Cassy McCoy Carey ROCHESTER HIGH SCHOOL, ROCHESTER, IL
11th Grade ELA : Unit #6 - Multitasking with Modernism & Research Skills : Lesson #3

Narrowing a Thesis & Unpacking Steinbeck's Structure & Characters

Objective: SWBAT articulate a significant claim in an argumentative thesis statement, cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support character analysis and inferences, and evaluate author's choices of words and structure.
Standards: RL.11-12.1 RL.11-12.2 RL.11-12.3 RL.11-12.4 RL.11-12.5 W.11-12.1 W.11-12.5 W.11-12.6 SL.11-12.1a SL.11-12.1c SL.11-12.1d SL.11-12.4 SL.11-12.6 L.11-12.1a
Subject(s): English / Language Arts
60 minutes
1 Introduction - 15 minutes

Students will arrive to this hour with their "Top 2" thesis statement options, which have been developed from their Interest Inventory via student-generated questions, revised using outside materials and applications, reviewed by peers by using student-created Google Forms, and evaluated for peer interest using the same forms.  I want to encourage students to use this information from their peers, but I also want to stress that a personal passion for a topic paired with a relevance to audience is essential for a successful research paper, so I will go over how to make use of the survey results collected to help select student topics.  See the video below for how all the forms and results fit together to make this a student-led, teacher-monitored project with no paperwork to lose!  I will also stress the importance of choosing unique topics (I'll link my "Choosing a Genuinely Interesting Research Paper Topic & Thesis" presentation as a reminder for students!) so that students will not have to change topics (which I require if a topic is chosen by multiple students).  There can be an endless amount of papers written about general topics, but NO two papers should argue the same thing (and, more importantly, no topic should be so general that it would wipe out innumerable other topics!).  For example, many students will want to write about technology (especially since we moved to 1:1 devices this year).  General statements like "Teens today should limit their screen time" are unacceptable, because there are so many specific facets of that topic that would be more interesting and fruitful!  I will write this example on the board to help students see that a broad topic needs to be narrowed and then solicit ideas on subtopics of this topic that would be more appropriate for this research assignment.  Some of those subtopics will likely be:

  1. An increased presence of 1:1 technology in schools is causing students' health and academic achievement to decline, so these initiatives should be stopped.
  2. Personal electronics like cell phones are negatively effecting social relationships between teens and their peers, families, and work environments.
  3. The increased use of technology by society is leading to a decreased value on preserving nature and the natural environment.
  4. With the increase of specialized content on the internet, teens are becoming more isolated and less diverse, which has lead to a lack of civic awareness and will continue to plague the United States as unaware teens grow into apathetic voters.

Once we review this material, students can feel free to start submitting their "FINAL" Research Paper Topic Proposals to my Google Form (screencapped below).  I will give students until tonight at midnight to choose a topic so that I can go through and make sure there are no duplicates.  If topics are duplicated, I will inform both/all students and let them change their topics or randomly select who gets to keep the topic (and the rest MUST change their topic and resubmit a thesis statement).  I color-code the thesis submissions green (for good to go!), yellow (good with some minor problems addressed via email & resubmitted), and red (major problems addressed via email & resubmitted).  Until all students get "green" submissions, this process is a rolling one.

Link

2 Building Knowledge - 40 minutes

Next, we will switch gears to our literature portion of today to review students' Chapter 1 Reading tasks for Of Mice & Men.  I will begin by asking students if they have any questions or observations about the text first, which is something I always do with my students to encourage them to become their own guides for the discussion.  The Common Core asks students to do more than just to respond to questions in discussions.  They need to be able to generate their own questions and be the architects of their own discussions, so I want to continue to shift the facilitation of discussions to them whenever possible.  At this point in the year, my students are already very comfortable with this format, so I anticipate that they will bring up many of the "must talk about" questions that I would ask below.  I will let them lead their discussion and ensure that their peers are all participating and answering questions to increase their understanding of the text, and if I notice they have not covered all the ideas on my list below, I will insert my questions in lulls in conversation until they are all answered.  The issues I want to be sure are covered are:

