How do I get them to be ‘critical’ and ‘conceptualised’? A few ways to get students thinking about the GCSE Modern Text

As a department, we teach the GCSE Modern Text in this final term. I have taught Animal Farm for some years now but have, at times, found it a challenge to teach students how to be more critical and conceptualised in their responses. With so many excellent revision resources out there, students often prioritise the views and readings of others before their own, which leaves little room for individual critical thought. I’ve been really keen to get away from essays littered with regurgitated sections of revision guides and to  get the students thinking actively about the text and its many meanings for themselves.

In this morning’s lesson, after a few lessons laying the foundations, I was really pleased to read this work: 

Not the full essay!

I was pleased with the fact that she was able to articulate how Orwell had deliberately crafted this text to suit his purpose. The debate has direction and she carefully and judiciously selects evidence from across the text to inform her argument. I know the student is proud of this and I am too! 

This is the culmination of a series of lessons spent ‘slow planning’ and ‘slow writing’ this piece. Whilst I know English teachers collectively breathed a sigh of relief when Controlled Assessments were no more, there is something to be said about drafting and redrafting in order to reach a model of excellence. 

Having read the text, the next stage gave opportunity to look at the shape of ideas and themes and how they operate across the text as a whole. is an excellent tool for this (if you don’t have a subscription, it’s well worth the investment!). They provide very useful theme diagrams for virtually any text, which can be screenshot and used to pose problems for students. This was one challenge during a lesson: 

You could increase the challenge further by just giving students the diagram without any hints (see previous post for how you might do this)

This led to some really interesting discussions which enabled the students to see where and why certain themes become apparent. They were considering the cause and effect of key moments and plot points within the text and considering why Orwell may have made these decisions. 

The next stage asked them to apply their thinking in a more abstract way, but again, asked them to consider the novel on a much wider scale: ‘ If you could draw how power works in this novel, what would it look like?’, ‘ If manipulation in this novel was a tree, what might be the roots? The branches? The leaves?’ 

Displaying the students’ responses on the visualiser again led to some interesting discussion and allowed opportunity to interrogate their thinking further (and an opportunity to play devil’s advocate!). All discussions used the ‘ABC’ method (See Visible Thinking Routines): 

‘ I’d like to AGREE with ________ as…’ 

‘ I’d like to BUILD ON the idea of ____________________…’ 

‘ I’d like to CHALLENGE _______________’s view of…’ 

Next, I was really keen for them to develop a strong critical view, and this resource from the British Library Archives was invaluable. Prior to this, we had spent some time investigating the production and reception of Animal Farm and the students had done some background work on the Russian Revolution and other key contextual factors. 

Full document can be found here:

Having gained the contextual knowledge, we looked at this rejection letter sent by T.S Eliot to Orwell and I posed a series of questions: 

‘ When is the ‘right’ time to publish a book like this?’ 

‘ To what extent is this a book of protest?’ 

‘ Is all writing a political act?’ 

‘ Does Eliot have a point, in 2019?’ 

This was a great activity to get students thinking about their own critical views and forcing them to substantiate their claims with evidence.

Soon after, the students were ready to look at how they might structure their thinking. We looked at a few examples from previous students, noticing how they speak of characters and events as constructions and how they were able to discuss the purpose of these within the text: 

After this, they were ready to construct their own arguments. Using a visualiser, I modelled a slow planning process using another Visible Thinking Routine- Generate, Sort, Connect. At this time I modelled my own thinking- generating ideas on scraps of paper, sorting them into clear categories, discarding any that didn’t add value to my argument and then connecting them in a logical order. We were then ready to add meat to the bones!

I usually use either of these two models of planning for any debate/ longer essay question. I ask them to imagine they’re a bus driver (oh the glamour!) and to imagine that they’re showing us around a route in their mind: they decide what’s worth stopping for and they decide what is worth seeing and in how much detail. This seems to get the message across!

I then modelled writing thesis statements and we spent a decent amount of time crafting an opening paragraph only. It was important that they were able to articulate exactly what they thought. It was open to interrogation too, students’ work was displayed under the visualiser and was open to be ‘toasted’ or ‘roasted’ (whichever primary teacher on Twitter that came up with Toast/ Roast, it’s absolutely brilliant and the students love selecting the type of feedback they receive!) 

At the end of this process, students have been given time to craft their ideas more meaningfully and I’m noticing that the quality of their writing has improved significantly.

So, in summary: 

  • Model the thinking and planning process to students using visible thinking routines
  • Slow down. When we ask students to write an essay, we are asking for a lot. Split up the individual disciplines and teach the skills you want them to display explicitly (planning/ critical thought/ thesis and topic statements)
  • Gradually release responsibility to students, don’t just expect them to ‘get it’ straight away- craft it and hone it!

I’ve added some of the resources I’ve spoken about in this post here, feel free to download and tailor to your individual settings. 

Enjoy the challenge!

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