Sunday, 11 November 2012

The best laid plans...

I'm going to write a blog.  Everyone else is doing it, so I suppose I ought to join in and see what happens.  I cannot say exactly what will appear here, but its likely to be a mash-up of reflections on the career I've chosen, bits of intense geekery from the world of films and games, and probably some stuff about books too.

It's Sunday morning, I'm hounded by flu and my tea is not of premium quality, so my first blog will be a straightforward explanation of why I think those people who decry the simplicity of Of Mice and Men are missing the point.

In March 2011, and seemingly once a week ever since, Michael Gove bewailed the paucity of novel-reading in schools.  He 'questioned' the popularity of Steinbeck's book, which suggests he has much better experience of the whole teaching thing than we do, and also implying that our choice of it is due to its brevity and simplicity - in short, suggesting that we teachers will do anything for an easy life.  Of Mice and Men is a short book, granted.  It has to be, as it is a novella, and a conversion from a playscript to boot.  So we can't very well hold its length against it, can we?  It is also simple.  This is because it was written by Steinbeck, whose writing style, like many in the 1930s-1960s, was sparing, careful and concise.  Hemingway was similar, as was our own George Orwell, and I don't hear Gove belittling them.

So, its shortness and simplicity are a result of style and form - it is not short and simple to help teachers or students.  In fact, its simplicity hides huge depths of content, great oceans of emotional interplay and character development that elevate this book to its rightful place in the canon.  It is the kind of text where you can spend a whole lesson on the final line, with a top set group, analysing the myriad interpretations that can be made of it; or you can spend a happy lesson with the bottom set, writing tweets that the characters may have shared, given the chance (@princeoftheranch if I see ya with my wife agin youll git it #imtheboss).  It can be analysed for months, and still keep giving.

This is not an 'easy' book.  It is simple.  There is a huge difference (no-one would accuse the Old Man and the Sea of being 'easy').  The reason we teach it? Because it is excellent, it fits in with our schedules, it is efficient and it gives the whole spectrum of abilities the chance to get their grade.  Should we be hounded for being clever and choosing the best text available to us?  Obviously not.  Change the assessment style, change the focus, change the timings, and no doubt we may find a different text; but again - we will do it cleverly, choosing the best book for the job.  Don't hate us for that.

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