Having students move between two configurations of small groups can generate deep and powerful discussion about a text, suggests Dan Silverstone
My Y10s already know Animal Farm well, having read through it in class, and the challenge now is to get them to understand it – really understand it – in preparation for a closed book GCSE literature exam that could be about any of the key themes or characters.
They’re a bright and committed group who work really well together, and I wanted to find ways of building on that commitment and willingness to work independently. I’ve worked out two different groups for them to sit in – we call them ‘home groups’ and ‘expert groups’, each of which has four students. Both types of group contain a range of abilities and personalities and are designed to be challenging yet supportive for the students. When they come into class they sit in their ‘home groups’ – their normal seating positions. Their ‘expert groups’ are the ones they go to when they have challenging tasks to get on with. Sometimes all the expert groups will do the same thing, at other times they’ll all be working on something different. Always (well, nearly always), they’ll take what they’ve learned in their expert groups and share it with their home group.
WHY TEACH THIS
This lesson plan for Animal Farm uses home groups and expert groups to give students ways of approaching a novel (though the approach is transferable to other texts/ areas of study) so that they have two opportunities to discuss a key chapter from the text before they complete their own written response. Through sharing and discussing original ideas with their peers, students can really delve into the text.
As a quick activity to get students thinking, I set a few multiple choice questions about the text. I designed them so that there weren’t any obviously wrong answers, and in some cases more than one possible answer could be correct. For example, the question ‘Why did Jones lose the Battle of the Cowshed’ has two plausible answers: ‘he wasn’t sufficiently prepared’; ‘owning the Farm means more to the Animals than it does Jones so they fight harder’. The aim is to get students to develop their analysis of the text, and encourage them to build a strong argument in order to justify their answer.
Before reading Chapter four (Battle of the Cowshed) out loud, I put a list of six questions/ discussion prompts on the board, so that the class knows what the focus of the learning will be. Then, we just read the chapter straight through; I inform the class I won’t interrupt the reading at all with questions or allow them to do so, because I want all the discussion to be done in their groups.
As soon as we’ve finished reading, the class get straight into their expert groups and I give them about 15 minutes to work their way through the six questions/prompts. Some of them ask the students to consider the connotations of specific words/ phrases; some are more thematic and pose broader questions, getting the students to connect this chapter to other episodes from the novel. One to five cover the first half of the chapter only, whilst prompt six asks them to write three more questions/ prompts that they can take back to their home groups to discuss.
After 15 minutes, I send the students back to their home groups and give them about ten minutes to discuss their answers to the first five questions/ discussion prompts, inviting them to focus in particular on any responses where different expert groups have generated answers that don’t accord with one another. The home group has to thrash out which they prefer or whether both could be right.
Next it’s time for the home groups to share with each other the questions/prompts they have come up with and to choose some of them to discuss and work through. I make sure to interrupt them early on, asking them to separate their questions into closed and open ones and further to make sure that they are focused on the open questions as they are more challenging. I remind them that that these questions will form a written task for the next lesson and that this work will be teacher assessed, so they understand that all the discussion in home groups is preparation for that written work.
The lesson ends with a quick sharing of some of the questions/ prompts that they have generated themselves. After the first suggestion, I ask the class to suggest questions that are about similar passages of the text or similar themes but that take a different angle.
After this lesson students could write about which other sections of the book they could connect with Chapter 4 based on their discussions. This will help to develop their analysis skills and wider understanding of the text.
The good thing about having the class working in small groups for the majority of the lesson is that it frees me up to circulate, listen in to the discussions that are going on, help clear up any misconceptions or push discussions on when necessary. But mainly, with this group in particular, I just try to keep out of the way in lessons like this and only get involved when they need me. Every now and then I’ll also tell one group what another has been saying if I think that will help move the second group’s learning on.
ABOUT OUR EXPERT
Dan Silverstone is an English and film studies teacher who is has been an AST and head of department and now works as an assistant principal, leading on data and intervention, at St Margaret’s CofE academy in Liverpool.
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