Titanic at Southampton docks, prior to departure
Lesson

Understanding Mr Birling

Students study the character of Mr Birling, critically assessing Priestley’s presentation of him, before using the character to reflect on how identity can influence people's views and behaviour.

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This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — UK

Grade

6–12

Duration

Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement

Overview

About this Lesson

In the last lesson, students were introduced to inferencing as a strategy to help them analyse the play and consider the messages that Priestley sends through his use of language, setting and character. Understanding how to make inferences not only enables students to deconstruct the play and examine Priestley’s craft, it also gives them the skills to better understand their own thinking process and recognise how they make sense of the world around them. This understanding, in turn, can help students to be more critical in their consumption of texts and information as it makes them aware of how we respond to new information and encourages them to use evidence-based reasoning. 

In this lesson, students will continue their in-depth study of character by focusing on Mr Birling. In addition to critically assessing Priestley’s presentation of Mr Birling, students will also reflect on how identity can influence our view of the world and our behaviour. Mr Birling is portrayed as an uncaring businessman who wishes to put profit before people, and for Priestley, it could be argued, he symbolises capitalism itself. Through analysing his speeches, students will get a clear idea of which values Mr Birling holds to be important and whose needs he considers himself responsible for. They will also begin to consider how Mr Birling is both a product of his environment and, simultaneously, someone whose behaviour and decisions impact the society in which he lives. Throughout this lesson, students will have the opportunity to think about the sources of their own views and values, and how they are connected to their identity, background and experiences. Such reflection is important if students are to engage critically with the world around them and broaden their understanding of those who are different.

Students will begin the lesson by continuing to read the play. They will then work in groups to discuss one of Mr Birling’s various long speeches, thinking about how these speeches inform the audience about his character and world view. Later in the lesson, students will have the opportunity to select relevant evidence to support their claims concerning Priestley’s presentation of Mr Birling, and to think about how to annotate this evidence. To help consolidate their learning, students can create a Mr Birling character map for homework. 

The activities in this lesson refer to pages 5–10 of the Heinemann edition of An Inspector Calls.

  • Analysis (Lit-AO2, Lang-AO2)
  • Application of Contextual Information (Lit-AO3)
  • Critical Reading (Lit-AO1/AO3, Lang-AO4)
  • Critical Thinking (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
  • Evidence-Based Reasoning (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)

Throughout the lesson, students apply their knowledge of contextual information and use critical thinking to identify the connection between Mr Birling, his identity, and his values. When annotating the text, students use evidence-based reasoning and develop their comprehension skills, identifying and interpreting the explicit and implicit ideas contained within Mr Birling’s speeches. Students begin to lay the foundation for effective analysis by selecting and annotating evidence to support specific claims about Mr Birling’s character. The use of discussion and writing throughout gives students the opportunity to develop and verbalise their thoughts and practise turning them into coherent sentences, which will help them across their English GCSEs.

What can J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls teach us about the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others?

  • What factors shape the characters’ identities in An Inspector Calls?
  • How can analysing character help us understand the values characters in literature hold and our own values and worldview? 
  • How does our identity influence our values?
  • Students will examine the factors that make up Mr Birling’s identity and consider the ways in which his identity informs his world view and behaviour.
  • Students will identify what messages Priestley’s portrayal of Mr Birling sends to the audience, selecting relevant evidence to support their claims.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 8 activities
  • 2 teaching strategies
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 1 image gallery
  • 1 handout
  • 1 extension activity
  • 1 homework suggestion

In his speeches, Mr Birling refers to several relevant historical incidents that students explored in Lesson 4: Priestley’s World and the World of the Play:

  • The sinking of the Titanic, which saw a catastrophic loss of life and was one of the worst maritime disasters during a period of global peace.
  • The possibility of war – while Birling dismisses the prospect of war as fiddlesticks, the audience knows that not one but two world wars occurred in the period after the play was set.
  • The labour strikes, notably the National Coal Strike, which occurred during the period known as ‘The Great Labour Unrest’ (1910–14). 

Mr Birling’s lack of prescience when referring to the first two historical events makes him look ignorant and out of touch with society, whilst his dismissiveness when referring to labour strikes highlights how little he cares for the well-being of workers; the latter is particularly significant when one considers his response to Eva Smith and her strike for higher wages. 

