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Crooks, the Stable Buck: A Dialogic Approach to Character Study

by Eileen Gerken, Silverado High School, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2007

Lesson Plan for Grade 9, and suitable for Grades 8-10 with appropriate modifications

John Steinbeck made tragic and strangely beautiful these sort of Americans: social and intellectual inferiors, who would have been clowns or other wise disposable bit part players in a Shakespearean drama. (Kurt Vonnegut in John Steinbeck: Centennial Reflections by American Writers, edited by Susan Shillinglaw)

After reading aloud chapter four of Of Mice and Men, students and teacher will engage in discussion, to understand Crooks, where he lives, and what makes him different from, and similar to, others. Students will then each compose a Found Poem, using Steinbeck’s words to characterize Crooks.

Objectives:

  • Student will be able to describe the character of Crooks, the negro stable buck
  • Student will be able to articulate the importance of setting, and a sense of place, in the novella, building deeper understanding of loneliness
  • Student will be able to write a Found Poem
  • Student will engage in guided practice in the Dialogic Approach

Materials Needed:

  • Photocopies of Chapter Four of Of Mice and Men for each student
  • Highlighters, pencils/pens and paper for each student

Time Needed

  • For traditional-length class schedules, three class periods, if chapter four is read aloud in class
  • For block schedules, one to two blocks

Background Needed for Instructor:

  • The dialogic approach operates on the premise that understanding is built by the classroom community, not delivered by the teacher.
  • The teacher should prepare and initiate open-ended questions which involve students’ interactions with the text and their own experience. Sample prompts are included here.
  • The teacher should practice “uptake,” that is following up on students’ observations, encouraging students to follow up with each other.

Personal Statement

Participating in the NEH Steinbeck Institute in central California in July, 2007, I had a chance to see, in “Steinbeck country,” a ranch which may have served as a touchstone setting for some of Steinbeck’s fiction. The barn impressed me, and set me to reflect on the stable which was Crooks’ home in Of Mice and Men. Exclusion and discrimination exist in current settings, as they did in Steinbeck’s; perhaps understanding Steinbeck’s unforgettable stable buck can help students understand loneliness and isolation a bit better.

Procedures

Day One

  • In connection with the class study of the book, read aloud Chapter Four.

Day Two

  • Discuss Crooks, eliciting students’ observations, questions, and deductions. Using a dialogic approach, build understanding of the only negro character in the book. Practicing “uptake” on students’ comments may lead in several different and valid directions, towards understanding of isolation.
    1. Start with the following statement from Philosophy Professor Dr. Richard E. Hart (Bloomfield College, NJ):
      Crooks has his own room, furniture and books, hence, he is better off than the other ranch hands. He is not a victim of racism.
    2. Review the catalogue of Crooks’ personal possessions. Ask students what they think may be indicated about Crooks by the specific books he owns.
    3. Crooks does not initially welcome Lennie, but eventually says
      ‘Long as you won’t get out and leave me alone, you might as well set down.
      What personality trait(s) may be at work here?
    4. What has Crooks realized about his childhood and his father, by reflecting on them as an adult? He says
      I never knew till long later why he didn’t like that [Crooks playing with white children]. But I know now.
    5. Later in the evening, Crooks taunts Lennie, pretending that he thinks George may have abandoned him. What is his immediate reason for playing this trick? His deeper reason may be exposed when Crooks says
      S’pose you didn’t have nobody. S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunk house and play rummy ‘cause you was black. How’d you like that?
      What other situations can cause human beings to feel a similar loneliness?
    6. When Curley’s wife enters the barn, she threatens Crooks if he complains to the boss about her violating his privacy. What physical description is given of Crooks during these threats? What happens to his voice? Reactions?
    7. Crooks offers to join the dream farm group, but then retracts his offer. Why do you think he says he did not really mean it?

Day Three

  • Provide the students with copies of Chapter Four which they may mark up, and with highlighters, if necessary.
  • Explain the process of “Finding” a “Poem” in a prose passage.
    1. Using a highlighter, students will mark the passages in the chapter that stand out or speak to them.
    2. They may not change or add words, but should select the words or phrases for their poem, writing them on a separate sheet of paper.
    3. They may, of the teacher advises it, repeat words or phrases, and add punctuation, but they may not add or change words.
    4. They should arrange the poem that they find in lines and/or stanzas.
    5. Students may be advised to word process their poem, adding artwork.
  • Using a computer lab and/or illustrating the poem may add another class period, or part of one. Students may be asked to complete the poem for homework.
  • A poem “found” in Steinbeck’s words has been modeled here:

    Crooks

    Negro stable buck,
    Apple box over his bunk,
    Manure pile under the window.
    Sure, it’s swell.

    A stable buck and a cripple,
    A proud, aloof man.
    Don’t want no trouble.
    Ain’t wanted in the bunk house,
    And guys don’t come into a colored man’s room very much.

    Ain’t a Southern negro.
    Born…in California.
    Just a nigger…
    a busted back nigger.
    Nearly crazy with loneliness.

    S’pose you couldn’t go
    Into the bunk house
    And play rummy
    Cause you was black?
    How’d you like that?

Day Four

  • Closing Activity- Students will share their Found Poems, in small groups, by reading aloud to the class, or by publishing their work.