Group: Year 10
Work: preparation for Controlled Assessment on places in Of Mice and Men
This was the first lesson in our preparation for the Of Mice and Men Controlled Assessment. We were exploring the significance of places in the text. I had intended the seven tables of different sizes in the classroom to represent the various places in the novella. It was hoped that by sitting in groups, the students would pull their knowledge together to achieve the objective.
I had in mind which place in the text was represented by which table: the largest would represent the bunk house where comradeship and camaraderie found refuge (or not) and the American Dream was both scoffed at and secretly believed; the table in the corners could be used for the brush or the barn, whereas the second largest table could be the ranch.
In fact, I was also tempted to leave the designations open; it didn’t really matter. A dialogic conversation was my goal – the students at each table had to explain in what ways the size and position of their table could represent their choice of place in the story. As there was no resemblance of any kind between a piece of classroom furniture, such explanation would challenge both their knowledge/understanding of the text and their imaginative capacity.
Justifying and explaining were the underlying skills to be fostered and developed.
I had to move the desks into groups during lunch time after I retuned them back into rows during Guidance in period 4. I found some blue backing paper in the stock cupboard and cut it into various sizes to place on each table. The paper was for the students to record the results of their discussion (dialogic learning).
I also wrote the two key critical concepts of “genius loci” and “iconography” on the whiteboard, together with task and other pictorial information as visual clues (yes, I love to draw on the board whenever I feel inspired).
As the first few students arrived after their lunch break, their first reaction was surprise – surprised by the layout of the classroom – even though they had done group work before, admittedly by turning round rather than sitting round a table. One student remarked, “Oooh, this is fancy!” I retorted, “Whatever do you mean? My lessons are always fancy.” He corrected himself, rather apologetically, “I mean fanciER!”.
He was right. I don’t normally rearrange desks and chairs, for practical reasons more than anything else. But today was an ideal day to “push the boat out”. Apart from the A-level lesson in the Sixth Form, all my other lessons were in my own Form room. I didn’t need to worry about other teachers using the same teaching space.
More students quickly arrived, all looking incredulous, particularly so when I announced that they could sit wherever they chose, providing they were prepared to face the consequence. “What consequence?” they cried. I just smiled my inscrutable smile, so typically associated with the Oriental (I doubt my students were aware of this racial stereotype). Very dubiously, they swiftly arranged themselves into friendship groups to fit around all the different sizes of the tables.
The students were asked to look up the definitions of “genius loci” and “iconography” and copy them into their exercise books whilst I took their register. It became apparently that these two concepts were alien to all the students. After some explanation, the students were invited to link the new concepts to the places whose significance we were going to explore in this lesson.
Each group was then directed to look at my drawing on the board and decide which one of the seven places in the text that they wanted to be. They had chosen: the brush, the bunk house, the barn, the ranch, the harness room and the American Dream. The student who arrived late (with a legitimate reason) found himself at the single table on his own. I picked “the cat houses” for him.
The students were then instructed to collaborate by comparing notes from their homework (writing in paragraphs to explain the significance of a place of their choice from the novella).
As the students worked, I went round each group to remind them to explain how “genius loci” and “iconography” could apply to their particular place. Many interesting observations were made through our discussions (dialogic talk). For example, how was it possible for the abstract American Dream to possess genius loci? Perhaps, as far as George and Lennie were concerned, their dream ranch could not be more real. The blueprint was so detailed – “ten acres” … and “we’d keep a few pigeons to go flying round and round a windmill” – that they “can almost see it”. The group working on “the ranch” went on to explore the boss’s tiny house, referred to by Curley’s wife as a “two-by-four”, in stark contrast with the mansions of the Hollywood Hills and Beverley Hills.
How did it work?
Overall, most of the tables were on task and were keen to explore the significance of their choice of space by using their prior knowledge, notes from exercise books, research results on iPad (including using study sites) and some explanatory talk from me.
To sum up simply, this group work was useful for:
- Quick check of prior knowledge.
- In-depth exploration of one topic from different perspectives.
- Covering a large ground in a relatively short space of time.
- Generating exciting fresh insight into the text.
- Dialogic learning.
- Targeted support.
There were also problematic issues arising from this lesson.
- In retrospect, I wonder whether or not I should have stuck to my original plan to designate each table with a specific place of the text, e.g. the largest as the bunkhouse and the smallest as the harness room, etc.
- The four students on “the bunkhouse” table appeared to be less focused. It would be interesting to interview this group to probe further the kinds and quality of their talks.
- The student at the single table continued to trouble me, pedagogical and morally. Once again, he found himself alone on his own. Attempt by a student from a nearby table to integrate was unsuccessful; he “preferred” to be left on his own. In hindsight, perhaps I should have reserved a place for him at one of the tables where he had his friends.
If for purely academic exercise, such example of seemingly self-segregation would be ideal to illustrate Steinbeck’s key pessimistic message of social division, but classroom culture is never purely academic or intellectual. One has to considered ethical and other sensitive issues.
The observed fact remained that visible progress of the lone student at this table remained minimal. Any progress made would be intangible. It would also be interesting to study this behaviour further, but means to solicit feedback from this student have to be carefully designed due to his particular circumstances.
- Collate results to be shared in the next lesson.
- Students begin to frame questions and formulate argument.
- More lessons are needed for the above.