Sunday, 13 September 2015

Novel settings as poetry

This week I have been working on teaching students how writers structure a setting in a novel. At the same time, I have been also teaching how Steinbeck uses setting in ‘Of Mice and Men’. And, in the interest of making my workload lighter, I discovered a nice, easy approach.

A few years ago, people started making blacked-out poetry. A nice simple idea whereby students remove large chunks of a text and boil it down to what, the student thinks, are the most important words.  

This time around I decided to work backwards and I must say I am pleased with the result. I produced setting poems for the different places in ‘Of Mice and Men’. I selected the key parts of a setting and binned the rest. The result was a messy bit of poetry. Nonetheless, it did fit together.

Students analysed the setting as a poem. This made for some interesting comments about the writer’s choice of words. The bunkhouse provoked questions about the use of paint and the size of the windows. But, importantly, it helped students to spot patterns in the text and explore the structure of the descriptions (again, a link to the new GCSEs) in relation to the text’s meaning.

I suppose in terms of the new exams we need to help train student to search for links, connection and ideas across a text, yet they are often dealing with large blocks of text in the exam. This approach of boiling the text down and analysing it will be an approach I will be using with Year 10s so they can build their confidence at looking at larger texts. All too often, the questioning we use in lessons is directing students to particular idea in the text. This approach allows students to be precise yet also concentrate on the whole text at the same time. The poems kept the structure and order of things as well as the language choices.  

After student had analysed a setting poem they compared it with others. They discussed the use of windows in the novel – something I have never given a second thought to. One student suggested the window represented freedom or, interestingly, intelligence. Another, student explored the use of the word shed for Crook’s setting. A shed being something where you store machines or tools. Others spotted the use of cleanliness in Old Suzy’s Place and how this contrasted with the other settings. One student thought the use of the word ‘clean’ was actually sarcasm.    

I suppose the beauty of this approach is it declutters the text for student. Sometimes, it is too hard to find points of interest when they are so many things and points in a text. This helps narrow the little grey cells and see the wood for the tree. Plus, I am comparing texts and analysing ‘poems’ all at the same time.

Thanks for reading,


Here are some examples:


long, rectangular building



small, square windows,

eight bunks

showing their burlap ticking

shelves were loaded

Western magazines

a big square table littered with playing cards

flies shot like rushing stars

Crook’s Bunk

a little shed

square four-paned window

leather-working tools

a range of medicine bottles

both for himself and for the horses

scattered about the floor were a number of personal possessions

several pairs of shoes

a big alarm clock

a single-barreled shotgun.

a mauled copy of the California civil code for 1905

battered magazines

a few dirty books on a special shelf over his bunk

a proud, aloof man

sound of moving horses, of feet stirring, of teeth champing on hay, of the rattle

of halter chains

threw a meagre yellow light

The Barn

 the great barn

piled high with new hay

hay came down like a mountain slope to the other end of the barn

the feeding racks were visible

between the slats the heads of horses could be seen

Sunday afternoon

resting horses nibbled the remaining wisps of


afternoon sun sliced in through the cracks of the

barn walls

bright lines on the hay

buzz of flies

outside came the clang of horseshoes on the playing peg

shouts of men, playing, encouraging, jeering

quiet and humming

lazy and warm

Old Susy’s Place

old Susy’s place

a nice place

a laugh

always crackin’ jokes

never talks dirty

get a shot for two bits

nice chairs

Susy don’t give a damn

ain’t rushin’ guys through and kickin’ ‘em

a hell of a lot of fun

crackin’ jokes all the time

My girls is clean

no water in my whisky

clean and she got nice chairs

no goo-goos

The Dream Farm

An’ live off the fatta the lan

the garden

the rabbits

in the cages

the rain in the winter

the stove

how thick the

cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it

a big vegetable patch

up a fire in the stove and set around it an’ listen to the

rain comin’ down on the roof

a little house an’ a room to ourself

Little fat iron stove

We’d belong there

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