When students are analysing character, it is important that they keep this contextual information in mind to better understand Birling’s choices, motivations, and decision-making process, and also to reflect on the critical messages Priestley sends about the society in which Birling is a ‘prosperous manufacturer’.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

In this lesson, students will be analysing Birling’s key speeches in the opening of the play. We have suggested five excerpts, and you can find the text references for these excerpts on the handout Mr Birling’s Speeches Group Activity along with Connection questions to guide group discussions. You will need to provide each group with a large photocopy of the excerpt that they are annotating – ideally A3 in size – so they can be hung around the classroom to help other students in a later lesson. Students will also need to have their own copies of the relevant excerpt they are analysing, which they can annotate. If students cannot write in their copies of the play, then ensure that they have access to a photocopy of their speech.

Please note, this task, which requires students to discuss four contextual images that are relevant to Mr Birling’s speeches, is intended to be a quick refresher. We suggest only focusing on each image for a maximum of one minute before moving on as this gives students enough time to discuss the questions briefly in pairs and makes the contextual information present when they are reading the play. If this task takes longer than five minutes, the lesson is likely to run over.

In this scheme of work, we employ the term ‘claim’ to refer to a statement being made about a text, rather than the widely used term ‘point’. We feel that ‘claim’ highlights the depth of engagement required from the students and makes it clear that they need to first, select evidence to support their claim and second, explain how and why it does so.

Understanding Mr Birling

Use these slides to help students critically assess Priestley’s presentation of Mr Birling.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson. The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans

Activities

Part I

  • Explain to students that today they will be analysing the character of Mr Birling, considering the relationship between his identity and the social context in which he lives. In the next section of the play, Mr Birling references several historical incidents, which are central to understanding his character and the messages that Priestley wished to send to his audience.
  • Give students the opportunity to practise making inferences while also reflecting on these historical events by examining a series of images. It might be useful first to review when the play was written and when it is set. 
  • Project each image from the image gallery Mr Birling Context Images on the board for a maximum of one minute each. While each image is projected, ask students to work in pairs and to develop inferences by discussing the following questions:
    • What is going on in this image?
    • What do you know? What background knowledge do you have?
    • Using what you see and what you know, what can you infer about this image?
    • How might the image connect to the play?
  • Assign five students different reading parts and have them take their relevant props from the prop box. You will need Mrs Birling, Birling, Sheila, Gerald, and Eric. 
  • Instruct students to mark the connections to the historical context they have studied either in their copies of the play or using sticky notes if they can’t write in their books. 
  • Then read aloud the section from Mrs Birling ‘Now, Arthur, if you’ve no more to say’ (bottom of p. 5) to ‘the sharp ring of a front door bell’ (top of p. 10). You may wish to arrange the classroom so that you have a mock stage at the front, so students perform the scene to the class.
  • Explain to students that they will be divided into groups and each group will analyse a different speech given by Mr Birling.
  • Begin by dividing the class into groups of 3 or 4 and give each group a large photocopy of one speech to work with (some groups will have the same ones) and the handout Mr Birling’s Speeches Group Activity. If your students can’t write in their books, also provide them with individual copies of their speech that they can annotate.
  • Explain to students that each group will read aloud their assigned passage and then discuss the Connection questions on the handout. They should record notes about their discussion on their large A3 copy of their speech. Project the following annotation suggestions: 
    • Underline key phrases and make a note explaining why it is underlined
    • Draw arrows that point to specific pieces of evidence and make a note to explain what the evidence reveals about Birling or a theme
    • Underline key phrases that connect to other parts of the play and/or to their own lives
    • Pose questions about Birling, a theme, or historical context
  • After you see that groups have finished their annotations and discussions, give students time to write up the group’s annotations and ideas into their own copies of the play or onto their individual photocopies.
  • Have students come back together as a whole class and ask a member of each group to report back about one key phrase in their passage and what it suggests about Mr Birling, and to read their adjectives describing his character. 
  • Then, facilitate a class discussion that draws from the following questions:
    • Taken together, what do these five speeches suggest about Mr Birling’s identity and experiences?
    • How does his identity and experiences influence his values and choices? 
    • What does it mean for society if people’s choices and values are influenced by their identity and experiences? 
    • If our experiences and identities impact our values and choices, how can we ensure that we consider the needs of those who have different backgrounds and experiences to us? What challenges might we face? How can we overcome such challenges?

