An Inspector Calls – Guidance Notes

It was not until I had finished typing up this document that I realised it had become quite so involved and, as a result, I run the risk of losing the interest of the reader before I have even begun. However, I trust I will be forgiven this failing for I feel that despite its length there is much in it that is of interest, even importance. Certainly, I have found that by putting all my thoughts and experiences down on paper 1 have a far more structured view of what KS4 English and English literature are all about and I can now prepare a topic or piece of literature with more confidence than I would ever have thought possible.

The writing of this was undertaken at various points in the six weeks it took to complete the unit and therefore it might well appear a little disjointed. I have not spent a great deal of time on its presentation, nor is the quality of the typing anything other than acceptable. However, the strength of the document lies in its common-sense approach. Within these pages lie the answers to a number of questions which many colleagues have asked in relation to the teaching of KS4. The purpose of this document is to show how the play ‘An Inspector Calls’ by JB Priestley can be studied as part of a combined GCSE English/Literature course, fulfilling a number of the requirements of both syllabuses.

I have decided to concentrate on ‘Plot and Structure’ and ‘ Characterisation’, although all the other categories could be covered. I always feel a little uncomfortable studying ‘Style’ with anything other than a top group so I would tend to steer clear of that. The group I will be preparing work for is a Division 1 group of average ability, either Year 10 or Year 11. It is hard to envisage how long the whole unit would take to to study, but if you bank on an average half term then you won’t go far wrong.

That might seem a long time but I have included work which is suitable for both the English and literature components of the course so it is providing much which can be used in the final folders, if required. In studying the play I hope also to cover a number of the compulsory components of the English coursework, notably drafting and redrafting, information retrieval and KAL, as well as including an oral assessment. Some of the work will be produced under controlled conditions with evidence of drafting and redrafting submitted.

Hopefully, on completion of the unit with my group I will have covered a significant percentage of the syllabus. Unfortunately, it has taken me five terms to come to grips with this approach and I feel that in retrospect I did not really do my two year 11 groups justice in the first year of the new KS4 GCSE course. Introducing a new book, play or series of poems is really a matter of individual judgment and can depend upon the ability of the group or on the nature of the activities that will be undertaken. However, I tend not to spend a great deal of time on background information, preferring to get straight into the reading.

Important details can then be included at the appropriate time. In addition, part of the information retrieval exercise planned for the unit will be to collect information relating to various aspects of the play from sources other than those supplied by the teacher. Having therefore mentioned a little background information about Priestley and the setting of the play itself, the group will read the play out aloud in class. I am aware that some staff encourage pupils to read the texts at home, enabling valuable lesson time to be spent in a more profitable analysis of the text.

However, given that this group is of mixed ability and that certain individuals cannot be relied upon to do the reading in their own time, I tend to go through it with them in class. I find written homeworks more successful, if only because it is far easier to keep a check on the work that is actually being done. As the group read through the play, I will interrupt at key points and ask the group for their reactions to what they have read, their predictions of what might take place and of their understanding of the key themes within the play.

Having decided to look closely at ‘Characterisation’ and ‘Plot and Structure’ much of the discussion will centre around these two areas. I would expect most of the group to take notes where appropriate. As the play will also be one of the texts the group will most likely answer on in the terminal examination, I would encourage pupils to annotate their own copy of the play. The form of annotation is really up to the individual pupil; as a department we haven’t really explored the possibilities and certainly my groups aren’t very good at this aspect of their English work.

What I have tended to do is record all the points discussed in class and that I feel will be needed for the written assignments and the examination so that I can type them out for revision purposes nearer the exam. At the end of each act I will show the video of the play. This helps break up the reading and allows pupils to visualise the events far more easily than they would do were they only to rely on the text itself. One problem with this is that the film version of the text doesn’t always tie in closely enough with the text and pupils can get confused between the two.

This is particularly true of ‘An Inspector Calls’ as the director has changed events slightly with the result that the pupils tend to refer to the happenings in the film version rather than the text. The version that we have in school is the old black and white one starring Alistair Simm as the Inspector. We used to have an excellent colour version which was as true to the text as you could get, but unfortunately that appears to have gone missing. Surprise, surprise!

After reading Act 1 I will set the group their first written assignment. This will be a piece of imaginative writing and will double up as an example of their understanding of KAL. The assignment will consist of two short pieces of writing both connected with Eva Smith’s meeting with Sheila Birling in Milwards, the department store in Brumley. In the first, pupils have to imagine what Eva would say to her flatmate on return from the department store that evening.

Within this they should show that they know how to write out speech in such a way as to bring out the informal tone of the conversation. Presumably, Eva would use words and phrases which she would not use in a more formal setting. To show this still further, in the second piece of writing Eva would then have a similar conversation, this time with the manager of Milwards. Because of the seriousness of the situation and the different audience, Eva would inevitably talk in a different manner and the pupils would be required to make this apparent.

Whilst testing understanding of the particular episode within the play, the assignment also deals with KAL, an area of the syllabus that I find especially difficult to cover. This work would be produced at home, allowing lessons to be given over to further reading of the text. I should mention that I tend to ‘encourage’ as many pupils to read as possible. It is important to make the atmosphere in the classroom is relaxed so that noone feels threatened.

Even the most reluctant of readers can cope with the part of Edna, the maid, as she only speaks less than a dozen lines within the whole play. Possibilities or oral assessment include a group presentation of one of the key scenes, a prepared reading, a Jonathan Ross interview with either Priestley or characters from the play, a discussion of who is most to blame and so on. As the reading of the play continues, I tend to stop at the point where the Inspector leaves and ask the group what might happen in the remaining pages.

This helps to concentrate the minds of the group on the ending which pupils understandably have a few problems with. Indeed, there are a number of possible explanations, most revolving around exactly who the Inspector is and what, if anything, he stands for. Provided pupils are aware of the possible interpretations, then that should suffice. The group is then ready for the final assignments). I mentioned in the introduction that I was going to concentrate on two of the five categories that need to be covered as a requirement of the Literature syllabus.

The first is ‘Characterisation’ as this is the most straightforward and much preliminary work will already have taken place in the discussions conducted whilst reading through the text. Indeed, many of the pupils will have made marginal notes which should form the basis of the written assignment. SEG appear particularly keen on comparative studies of characters so the most appropriate title would be something along the lines of: Compare and contrast two characters from the play ‘An Inspector Calls’ by JB Priestley. The choice of characters is fairly clear cut, either Mr or Mrs Birling and Sheila or Eric.

The comparison of two differing age groups is important as this is at the heart of the play, the comparison of a male and female character is less obvious but equally important. I am concerned that when it comes to the exam the wording of the question under the heading ‘Characterisation’ might be such as to prevent pupils from answering what should be a banker. For instance, let’s suppose that I have provided my group with the opportunity to answer questions related to character on Macbeth, Lennie Small and George Milton, Napoleon (from ‘Animal Farm’) and Mr Birling and the Inspector.