If Steinbeck was alive today he’d be 111 years old. That’s about how old I feel after every time I read ‘Of Mice and Men’. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. Or I should say, I liked it. For the past ten years I must have read the tale of Lennie’s inevitable disaster at least once, often twice a year. In the past couple of years I think I’ve read it three times annually, all between January and March. And before you think that you’re reading the work of a deranged idiot with a penchant for miserable tales of ranch hands during the Great Depression, I should explain that I’m an English teacher. And if you’ve any connection to education in the past ten years, or longer probably, you’ll know that the novel is a staple of GCSE Literature. I know, I know, I could choose to teach another novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ say or ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. Ah, if it was only that simple. ‘Of Mice and Men’, you see, is easy – kids love it, it’s straightforward and I know it so well they tend to get great results. And isn’t that what teaching is about? Getting results?
Well, that’s the problem. Is teaching about getting results? More to the point, is teaching literature about getting results? I have no idea whether you’re aware of it but there’s a revolution going on in education in Wales at the moment and it’s all to do with results. Oh, you won’t hear anyone saying that. It’s about ‘driving up standards’, ‘improving education for all’. How do you measure these standards though? Results, of course. These results are measured constantly. Data controls everything and unless your data is being seen to be improving each year then questions will be asked, measures will be taken. But can you measure the teaching of reading through the collection of data, through mere assessment? I suppose you can teach some of the reading skills, inference and analysis, but shouldn’t teaching literature be about more than this? Shouldn’t it be about passing on the pleasure of reading? The pleasure of feeling joy and of grief and all the emotions in between those as you delve into the world of words.
Not long ago I decided to try to avoid being Gradgrind and gave a group of 12 year olds a poem a week to learn. I chose some poems that I liked, gave them one a week and a few questions to consider, usually looking at patterns of language, images or structural points. The first week, one of the pupils asked, ‘What’s the point of this?’. I did tell you, didn’t I. If this isn’t for a test or an assessment or if this isn’t teaching me one of those key skills, what’s the point, sir? The point is, of course, for the poetry itself, for the pleasure of the words and the sound of those words and, even if not fully understood, the sense that those words leave with you. ‘It does not compute’ is the look of many a blank face during my lessons.
What I’ve noticed though is that some have really gone with it and even for those who haven’t, their ability to read poetry for themselves and to notice language and its sound, to pick up on images and contrasts is becoming easier. So ‘just for pleasure’ also does something else. The problem is not having enough time to do this with other classes because the pressure of results is all-consuming. But I’ll have to live with this. For now.
A friend of mine has read one novel. ‘Of Mice and Men’. He read it when he studied for his own GCSE literature exam and hasn’t read anything since. I wonder how many would share that experience? Too many, I imagine. Is that what teaching literature is meant to do? I want the pupils to get their good results, I want them to ‘improve’ but if a kid in that class I teach is doing something in ten, twenty years time and he or she is a reader, if he or she is reminded of one of those poems, how it tells him or her about something unsaid, about something they can’t put into words themselves or reels it off just for the pleasure of the sound of it, my heart will fill with joy.