I recently read in the news about a pair of scientists who worked in the Antarctic, and one of the scientists, Sergey Savitsky, was reading books to pass the time. Unfortunately, his co-worker kept giving away the ending of the books. So Savitsky stabbed him.
Extreme, yes, but there is a little part of any book lover that winced just as much at the thought of the endings of books being ruined, as they did about the thought of the violence.
English and primary teachers know this feeling all too well. When we crack open the box of Of Mice and Men books, and some smart arse has scrawled "George kills Lennie" on the front cover. Or someone’s older sister read it last year and she told her the ending already, and now that person just has to tell the rest of the class.
What is the solution?
English literacy ideas
I’ve seen some inventive suggestions on Twitter recently. My favourite being the genius idea of adding loads of fake spoilers to put them off the scent.
I once got a class to write a load of fake spoilers on the pages too."George loves Curley's Wife", "Lennie is a ghost", "Crooks is George's dad" etc.— Jack Richardson (@jack_teaches) November 1, 2018
But personally, I think embracing the big reveal rather than hiding from it is the best option.
One year, I had a tricky class, but they were totally hooked on the story. Then one big mouth told everyone what happened. That child certainly regretted it (I don’t think I’ve ever hissed quite so menacingly) but it was too late. No one believed my play acting of "I think you’ve got that muddled up" and they all knew.
The next two lessons were a stark contrast to what had come before. Everything felt like it had lost its shine. I’d had spoilers given before, but this was different with this class. I felt as if I’d finally won them round, only to lose them too early.
Then I decided to just go with it. I called my next lesson "What could make you kill your best friend?" and stopped shying away from referring to the ending. It really helped for teaching the structure of the story, and they certainly understood the foreshadowing much earlier than other classes I’ve had.
What about the magic?
My biggest worry was that it would suck the drama out of the final pages. I’d never managed to read it with a class and not have tears in my eyes. Would this time be different?
Of course not. Just knowing George kills Lennie, or Eric is the father, or Jekyll and Hyde are the same person isn’t enough to match that magic that happens when you read the words for yourself for the first time.
The class sat just as shell shocked as any other that I’ve taught, and loved it just as much. The writer’s genius was still there, spoiler or not.
The message from this was: if you manage it correctly, it doesn’t have to ruin the experience for the class. It can even improve it.
Grainne Hallahan is an English teacher. She tweets @heymrshallahan