A nifty novella does it for me

13th May 2011 at 01:00

We've been budgeting for next year's books. We are spending most of the money topping up on Steinbeck since George and Lenny are camped at the number one spot in the secondary schools' Top of the Texts. I'm pretty certain the book's success is due to its length rather than its literary prowess. Teachers love short books. For us, The Great Gatsby is only great because it has nine chapters. Steinbeck's is even better because he knocked his out in six.

When choosing class readers, teachers always go for conciseness over quality. In fact the cleverer the text, the less likely we are to choose it. Animal Farm is a case in point. It's a nifty little novella, but the long words and the allegory make it a bugger to teach. In my experience, kids are much less historically aware than you think. My lot happily spent the first few chapters of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas cheering for the Nazis, so the point of Orwell's scathing Soviet satire is likely to miss its mark. When it comes to prose, we prefer it oh-so-simple. I'm sure the only thing keeping the Mr Men series out of the core curriculum is the lack of accompanying York notes.

This year Of Mice and Men has been so popular with staff that we haven't had enough texts to go round. Every lesson we've divvied up the books so the students can share one between two. This paired reading has led to inevitable gaps in students' understanding. So with the literature GCSE fast approaching, we resorted to hiring a theatre company to plug any remaining gaps. The performance was recommended as "innovative and experimental", a phrase best avoided when it comes to theatre companies, dentists and pension investments. It began after lunch. No sooner had we shoe-horned Year 11 into the hall than four young actors who couldn't muster a beard between them attempted to deliver Steinbeck's classic through the medium of freeze-frame. Communicating War and Peace via fortune cookies might have been less of a challenge.

The worst part about it was that the whole thing was dependent on the students' full participation. The actors began by dividing up 160 teenagers high on hormones and the excitement of having missed double maths into four unwieldy groups. They were then corralled into corners where they were told to physically sculpt key moments from the text. Quite apart from the logistical constraints - it's impossible for 40 kids to strike a pose simultaneously unless they are synchronised swimmers or share a recessive line-dancing gene - there were health and safety issues. The main one being that group work on this scale triggers a complete breakdown of social order. The resultant chaos owed more to Lord of the Flies than it did to Of Mice and Men, so that while a few conscientious students worked on The Death of Curley's Wife, the rest tried to figure out which fat kid to torture first.

The session ended with a riotous free-for-all as the actors discussed the production with the kids who shouted the loudest. This was theatre-in- crisis, not theatre-in-education. I suspect that the recent Arts Council cuts may prompt more small-scale companies to chase the academic pound. But if this worthless, shapeless experience is anything to go by, then to paraphrase Pink Floyd - Hey! Luvvies! Leave them kids alone!

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England.

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