Context as a precursor to critical thinking

Year 10 are part way through their novel study unit and with my low literacy class we are looking at the series Bloodlines, which involves following characters through various world wars and conflicts.

This was a perfect novel through which to study context, because it involves a lot of investigation by students of different battles, developing research skills, and also involves them thinking about how the context of the author shapes the story.

We spent a couple of lessons investigating WWII from different perspectives, with students having to then produce a newspaper article from one of these perspectives.

We then moved on to reading our first novel, which the students LOVED.

This week, we have been looking at the historical, geographical and personal context of the author and separating this from the contextual information required to understand the story. As part of this, students were required to reflect upon their own historical, geographical and personal context.

Students then had to investigate a context different to their own (some chose a different culture, some chose a different historical period) and write a narrative which used jargon in the same way as our novel, to give the reader an understanding of the context and give their story a sense of authenticity.

This week students will finish their narrative and we will reflect upon, as a class, how the context of an author shapes the plot, the narration style, and the themes of the novel. Students have already made the preliminary links in this critical thinking process, recognizing that having the main character as a war hero is shaped by the author’s occupation and experience as a veteran and the knowledge this entails.

We will then look at The Diary of Anne Frank, and contrast the points of view, forms of the text and how the different contexts of the authors shaped the content and themes of the two novels.

For these kids, critical thinking is something I have tried hard to embed into their teaching and learning programs, and in this unit in particular, I have tried to get them to think critically about both the content (why write about a war? What is a “hero” in war? Whose side in a war is “right” or the “winner”?) and the writing style of the novel (whose story is told? How are the nazis demonized?). I have used a lot of literacy strategies to do this, in particular graphic organizers, predicting activities, and teaching students to recognize different types of passages, sentences and words which give clues about character, context and themes, as well as narrative perspective.

Fun with Shakespeare

 This term, my low literacy class and I faced the prospect of battling and struggling through Shakespeare for 8 weeks. Instead, it turned out to be an experience students thoroughly enjoyed through utilising Elizabethan culture to make scenes from Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth concrete, understandable and accessible for the kids.

I focused our study of Romeo and Juliet around the class and gender division in society at the time and how this manifested in things such as celebrations, food, language and clothing. We looked at the scene at the language used to address each other in Romeo and Juliet (especially the servants, the way the nurse could be taunted without consequence and the way the older rich males were spoken to and obeyed) and the scene in which Romeo is asked if he can read by a servant. This gave context for an investigation and discussion of the education in the time of Shakespeare. 

Next we looked at the ball scene and how it explored the entertainment of the upper classes during the period. We read/acted out the scene and then it was the students’ job to design a feast which would be eaten at this ball ( see worksheet: Design a feast for the Capulet Ball). To give them the background to do this, we watched an episode of the series ‘Supersizers Go Elizabethan’  available on YouTube, which provided them with information about eating habits, courses and meals.

We then used Macbeth to investigate All things unnatural including witchcraft, religion and kings and queens as ‘gods’. Students divided into groups and investigated something which interested them about the sentences delivered to witches, the kings and queens of the time, or the religious wars which waged. Students then examined the original script and the representation of the witches in 3 different productions of Macbeth using a YouTube clip, and after this had to come up with the staging and costuming of the first scene in the play for a Shakespearean audience(see the Globe stage diagrams I developed). In order to be able to do this, students needed background about what the Globe Theatre was like in this period. They used this The Globe Theatre interactive site and digital worksheet to investigate this.

Please feel free to use the resources I developed during this unit which are attached on this page, but do give Creative Commons credit where it is due.