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Reading 'Of Mice and Men' in current climate

Discussion in 'English' started by bookfriend, Aug 31, 2020.

  1. bookfriend

    bookfriend New commenter

    Hi all, if anyone is teaching OMAM this year, what do you plan to do about pronouncing the n word while reading the novel? Every other year I've taught it, I do read it out loud, and as a class we discuss how this is a reflection of issues in society at the time rather than a reflection of Steinbeck's own views. This year I'm torn between reading the book 'as written' and potentially opening a can of worms that could result in angry and upset students and/or parents. It's in our Yr 9 SoW, by the way.
  2. gruoch

    gruoch Established commenter

    I think that the climate has changed to the extent that it is unwise to actually read the word aloud.
    IMV this amounts to censorship of the past. cf '1984'
    alex_teccy likes this.
  3. pianopete

    pianopete Occasional commenter

    I think it's important to acknowledge that students might prefer not to read the word and respect that. Personally, I will still read the word but certainly there will be a preamble and the usual discussion about the use of this word in the context of the time. But we've always had that discussion. I think if you're not going to read the word and discuss the word - choose a different text.
    VeronicAmb likes this.
  4. bookfriend

    bookfriend New commenter

    Thanks to you both. Yes, reading the word and discussing the word are two different things - we always discuss context, of course, and up to now I have felt that this paves the way for reading it out loud so that students are not less shocked by the attitudes portrayed in the book but are prepared... but now I'm not so sure.
  5. alex_teccy

    alex_teccy Star commenter

    Yes, it's all about the doublethink. Which "context" is acceptable.

    A couple of years ago, a boy in my tutor group tittered when the word was read from Of Mice and Men in his English lesson. The teacher insisted he was being racist (though the teacher did not consider himself racist for reading it) and reported him to the HOY who told the boy that his intentions might not have been racist but his actions were.
    In other words, he was guilty of a thought crime.

    The whole thing speaks to about self-censorship in our culture. Culture is becoming essentially devoid of interest, excitement and meaning as it follows a script of stock characters. Bad or inept white men. Brilliant young women who can do anything and achieve anything, without any apparent explanation. Token LGBT or BAME characters who never have complex motivations or behave badly.

    ACOYEAR8 Star commenter

    Shakespeare is full of offensive words and imagery that would make a viking blush. Yet, is this ever discussed as appropriate ? Provided your context lesson is explanatory, all should be well. Is there a reason why the passages where the N word is used can't be read as prep ?
    alex_teccy likes this.
  7. gruoch

    gruoch Established commenter

    Most people don't recognise the pervasive sexual innuendo in Shakespeare, though. I'm sure that whoever decided that 'Romeo and Juliet' is suitable for teenagers has never read/understood it.
  8. englishtt06

    englishtt06 Occasional commenter

    I wouldn't shy away from it - as always, context is everything. The term emphasises the dehumanising of Crooks even amongst the dispossessed and alienated. (The term also comes up in Lord of the Flies.) Don't underestimate students: they can grasp context very well. If anything, now is a pertinent time to be discussing this issue - have things really changed?

    I always use the Gary Sinise audio book which we follow as a class with the printed book. He dramatises the reading with accents, voice etc. so it's very clear the n word is delivered in condescending or abusive tones.
    dodie102, gruoch and alex_teccy like this.
  9. tb9605

    tb9605 Established commenter

    Do teachers or students who have an issue reading the N word aloud have the same issue with all the sexist epithets hurled at Curley's wife?

    If not, there is a very interesting discussion to be had....
    ACOYEAR8 likes this.
  10. roamingteacher

    roamingteacher Established commenter Forum guide


    The discussion absolutely should happen. However, I am BIPOC and if I was in your class I'd be mortified for you to use that word. I'd be mortified if you asked me - the only BIPOC kid in your class - if it was ok, and mutter 'It's fine' to end the conversation. I'd be mortified if I - among other BIPOC in the class - heard peers say it was ok. I would be mortified because I would not understand how my non-BIPOC teacher could think it's ok in any situation to say this word.
    The only situation I can imagine not being mortified is if we have a very unusual relationship, in that we are very familiar with each other, have a totally safe classroom environment, and I am mature beyond my years to be able to ignore the teacher-student power relationship and speak my truth. Perhaps also my teacher is BIPOC and we have spent significant time (read 'the year before') discussing issues like this in depth. We have the vocabulary to name experiences and a deep and verbalised shared understanding of what antiracism is. We, as a class and preferably as a school are committed to antiracism and it's explicit and visible.
    As always, with these discussions- and there have been many I've seen recently - non-BIPOC teachers will weigh in and list all the reasons my (and other BIPOC) feelings are invalid. There may even be some BIPOC teachers that disagree.
    Nonetheless, I've shared my perspective and 'come out' on this forum as an other because I think it's that important to hear from the student who doesn't want to be mortified by their English teacher.
    Unfortunately, my experiences of late tell me this may snowball into an exhausting avalanche of comments where non-BIPOC try to justify why it's fine to ignore perspectives like mine, so I won't be engaging further. I enjoy a good debate but this is too traumatising after a summer of similar discussions where people didn't want to listen - they just wanted to be right.
    If the OP would like to discuss further, feel free to PM.
    tall tales and blueskydreaming like this.
  11. saluki