  • What did you make of George as a character?  What's he like?  How does Steinbeck get these characteristics across to the reader?  (Students will probably land on the fact that he's kind of harsh with Lennie first, which I will ask them to back up with evidence.  They will also give his physical characteristics like his small stature, sharp features, and dark hair, and they will give other personality characteristics like his dominance, quickness, responsibility, etc.  I want them to notice that Steinbeck primarily uses actions and dialogue to characterize both he and Lennie, rather than a lot of narration.)
  • What did you make of Lennie as a character?  What's he like?  How does Steinbeck get these characteristics across to the reader?  (Like George, students will say that we learn about Lennie from dialogue and actions.  They will identify him as the more submissive character and show examples of how he idolizes George like when he's washing up by the stream.  Students will give the regular characteristics of Lennie, like he's a large man, shapeless, child-like, etc., and they might also say that he's "stupid," which I will ALWAYS address as untrue through my next question!)
  • What makes you think Lennie is "stupid"?  Is he really stupid?  (It's critical that students do two things here.  The first is that they identify that his actions and diction show that he's kind of child-like, which isn't the same as stupid.  They need to get to the idea that these clues from Steinbeck lead to the idea that he's got some kind of mental handicap, which is AGAIN, NOT stupid.  Then, they need to go through to identify places in the text where his actions suggest he may be "stupid" and others that show he's NOT stupid.  There will be a few things that may appear foolish on the list, like drinking the water right away or chasing after the dead mouse, but by and large, the intelligent list will be MUCH longer.  This is critical to get students thinking that Lennie simply has some mental issues, not that he's "stupid."  If readers think Lennie is just stupid, the significance of the book is largely lost, so I want to humanize him as quickly as possible.)
  • So why would Steinbeck include all these animal-like descriptions of Lennie if he's not stupid?  Aren't animals stupid?  (Mwahaha!  Devil's Advocate!  I love this role!  Students will NOW be quick to respond that these descriptions are used to highlight his simpleness and size.  He's not stupid, nor are animals, but they are very primal and don't have the same reasoning skills that humans do.  This, too, will be an important idea moving forward.  I used to ask students a version of this question before clearly determining that Lennie was NOT stupid, and I can tell you that it was a total trainwreck!  It takes some cajoling and literary investigation to get students to see that he's not, as I say, simple=stupid, but simple=not complex.  This is a brilliant time to practice the Common Core's demand for textual evidence and tracing the development of characters through a passage!)
  • What did you make of Lennie & George's relationship?  Is George a meanie?  What's your evidence?  (This is another fruitful, text-supported discussion point.  Students will debate whether or not George is too harsh with Lennie, using their interactions throughout the chapter.  I let students agree to disagree here, since ultimately, the Common Core doesn't require students to AGREE in discussion and I'm not sure students could ever really agree on such a personal response to this relationship.  I definitely do want them to dive into if they think they're friends, brothers, strangers, etc., using textual evidence to back up their inferences though.  I treat this activity as a "find Steinbeck's breadcrumbs" game to try to uncover the clues he places there for us to discover!)
  • It seems that a lot of the evidence you're giving me is from the dialogue and actions in the text.  There's a noticeably small narrator presence here.  How did that effect your reading experience?  Why do you think Steinbeck made this choice?  Is it effective? (Students will probably admit both benefits and drawbacks to this dialogue-heavy approach, which will make for some great reading strategy discussion!  One difficulty I tend to hear is that sometimes students are unsure of WHO is speaking, since there are sections which go back-and-forth without clear mentions of speakers.  I will ask students how they overcome this issue and suggest that they use the dialect as one way to identify speakers.  The other suggestion I will have is to read it aloud using different voices, since this will help clarify who is talking and force readers to focus better instead of possibly drifting off-topic while they read.  They will probably also say that it reads more like a play, which usually interests students more since it's not bogged down with large, unwieldy chunks of narration.  Typically students think the structure is effective for focusing on characters, which is probably a lot of Steinbeck's intention.)
  • What features do plays have outside of the scripted dialogue to let readers know more about how to read it?  Do you see those same features here?  (Students will identify stage directions and scene information which describes setting in plays.  Then, they will parallel the narrator's discussion of the setting in the novel with the scene information and the words introducing or following dialogue as stage directions.  Since the narrator has relatively little to say, I will want to draw attention to how the narrator uses more descriptive words than "he said" or "said Lennie" to give readers a clearer understanding of HOW things are said.  I will have students pick out examples of this by identifying phrases like "he said sharply," "he said angrily," "George said resignedly," "he said hopefully," and "Lennie spoke craftily."  It will be important moving forward that students read these cues carefully to get a better sense of characters, as not reading them would be akin to ignoring the stage directions in plays.)
  • So the narrator makes a big deal of describing the setting, and we know from reading pretty much everything else that setting is usually a really important indicator of tone and mood and could even foreshadow future events.  What was your impression of the setting here in the first chapter?  Any foreshadowing?  (Students will describe the setting as pretty tranquil.  The way their campsite is described from a historical-use perspective implies that it's a well-traveled spot, and the wildlife is all described as peaceful.  Your students absolutely WILL ask you about the "tramps" though, but again this is a great time to use that Common Core discussion of evolving word use!  I usually reference "Lady and the Tramp" as an example of the innocuous former meaning of the word "tramp," and it pretty much quells the giggles before they get too far along!  They will probably identify their exodus from Weed and the killing of the mouse as foreshadowing for some possible bad things to come.)
  • Thinking back to our discussion last time on the Robert Burns "To a Mouse" poem, how do you think it may be connected to this story?  If one of these characters was the mouse and one was the man, which would be which?  (Students will say that these men are struggling with employment and hard times, so like the mouse the are now homeless and wandering off to rebuild.  They will identify the simplicity of Lennie as the mouse character and George as the "man" character.)

