“She slang her pups last night,” said Slim. “Nine of ‘em. I drowned four of ‘em right off. She couldn’t feed that many.” -Of Mice and Men
Every year its one of the most difficult and exciting days in my classroom. My students have been reading and wresting with John Steinbeck for weeks and have finally arrived at the dark and foreshadowing moment that turns our ongoing conversation into an argument.
Slim drowned the puppies.
Utility is a new and rich theme for high school freshman to consider. In my class we often use Socratic Seminars as a means of organizing our conversations. My protocol looks like this:
- Students are given a specific selection of reading to cover and annotate (1-3 days)
- Students are asked to prepare a “launchpad”, a question or comment meant to accelerate or redirect the conversation
- Students are paired with a partner that is going to observe their participation during the seminar
- We create a large table in the center of the classroom
- One partner sits at the table and the other sits in an outer circle
- The conversation begins with a volunteer sharing their launchpad
- Once the conversation has slowed we switch partners and repeat
Our seminar for this section of Of Mice and Men was deep. Students politely argued the value of animals as companions and as free/living creatures and we discussed at length the rights of a person to take the life of another creature because of perceived value. The conversations eventually led to humanity.
Steinbeck uses the dirty, sickly and seemingly useless dogs as a tool to show us how insignificant we can sometimes make other people. This scene from the film adaptation of the novella shows the same struggle with Candy’s dog:
The utter frailty and simplicity of his characters’ lives are what make Steinbeck my favorite. They all come from a mess, are living a mess or are headed for a mess. They aren’t villains or heroes. They are real, and sometimes real people might not have utility; might not have a whole lot of “worth” beyond their human rights, but we can’t simply say they have no value.