BY: LIZ KEIPER
“Why don’t George and Lennie have any money saved up from their previous jobs?”
“Why does George go into town with the guys and spend money when they know that they’re trying to save up?”
“Why does George talk about his dream of home ownership like it’s never going to happen? Why is he so surprised when Candy tells him that collectively they actually have funds to make it happen?”
“Why does George give up on his dream at the end when Lennie dies? Can’t he just go out and get another job?”
Some of these questions I ask of my students when we read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Some of these questions they ask of me. However, as I have taught this eye-opening, heart-wrenching piece of literature year after year, I have come to realize that my understanding of the characters’ actions and decisions in this story has partially been shaped by a book that I read years before I started teaching Steinbeck.
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In my Culturally Relevant Pedagogy class in college, one of our assigned texts was A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne. I am well aware that there is critique of Payne’s theories in some sociological circles, and I acknowledge the drawbacks of some of her theories of class mentality. However, for me, Ruby Payne’s theories were incredibly valuable in my development as an educator because they broke wide open the single story that I had unknowingly held of people outside of my own economic class and helped me understand that the way I viewed the world was (1) partially shaped by my economic class, and (2) not common to all of humanity.
That being said, Payne’s theories center around studying the ways that people in different economic classes tend to think and how those (often unconscious) thoughts shape their actions and behavior. Her research also brings to light various resources which can either make or break success in the life of a person who is trying to escape poverty.
In other words, my understanding of George, Lennie, and the ranch hands in Of Mice and Men was informed and enhanced by Payne’s theories, and I wanted to equip my students to begin to understand people outside of their own economic class as I had in college. So, I decided to teach my freshmen about the framework of an economic theorist. No small task, but well worth the effort.
Part of Payne’s theory is that to survive in various economic classes, you need a certain set of “skills” or hidden rules. These hidden rules are both highly valued and necessary for success in that economic class, but those skills don’t necessarily transfer to success in other economic classes. Payne argues that when moving from a lower to a higher economic class, the hidden rules of the new class must be learned and acquired or the person will be handicapped in their success in that class.
In light of that, I start out this mini-unit by showing my students three “quizzes” that Payne includes in her book to “test” them on whether they could survive in either poverty, the middle class, or wealth. These quizzes are aimed at highlighting various hidden rules of poverty, the middle class, and the wealthy class. This helps my students realize several factors:
- Not everyone lives life with the standards that you take for granted.
- Your economic class is one of the factors which shapes the way you see the world and make decisions. Not everyone perceives things the way that you do.
- Hidden rules in all of these classes are valuable for the people in them. No class is inherently “better” than another class because they all require various skills.
I then give them notes on the various hidden rules of poverty, the middle class, and wealth that Payne outlines in her book, and I talk through what each of these look like in terms of inherent decision-making by people in these classes.
I then ask my students to define “poverty” in their own words. Generally, answers are something along the lines of, “Lacking money,” or “Lacking the resources to cover basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing.”
While those statements are true, Payne’s theory is also valuable because her definition of poverty is broader than just a lack of finances. According to Payne, there are seven main resources that can help a person in getting out of poverty, and only one of them is financial.
After discussing both Payne’s concept of hidden rules and resources, we read an example scenario from Understanding Poverty together, and we analyze whether the characters in the story have access to seven resources listed by Payne. For the whole class analysis, I use Payne’s Scenario #1 story on pages 10-11 of her book, which is about a single mother named Adele and her elementary-aged son John. Adele also has another daughter who is handicapped, and after the birth of her second child, her husband left her. In the scenario, Adele is very hardworking but has taken to drinking to relieve her stress. It shows that she wants to do well for her children, but there are many factors in her life, some within her control and some out of her control, which are hindering her financial success.
Then, I break the students into small groups and have them analyze both George and Lennie for which resources they seem to possess in the story. This activity helps give value to George and Lennie; students see that though they lack money, they do possess other resources which can help them get out of poverty. George and especially Lennie both have physical resources. George has mental resources. They have each other as support systems; as Lennie famously says in the story, “I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.”
Payne’s theory of resources then frames our discussion of the rest of the book. When Candy joins in on their plan to save up for the farm, they gain a support system and a role model for how to save money. When George loses Lennie at the end, he loses one of his most valuable resources of a support system, which contributes to his hopelessness at the end.
However, I think that one of the most valuable lessons that I stress with my students in reference to Ruby Payne is how to begin to combat poverty. If access to resources aids in escaping poverty, then a way to help people get out of poverty is to give them access to a wider range of resources. This helps my students begin to think creatively in terms to solutions to poverty in the realms of education, health care, and access to social services, but also how bolstering community organizations can be a necessary component for a person’s economic success.
Not only does Payne’s framework help my students understand characters in a story, but it helps them understand themselves and others around them. It begins to build the empathy and social consciousness that I strive to awaken in my students throughout the course of the year. If learning about George and Lennie’s economic mindset inspires them to think creatively about solutions to social problems such as poverty, then they have gained something invaluable.
WVCTE is wondering…
- What other lessons do you use to connect your students to themes of economic class in literature?
- For what other stories do you think that Ruby Payne’s framework could be a helpful scaffold for student understanding?
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Elizabeth Keiper teaches English 9, English 9 Honors, Newspaper/Journalism, and Yearbook at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, West Virginia. When she’s not in the classroom, she can usually be spotted hiking, hanging out with her youth group gals, or adding to her rather large rubber duck collection. Connect with her on Twitter @KeiperET1.