Thursday, 22 May 2014

Teaching 'An Inspector Calls'

Was there a PPT? A YouTube clip? Images? Music? None of the above. Simply paper, pens and copies of An Inspector Calls.

It was the second lesson in the scheme and I wanted an engaging and creative way of starting the play and getting to grips with the characters. For homework the previous lesson I asked the class to research any social or political world events between 1912 and 1946 (when the play was set and written). There were no constraints or limitations, I just asked each student to come to class with at least 3 events.

They arrived to class with slips of paper and quite eager to share their findings. Upon entering, they found the room rearranged with tables grouped in the centre of the room and enough chairs around. But I didn't ask them to sit down. Instead I told them to stand around the table and grab a coloured pen from the front. On the table was some flip chart paper with a timeline drawn on. Armed with pens, the students spent 10minutes plotting their events on the timeline. They had to move paper, pens and themselves to get to where they wanted and there was lots of discussion as they shared their findings. I sat back and watched. Some questions were thrown at me: is the invention of colour tv important? What about the Russian revolution? I just told them to get it all down and they did. In fact, at this point I was pretty invisible.

Once they'd finished we all sat around the timeline and looked at what they had produced: paper covered in different colours: wars, inventions, policies, tragedies. They hadn't just researched the obvious and, whilst I had asked them to think outside the box, I hadn't expected quite so much information. At this point I gave a brief introduction to the text, explaining the context and setting in a little more detail (we had covered Preistley's background and political beliefs in the previous lesson). The students then discussed which events they thought were most relevant to the play and why and they then created their own individual timelines to keep and refer to in their folders using the large one as a guide. I even got to drawing my own, something which the students responded really positively too, I think a sense of pride that I was using their work as a basis for my own, (I was teaching the same text to another class and wanted to use the current lesson as a model).

Next came the play itself. We started with the stage directions and the descriptions of the characters. The students created brainstorms for each character using evidence and then analysed the language and discussed possible interpretations. To get them started I encouraged them to discuss possible meanings and bounced ideas around the class, asking students to agree with possible interpretations, build upon them or challenge by offering alternative views (this ABC method is great and taken from @huntingenglish). Before the characters had even spoken, the students had a great grasp of personalities and relationships e.g. Birling was 'heavy looking' therefore he "was overweight and clearly well fed reflecting his wealth and capitalist lifestyle" but "maybe he's just a serious looking man with lots on his mind." Did I respond? No. Is there a right answer? Maybe. But the students were engaged and were eager to explore multiple layers of meaning and alternative views, something which I have been encouraging since September but which they only just seem to have grasped. The brainstorming continued as we begun to read the play and the students gradually took more control over the pace as their confidence grew. By the end of the lesson, it was the students who started stopping the reading to copy certain quotes and discuss multiple meanings while I worked to facilitate their discussions.

Five lessons on and we have only just finished Act 2 but this doesn't bother me. I'd rather them take their time now and get to grips with the text rather than spend frantic lessons before their exam trying to get them to remember everything they need to know. The thing that struck me the most after this lesson was how simple it was to deliver, making me question my practice last year when I taught off detailed PPT slides which explained everything yet allowed the students no opportunity to learn for themselves. Last year though I was doing the hard work. Now I'm quite enjoying being a 'lazy' teacher, guiding and encouraging their deeper exploration of this play.

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