I did something last week that I haven’t done for a while. I taught Of Mice and Men a bit differently. Speaking as someone who was taught the book at school and have taught it on a variety of different GCSE syllabuses since I started teaching, I have mostly done things the same or in a similar way. With obvious tweaks depending on groups and abilities etc. I’ve seen this book do a variety of things from anger to reduce teenage boys to tears and I love it.
The thing I’ve never been able to do justice to though, is Steinbeck’s portrayal of Curley’s wife.
I don’t know why. Perhaps a subconscious focus on Lennie and George to try and harness the “boy friendly” aspect of the novel. Dunno in short. Just know that it’s never been an area of my teaching of the book that has been up to scratch.
So, inspired by some Drama colleagues, and a wee bit of research I set out to try something a bit different in the form of a Stanislavski belief exercise, or the “little bird” belief exercise.
A little googling or a quick chat with a drama colleague will tell you the first thing you’ll need is a scrunched up piece of paper. As a self confessed finick, I wanted to make a realistic (?) little bird for the exercise, so looked up how to fold an origami chick. A surprisingly therapeutic way to spend five minutes of lunchtime! The bird was then safely ensconced in a warm and cosy filing cabinet drawer.
Emotion Memory and Belief
Next, I cued up a couple of pictures of my kids. They’re four and five and so still cute enough to elicit the much needed aaawwww factor. This is an essential part of the process. Pictures of yourself as a kid or of a childhood pet (something that gets people thinking of an emotional connection) are just as good and may even be better. This is intended to kick start the emotion memory and so make you more susceptible to the process.
As the students entered the room (straight after lunch and with homework ready to hand in) I went about things as normal and, when just about to take in homework, I told them I needed to share something with them that had happened that morning. (The anecdote feel is quite important)
I told them, that whilst taking the kids to the childminder on the way to work, we had to stop the car because a birds nest had fallen out of a tree into the road and that my kids had told me to stop. This is where I flashed a couple of pictures of my boys on the screen and gave them a little aside about them, just started school, fave teddies etc, then back to the story. Year tens or not, they were keen to tell me that we should never touch birds that have fallen out of the tree, I told them that I couldn’t just leave them there and I was spurred on by my boys telling me to help.
Then I told them that I hadn’t had time to get to the vet before school and had had to bring the baby bird with me. At this point, their jaws were dropping (and probably aided by my anecdote heavy style of teaching anyway) at the thought that I had a baby bird with me, let alone, as I turned and opened the drawer of my filing cabinet, that it was in the room.
Cradled in my hands and held very close to me I turned to show them the baby bird, to be met with a mixture of bemusement and laughter. It’s important that you show that you completely believe at this point, so I shushed them and told them that it was shaking because of the noise and that they should be as silent as they could. I then invited them to come closer and see the bird. Amidst the questions, they did become silent and some of them even shushed others, gathering closer.
I asked them what they thought we should do and they responded with some silly answers but mostly stuff like, feed it and, crucially, give it a name. We took some suggestions and settled on “Fluffy”. (It’s important to take a step back here and realise that I’m a six foot three ex rugby player from just outside Glasgow, cradling an origami bird having the name Fluffy suggested by a gruff fifteen year old boy!)
During this time, it is really important to reprimand those who seem to be resisting the belief as if it is really happening as you are suggesting. They do fall into line with the rest of the class as one girl said to her friend, “I’m really worried now”.
So we settled on the name, and began to plan who would go and get some bread from the canteen and maybe some water and who would go to the office to get the name of the vet just up the road. It was at this point that I stood up quickly from the chair where I was sat quietly with the “bird” and, shouting, so they jump, “killed” the bird, crushing it and putting it in the bin.
There was some shock and some laughter and a lot of questions about why I would do that. Many of them were genuinely shocked that I could do that to the creature that we had just named.
I asked them why we had done what we had just done. They immediately went to Curley’s wife and the lack of empathy we experience for her. They linked her to the baby bird and even to the bird in the barn after her death and also to the fact that Steinbeck gives us even more of her before she is killed than we get at any point before, making her death even more tragic.
This picture shows their first thoughts, only with some prompting from me.
This allowed them to start some writing, inspired by the emotions they felt, without an essay question but answering like it was. They’re “technically” a set three, with FFT predictions of nothing below a B. Until the lesson described here they hadn’t really shown the insight necessary to achieve these grades.
I’m sure that, in the hands of a specialist Drama teacher, this lesson and the Stanislavski element in particular could have been done better but it definitely allowed the students the opportunity to respond purely emotionally to the character and see more of her than they had done before.
Next time, back to proper manly pedagogy and something serious like discipline or something. Grrrr.