What keeps me awake at night - Treading the same old literary ground

25th May 2012 at 01:00

On Every English teacher's bookshelf is at least one novel that, due to its appearance on the curriculum year after year after year, they can recite chunks of verbatim. The novel lodged within my brain is Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.

The pristine copy I purchased years ago as an optimistic and eager NQT has become tattered and tired. I've lost count of the number of times I have reread and taught this novel. Lucky me when it comes to lesson planning, right?

I understand that it ticks all the boxes for a good GCSE text; powerful themes, rich language and perceptive characterisation are among its strengths. But Of Mice and Men is like a dependable old dog - and sometimes they just need to be put down.

Naturally, this would mean having to read - and study - something else. And then it might be necessary to devise a few resources. But hey, we're English teachers; we can cope with that. Renewed texts prompt fresh theory, fresh argument, fresh discussion. Although, for some teachers, new texts also prompt fear.

But surely we should want our pupils to engage with a wide variety of authors and to expand their enquiring minds with literature, even if that means studying books with which we are not 100 per cent familiar.

One advantage of Steinbeck's story is its length: at a little over 100 pages, it's accessible for both upper and lower bands. However, a number of other novella-sized stories also meet the criteria for "literature from other cultures". A shortlist might include Men in the Sun, Things Fall Apart and Waiting for the Barbarians, all of which are under 150 pages. Wide Sargasso Sea, The Nature of Blood and The Sun Also Rises are around 200 pages.

But still we stick to Steinbeck. At present, Edexcel, AQA and OCR all list Of Mice and Men as a choice on their English syllabuses. It features alongside other brilliant stories such as Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Anita and Me, The Joy Luck Club and Rabbit-Proof Fence, but far too many English departments have a seemingly unbreakable attraction to Steinbeck.

George, Lennie and the rest of the farm gang are now permanent fixtures in the English classroom. Of Mice and Men has become stigmatised as a "GCSE exam text" and is no longer acknowledged as a popular novel in its own right.

I remember my introduction to it: I was a fifth former attending the local comprehensive. That was more than 20 years ago, so isn't it time for English teachers to surrender the security blanket of Of Mice and Men and start demanding a greater turnover of literature? Let's put this long-suffering text out of its misery.

Susanne Kilner is an English teacher and examiner from Kent. To tell us what keeps you awake at night, email david.marley@tes.co.uk.

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