My best lesson - Spark an uprising to understand Orwell

31st January 2014 at 00:00

I have to confess that my best lesson is not really "my" lesson at all. It is, in fact, based on an idea given to me by one of my more experienced colleagues. Like anyone not wishing to reinvent the wheel, I slightly modified it for my own class.

Let me set the scene: I am teaching Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution to my 13-year-old Year 9s. My class are a keen bunch and they are embracing George Orwell and his allegorical novel with great energy.

However, as relatively middle-class teenagers, it is hard for them to appreciate the disparity in wealth, status and rights between the upper and lower classes in pre-revolutionary Russia - represented by the farmer and animals at the beginning of the book - or the need for revolution.

So, to inspire a mini-revolution, I project a large chunk of Latin prose on to my whiteboard. As the class enters the room, I tell them that they will be silently copying this prose until further notice.

Two boys are given the detention book and the power to put anyone's name in it if they fail to comply. They take great pleasure in policing the task and in dishing out punishments. Meanwhile, two of my female students are invited to sit at my desk (not usually allowed) and chat about their plans for the weekend.

It takes longer than I expect for the mumblings of dissent to become audible; my policemen are doing an excellent job. Finally, after about 10 minutes of copying in silence, one student puts up his hand to ask me why he can't sit at the front with the two girls.

Once this student has voiced his opinion, a few others wade in, and within minutes my mini classroom revolution is in motion. It isn't long before our uprising is related to Orwell's animals and farmers and thus the Russian Revolution.

Time lines are updated, impassioned paragraphs are written about the distribution of wealth and rights, and detentions are crossed out of the book as - one rainy afternoon in Devon - Year 9 comes to realise what Orwell was really on about.

Katie White is an English teacher at Kingsbridge Community College in Devon, south-west England

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