Activities

Part II

  • Explain to students that today they will be thinking about how they can develop their writing skills while deepening their understanding of Birling’s character. 
  • Project the following prompts one at a time and ask students to explore them in their books: 
    • Birling describes himself as a ‘hard-headed, practical man of business’ (p. 6). Based on what you have read so far and what you know about Priestley, how do you think Priestley wants us to view people who identify themselves in this way? What makes you say that? 
    • How would you describe Mr Birling in one phrase?
  • To review the content, ask the class to share the phrases they wrote to describe Birling and write them on the board.
  • Tell students that they will now think about selecting appropriate evidence for specific claims they might make about Mr Birling’s character.
  • Guide students through the first part of the Relevant or Not? teaching strategy, to enable them to distinguish between evidence that is relevant to support an argument and evidence that is not relevant to support an argument.
  • Next, divide students into small groups. The groups should be different from the Birling speech groups from Part I of this lesson. If possible try to create groups so there is one person who worked on each speech to help students share their previous learning.
  • Next, guide students through the second part of the Relevant or Not? strategy, ‘Determine the Relevance of Text-based Evidence’, by asking the groups to identify one claim, for which they find three pieces of evidence. Two of their pieces of evidence should support the claim and one should not. Then, have a few groups share their ideas while the rest of the class guesses which two pieces of evidence are relevant and which one is not, supporting their reasoning for each one. 
  • If needed, you could assign a different claim from the list below to each group:
    • Priestley presents Birling as inconsiderate
    • Priestley presents Birling as self-involved
    • Priestley presents Birling as prejudiced
    • Priestley presents Birling as greedy
    • Priestley presents Birling as successful
    • Priestley presents Birling as socially inferior
    • Priestley presents Birling as powerful
  • Explain to the students that to analyse how their evidence supports their claim, it is useful to first annotate the evidence, identifying any words or phrases to zoom in on in order to consider whether or not the evidence supports their claim. Doing such a process can also help them identify the sorts of quotations that facilitate rich, in-depth analysis. 
  • Ask students to select one claim from the previous activity and one piece of relevant evidence to support their claim.  
  • Then, project the PowerPoint slide to display the example annotation. You may also wish to model an annotation of a quotation on the board, thinking out loud to highlight the annotation process. You may wish to use the following questions to guide your verbalisation of the annotation process:
    • How does this piece of evidence support my claim about Mr Birling? 
    • Is there a word or phrase that can be analysed in depth to support my claim further? What does the word or phrase mean? How does this word or phrase support my claim about Birling?
    • Is this evidence relevant to the sociohistorical context of the play, either when the play was set (1912) or when the play was written (1945)? If so, how?
    • How might the audience respond to this evidence? 
    • Is there anything else that stands out about this evidence? 
  • Ask students to repeat the process with their chosen claim and piece of supporting evidence. 
  • After the students have finished, you may wish to invite a student up to model their annotation on the board.
  • Finally, project the following questions one at a time and ask students to discuss each one using the Think, Pair, Share strategy: 
    • How might Mr Birling’s views and values impact his choices and actions?
    • What might be the consequences of these views and values for the society in which Mr Birling is a prominent businessman and respected local figure? 
    • Which of the following do you think most shapes Mr Birling’s values: family, friends, society? What makes you say that? What other factors influence his values?
    • Why might it be important to reflect on the factors that influence our values? 
  • Then, ask for a few volunteers to share their ideas with the class.

Extension Activity

Have the students consider the following questions in a journal reflection. Project each question one at a time so students have time to focus on each one.

  • Which of the following do you think most shapes your values: family, friends, the media, society? Explain your view. 
  • What other factors shape your values? 
  • Why might it be important to reflect on who and what shapes our values?

Before having students apply the Think, Pair, Share strategy with a partner, acknowledge that it can be hard to share our ideas with others, and then model risk-taking by sharing something from your journal reflection about names with the class. Finally, lead a short class discussion, giving students the opportunity to share their ideas.

Homework Suggestion

To help students consolidate what they have learnt about the character of Mr Birling so far ask them to create a character map. Students should use quotations from the play and ideas from the historical and cultural context lessons to complete their maps. Collect or check students’ character maps in the next class period to assess their understanding of Mr Birling’s character.

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Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

These are the handouts that students use throughout the Understanding Mr Birling lesson plan.

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Facing History and Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

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