When asked why he studies John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men with his students, Matthew Kalafat responds, “it get kids thinking—critically,” and notes that the debates that follow allow his 8th graders to become “more confident, more engaged readers.” Both Kalafat and Derrick Nelson are educators featured in Penguin’s recently released Of Mice and Men: Teacher’s Deluxe Edition ($11.99; Gr 8 Up), available on a variety of electronic devices. Along with video commentary from the two, the iBook contains the full text of Steinbeck’s novel, a lengthy introduction by Susan Shillinglaw; the Robert Burns’s poem from which the book title derives (“To a Mouse, On Turning Her up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785,”); and the text of Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
Lists of discussion questions on topics ranging from “the American Dream” to “Fate” are included and paired with brief video responses by students. The questions and the videos emerged from a collaboration between two schools separated by four miles, but, as one of the educators commented, “might as well be 4,000 miles apart—there’s not much interaction” between these kids. Kalafat and Nelson also describe other aspects of the project from heated wiki conversations to meetings to discuss the classic in person.
Why this collaboration? At an age when students are just beginning to question “the world around them…to look beyond themselves,” Kalafat felt that studying and discussing literature with people who were “different from themselves” offered students fresh perspectives on the novel. He added that while the themes addressed weren’t especially difficult, they “fire[d]up” the participants’ imaginations and gave rise to spirited debate. In a final assignment, students discuss their dreams as young children, and today, and how and why they have changed.
The project is likely to get teachers thinking about collaborations of their own, and how to enhance discussions around this and other novels. Used in the classroom, the embedded videos can introduce other voices and opinions. There’s also a 29-minute audio interview with James Earl Jones about the roles he has assumed in productions, a conversation he had with Steinbeck about an African-American playing Lennie, and a psychology experiment he participated in while in that role. While Jones introduces an actor’s approach to the story, he struggles (and freely admits to it) with the correct terminology to use when describing a person of Lennie’s intellectual ability. Today’s students are as likely to react to the actor’s use of the word “retarded” as they are to his comments about his roles.
The embedded videos as well as the ability to search the text, mark passages, take notes, and share information via social media make this modern edition useful in the classroom. Teachers will also appreciate the step-by-step instructions for projecting the iBook’s content from their computer or iPad to a SMARTboard or screen.