After our discussion of the chapter, we will move on to continue tracking these things, especially the use of setting as a tone/mood indicator and characterization stemming from dialogue, actions, and narrator's use of adverbs to describe how characters speak. 

3 Application - 30 minutes

To help students better hear the dialogue in the novel, we will spend the remainder of the hour reading the novel aloud.  To do this in an engaging, effective way, I will combine my typical "popcorn reading" with a more play-like reading.  Basically, I will identify the characters in Chapter 2, then list them on the board.  I will give about a 30-second "pitch" for each character to give students an idea of what they will be reading, then I will allow students to volunteer to read those parts for our reading today.  I find that when students have a specific character they read, they pay attention more closely to that character throughout the book and are more passionate about understanding and advocating for their character in class discussions.  The characters that we see in Chapter 2 (and the main parts of my 30-second pitch to get students interested) will be:

  • Candy.  This reader must be confident being an old man, big on gossip, used to janitorial "swamper" work, and able to channel the emotions of someone with one hand.
  • Lennie.  You know Lennie.  If you're reading this out loud, you'll have to be cool reading diction as written.  It's like when we read Mark Twain, so when you're starting to read it, it might not make sense, but when you read it phonetically, it will click when you hear it aloud!
  • George.  You know George too.  I'll allow you to swear, as written, not just for "funsies," but if you choose to read this part and don't want to swear, feel free to substitute those words.  However, if you've secretly wanted to swear excessively in class, this is your part, because that's just George!
  • The boss.  You've got to be a boss.  Imagine an old man with a huge belt buckle who has been in charge his whole life.  That's him.  This is a pretty small part for people interested in that.
  • Curley.  This guy...this guy.  Yeah, he's got "little man syndrome" (which I can say, because I'm pretty sure I was taller than my dad by the time I turned 15, so I am plenty familiar with the syndrome!), so imagine a cocky, entitled miniature Schnauzer with an attitude problem, then make him human and the boss's son.  That's this guy.  He's a swearer too, I believe.  Same rules apply.
  • Curley's wife.  I'm not going to talk a lot about her here, because I want you to make up your own mind.  She's got a small part, but a big reputation.  That's that.
  • Slim.  This guy is like the older rancher in City Slickers, if I'm not just wildly-off-base and dating myself with that reference.  He's like THE guy on the ranch.  They describe him as almost mythological, he's so you've got to be awesome and all-knowing for this part.