    saluki Lead commenter

    I used to have a great powerpoint which I'm sure I downloaded from TES. It gave the background of slavery and American history including Civil War up to Obama. It covered the attitude to black people in the 1930s and the fact that a black man could be hanged on the say-so of a white woman. I think it takes one lesson. It explains that slaves/black people were called n-----s because of the river Niger in Africa.
    Students enjoyed it and it brought context to the novel. They were aged 16/17 and thought I was treating them as adults treating racism in an adult grown up way. They were more sensitive to Crooks' predicament.
  12. gruoch

    gruoch Established commenter

    OMAM is now usually read in Yr 9 - so maturity is strictly optional!
    VeronicAmb and jarndyce like this.
  13. jarndyce

    jarndyce Occasional commenter

    Does BIPOC actually exist in the UK? The I stands for Indigenous, which is surely not applicable. I also find it an extremely unhelpful and in fact a dehumanising term, lumping in everyone who is not white into one great, amorphouse, 'other-ing' category.
  14. blueskydreaming

    blueskydreaming Lead commenter

    So, if an indigenous Canadian comes to the UK, how should they refer to themselves? Surely if they see themselves as 'indigenous' in their own country, they would also view themselves that way when overseas? Of course, they are free to view themselves however they wish, but this acronym exists because some people want it. I think it aims to express solidarity, not 'other-ing'.
    VeronicAmb and jarndyce like this.
  15. jarndyce

    jarndyce Occasional commenter

    Yes indeed, very good point.
  16. ACOYEAR8

    ACOYEAR8 Star commenter

    You make good and rational points about racism in UK 2020 but this is a novel written in the 1930s and the word is not directed at any member of the class reading the book.
    Most, if not all teachers would reflect deeply on how the use of the word read aloud from a book 90 written odd years ago might impact on students but it's important for all to grasp that using the word is not being racist towards a class of students . Offensive to their ears because of its connotations etc -yes and as such merits the reflection on the part of the teacher and the HoD.
    I have spoken at length with POC about their own inappropriate use of the N word towards each other and been greeted with sneers of derision.
  17. BenjaminBoxer

    BenjaminBoxer New commenter

    First dept meeting of the year we agreed to read M+M - collective support. In INSET we were told not to "author" texts - contextualise them and so (over) influence what students make of them. To remove the N word is to render M+M and CW's threats to Crooks meaningless. I'm not worried about authoring: it is essential to contextualise. Look at Steinbeck's "Travels With Charley." He specifically went to see the ""cheerleaders"" of New Orleans abusing black children going to the same school as white children + was shocked. I have used the "Keep our school white" pics on Google. S gives a lift to someone who proves to be racist and the throws him out. I would argue that to not 'do' Crooks in full is to demean the suffering of black people by airbrushing the past. Make time to cover the so called "separate but equal" policy. Rosa Parkes etc. Bringing M+M down to Y9 makes it harder to cover the racism in full. Used to cover in Y10 the Duluth lynchings (why is this factual spelling being highlighted as a spelling mistake?), the really awful postcards(!!) of lynchings on Youtube. A truly awful glimpse into the American psyche. I still, though, cover that Petula Clarke / Harry Belafonte clip - she was the first white woman to hold a black man's hand on US television, causing a sensation. Do think of covering entertainers such as Nat King Cole who could perform in Las Vegas hotels but because they weren't white, had to stay in seedy hotels in the other side of town. Cole's dog was poisoned when he dared to move to a 'white' neighbourhood. If we had but world enough and time... MLK why did nothing happen? LBJ's civil rights agenda sucked into the vortex of Vietnam. Obama? Thought provoking: read an account by a black lady saying she would vote for Trump as he has legislated for people sending kids to the school of their choice, enabling her child to go to a better school. Post 'separate but equal', many US schools have split again down racial lines. Dept support crucial.
  18. OneLooseCrank

    OneLooseCrank Occasional commenter

    The opening chapter contains all kinds of insults. I read them all aloud and gauge the class reaction. After a few usages of the N word I open to discussion about which offensive words we censor, which ones we don't and the difference why. We discuss if an audio book should or shouldn't censor it, and compare the purpose of my reading to an audio book. We come to a class agreement that we will censor it and I replace it with 'person' in my reading. Not all teachers in my department take this approach and are prescriptive in their reading - I am more pragmatic I feel.
  19. Delerium

    Delerium New commenter

    I have taught this in a Brooklyn school in the US as well as in various schools in the UK, of varying cultural mix. Each time I do, I read the word as printed. At the end of Candy’s bit I stop and discuss with students Steinbeck’s use of language. We explore the context beforehand, so they are able to see how Steinbeck uses the word to alienate a character and reflect views from the time. I also spend a lot of time (as does Steinbeck himself) on the chapter revealing Crooks as a human - his books, his tools, his sleeping area. No other character in the novella has this much personal detail lavished upon them.
    One could argue that Curley’s wife is treated far less well by the novel. But that is a different point, in a different argument.
    alex_teccy and gruoch like this.
  20. gruoch

    gruoch Established commenter

    ^^ This

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