cold, dark and lonely thoughts.

The flexibility of a list isn’t just limited to where you list in a sentence, but it is also what you list. Now, my shopping bag contains eggs, flour and milk. My annoyance, anger and humiliation was evident when a returned home to see that I had incorrectly, mistakenly and stupidly forgotten to buy wine – the important ingredient for all meals.

Listing different types of things can produce some interesting effects.

A list with emotions.

Fear, worry and disbelief were reflected in her eyes.

 A list of verbs.

The shadow in the distance blurred, shimmered and juddered.

 A list of adverbs.

I sat typing angrily, quickly and secretly at the computer.

A list of prepositions.

The car rushed through, over, across and under trees.

A list of pronouns.

The woman opened the letter wondering if it was from him, her or them.

 A list of words with the same prefix.

The inescapable, inevitable and indomitable secret haunted her as she walked in the room.

A list of words with the same suffix.  

The view created a hopeful, grateful and meaning feeling in the man.  

A list of similes.

The bird sat on the branch like a solider waiting for the signal, like a man frozen in time and like a statue.

A list of colours.

The trees yellow, sunburnt orange and vivid red leaves smothered the child’s view of the sun.

 A list of sounds.

The crunch of the glass echoed, repeated and boomed through the empty room.

I could go on and on. There are so many variables. Yet, we often neglect to teach students to experiment, steal and play with lists.  Students could also consider how many items they put in a list. Or they could consider the order that items go in lists.

 The beauty of lists is that they are not limited to just writing. Lists have a valuable benefit for analysis in English. They can highlight complexity and multiple meanings.

The article persuades, shocks and advises us of the dangers of smoking.

Looking at that one sentence, shows us that the student understands that the text has a number of purposes. If the student places those purposes in the order they occur in the text then student will be commenting on the structure of the text as well as the purpose of a text.  

 A list of the writer’s purpose / message.

Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ highlights how men view love, damage relationships easily and struggle to articulate and manage their feelings.

A list of the reader’s / audiences’ feelings.

The audience respects, idolises and fears Othello at the start of the play.   

 A list of words to describe the text/ character.  

Macbeth’s insecurity, naivety and inconsistency combine to fuel his downfall.

A list of techniques.  

The use of alliteration, words associated with pain and the word ‘danger’ combine to create a sense of fear as the poet expresses the reality of the soldier’s fate.

The humble, little and rarely used list has so much potential. Maybe, before we throw in a fancy term or a technique that only one Victorian poetess used on her deathbed when writing about the beauty of woodlice, we should consider the lovely, left out and little list.

Thanks for reading,