After these parts are selected, the rest of the students will serve as "narrators," using the same popcorn reading rules of "at least a sentence, no more than a page," and then calling on someone else to read.  They will NOT be able to call on anyone identified on the board  who already has a "character" part.  Narrators will read EVERYTHING that's not dialogue (so even the "he said" pieces that interrupt dialogue), because we've already identified that it's extremely important to pay attention to these "stage directions."  I'd like characters to read their parts with vigor and in character, but at first it might be flat.  I will be encouraging throughout to improve this, and usually students get into their characters pretty quickly and the class enjoys it and participates.  If students have questions or observations about the text, I will encourage them to put their hands up so we can stop and talk about it.  Otherwise, we'll discuss this next time.  I mainly want to get students involved in the book and model how helpful having distinct voices of characters is to reading.  Also, when disputes over WHO is supposed to be reading their lines occur, I can help students work through finding context clues to figure it out.  This will be vital to their own comprehension and reading homework.

Before reading officially begins, I will make one final comment about our reading time in class.  The text contains multiple instances of swear words, which helps readers to understand more about the roughness of characters and the times.  This language doesn't really offend me, but I understand that readers may not want to read these words aloud.  That is their choice, and I want to emphasize that no one has to read these words if they don't want to.  They can feel free to skip or alter the words to things like "dang" if they would like to.  The text also uses the word "nigger" in a few cases, which like the other swear words emphasizes characteristics of the speakers, but I have a personal issue hearing this word in my classroom.  I will ask students to replace this word with "people" or "person," no matter their own personal feelings on the issue.  I will share my own personal story on why I've always been vehemently opposed to racial epitaphs (which stems from my own experiences in a very rural, ethnocentric community where diversity nor tolerance was emphasized), and I will ask if there are any other comments about the issue or classroom protocol when dealing with racial slurs in my classroom.  Typically there are not, but if there are other thoughts about it, we will discuss them openly.  See the reflection in this section for more discussion on dealing with racial slurs in literature.

Class Culture & Analyzing Impact of Word Choice on Meaning & Tone
Trust and Respect

My district's novel choices are already preset by our curriculum director, and I absolutely adore the novels that we teach during Junior year: Of Mice & Men and The Great Gatsby.  We also have the option of teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but this year we decided to take the recommendation of the PARCC Model Content Framework for Grade 11 (attached in the resources section) and only pursue two pieces of extended-length literature in order to better cover informational texts that were not previously focused on as much.  Thankfully, my school is also very tied to the idea of teaching works of literature that are classics, despite them sometimes being controversial.  (During Banned Books week, I like to boast to students that all of the novels we read this year have been banned at one point or another, which makes them SO much more interested!)  These factors combine to allow me to teach stunning pieces of literature, some of my favorite in fact, in an environment that will allow me the autonomy to do so in the manner I see fit.

Because of my freedom to teach these novels how I want to teach them, I run into some difficult decisions as a professional.  Of Mice & Men uses the word "nigger," which I cannot stand on a personal level, and it provides a challenge of how to handle it from a professional level.  In all the years before this one, I crossed this bridge when we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where we discussed at length Twain's purpose for using this word 213 times.  Talking about it in Twain's context first was almost easier for me as a teacher, because he so purposefully used it as satire.  I find that approaching this word in Of Mice & Men is somewhat harder, as it is said so much less often and is more there to characterize the times and highlight how ostracized Crooks is at the most basic level.  I appreciate that my school is not prescriptive, but it does mean that I am then required to figure out how to best approach this controversial literature.  I spend a massive amount of time online looking at resources from all kinds of places, NCTE, PBS, and the Teaching Channel, just to name a few.  

Before deciding on whether or not to allow this word to be used within the context of literature in my classroom, I considered the unique factors at my school, which I would recommend any teacher grappling with these issues to do.  My school is predominantly white, and there are no teachers in our building or in our district that are minorities of any race.  I actively encourage the appreciation of diversity in my classroom and in the school, and while "tolerance" is usually the message, I go further to push students to connect with one another and appreciate our similarities AND differences rather than to ignore our differences and push an agenda of "sameness."  We are all beautiful, unique people that have different perspectives on issues, shaped largely by our backgrounds.  One of my absolute favorite lessons that I started teaching at the beginning of last year focuses on Malcolm X's autobiography, which has a major impact on broadening horizons and understanding of other students.  It still gets referenced in class discussions as a connection to other texts, so I know it has impacted many. 

Because our population is so homogeneous, with only a few students of any race other than white, I decided that for my school and in my classroom, I do not want my students to use racial slurs, even in the context of literature.  I felt that the use of this word would create discomfort for my students of all races and for myself.  As I said in the main lesson, I have never been comfortable hearing "nigger," and I just couldn't see myself at a point where even just hearing it wouldn't make me actively flinch.  I do let my students weigh in on the matter, and if ever there were compelling ideas as to why this word should be read aloud, I would certainly dive into the matter full-on.  Until that happens, though, acknowledging why it's used here and what it means is a complete enough lesson for me.  

How I chose to handle this issue may be different from how you will chose to handle the issue.  There are many fantastic resources on the matter, including from Teaching Tolerance, which would be an excellent opportunity for community interaction and reflective thought about this issue.  I would just advise you to check into your school's policy on the matter (as they may be more prescriptive than my school!), gather feedback from your colleagues and students, and proceed with when you feel best meets the needs of your students. 

4 Closing - 5 minutes

In the final minutes of class, we'll discuss what we've read so far today.  I anticipate that we will be able to complete reading the text up to Slim's description and entrance.  I will ask students to predict what they think may happen in the text using textual evidence from what we've covered in class, and I will also ask them to update their understanding of Lennie & George's relationship based on this chapter's interaction.  Then, I will instruct them to read the remainder of Chapter 2 and all of Chapter 3, specifically looking for and noting the following features:

  • Slim's characterization in narrative, action, and dialogue sections
    • Does he really deserve his heroic reputation? 
    • Does he have the best intentions?
    • Can he be trusted?
  • The setting and tone/mood relationship in Chapter 3
  • How the Modernist theme of hardship plays out in this chapter
  • How loneliness is emphasized in this chapter
    • Who is lonely?  How does this loneliness manifest itself?
    • Is the loneliness a personal condition or Steinbeck's critique of a larger issue?
    • Is anyone not lonely?
  • Lennie & George's relationship as our understanding evolves

Students will not have to formally write down anything for this reading assignment, but I will encourage them to mark up their electronic texts, write their own notes, or create a two-columned chart with my questions and their text-based answers as they discover them.  I learned since my lesson last time that the copy of the text in Actively Learn was missing a few lines, so this investigation of the text will be less dependent on questions inserted by me and more dependent on students' own independent critical reading skills in response to these base ideas.

5 Next Steps - 0 minutes

We will have a quiz over this reading material next time, and students will generate and respond to discussion questions and answers.  Additionally, I will be looking at the responses to their final thesis statement submissions to approve them, approve them pending revision, or require alternate thesis statements be submitted.  I will want to have a concrete, unique thesis statement approved for each student by next class period.  To communicate with students regarding their statements, I will email them.  In order to simplify what could be an intensive process for me, however, they will always submit revisions to the same form so that I can have ONE consolidated document to display all students' statements.