Lesson 9 of 23
Duration:
Two 50-minute class periods

Understanding Mr Birling

From the Unit:

Essential Questions

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

Guiding Questions

  • 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?

Learning Objectives

  • 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.

Overview

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.

Alignment with the GCSE Specification

  • 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.

Learn more about this unit’s Alignment with GCSE Specification

Context

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’.

Notes to Teacher

  1. Preparing for the Group Work

    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.

  2. Examining Historical Images Relevant to Mr Birling's Speeches

    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.

  3. Making a 'Claim'

    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.

  4. Classroom-ready PowerPoint Slides

    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.

Understanding Mr Birling

PowerPoint
Understanding Mr Birling

This PowerPoint for Lesson 9 of the Teaching Inspector Calls unit comes complete with student-facing slides and teaching notes, and is ready to use in the classroom.

 

Materials

Activities

Part I

  1. Examine Historical Images Relevant to Mr Birling's Speeches
    • 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?
  2. Read the Next Section of 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.
  3. Annotate Mr Birling's Speeches
    • 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.
  4. Discuss the Relationship Between Identity, Values, and Choice
    • 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?

Part II

  1. Reflect on Mr Birling's Character
    • 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.
  2. Select Accurate Evidence
    • 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
  3. Annotate the Evidence
    • 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.
  4. Reflect on Mr Birling's Character and Values
    • 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.

Extensions

  1. Reflect on the Relationship between Identity and Values

    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

Mr Birling Character Map

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.

Unit

Introduction
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Get Prepared to Teach this Scheme of Work in Your Classroom

Prepare yourself to teach this unit by reading about our pedagogy, teaching strategies, and the unit's content.

Lesson 1 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Building a Classroom Community

Students work together to create a contract with the aim of developing a reflective classroom community, which is conducive to learning and sharing.

Lesson 2 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Exploring Where I'm From

Students prepare for reading the play by considering the relationship between the individual and society, and by reflecting on identity. After discussing a poem about identity, they write their own.

Lesson 3 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Exploring Social Inequality

Students explore social inequality in the UK, discussing how an individual’s background can impact their opportunities before examining graphs that display social inequality and employment trends.

Lesson 4 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Priestley's World and the World of the Play

Students learn about important events that occurred during Priestley’s lifetime, completing a human timeline to understand their chronology, and are introduced to the concepts of socialism and capitalism.

Lesson 5 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

The Treatment of Edwardian Women

Students examine various resources, including excerpts from Emmeline Pankhurt’s ‘Freedom or Death’ speech, to gain an understanding of how women were treated and expected to behave in Edwardian society.

Lesson 6 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Entering the World of the Play

Students begin reading the play, having applied what they have learnt about Priestley and the relevant sociohistorical context to make predictions about its content.

Lesson 7 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Understanding Class

Students explore class, status, etiquette and hierarchy to deepen their knowledge of the social expectations and values which guide the world in which the characters live.

Lesson 8 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Developing Character Inferences

Students are introduced to the concept of inferencing; they draw inferences from the opening scene of the play, and consider what messages Priestley sends through the language, character and setting.

Lesson 9 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

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.

Lesson 10 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

The Cost of Labour

Students explore the moral codes of the world of the play, before being introduced to the concept of a universe of obligation and participating in a debate on workers’ rights.

GCSE Supplement
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Persuasive Writing: A Letter to Parliament

Students write a persuasive letter to Parliament concerning the gig economy, having reviewed persuasive devices, generated claims and content, and read a model letter.

Lesson 11 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Understanding Sheila

Students use the character of Sheila to further understand the interplay between identity and choices, before going on to analyse Priestley’s presentation of Sheila in Act One.

Lesson 12 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Act One Review

Students consider the lessons we can learn from Act One of the play, before adopting the perspectives of characters in both drama tasks and written tasks.

Lesson 13 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Differing Perspectives and Conflict

Students begin Act Two of the play, reflecting on the differences in perception emerging between the characters and considering how conflict can arise from such differences.

Lesson 14 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Analysing Gerald’s Character

Students develop their understanding of the character Gerald, exploring the differences between his treatment of Eva/Daisy and Sheila, whilst reflecting on Edwardian gender expectations.

Lesson 15 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Understanding Mrs Birling

Students consider what factors impacted Mrs Birling’s treatment of Eva Smith, and create a universe of obligation graphic representation for her character.

GCSE Supplement
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Analytical Writing: A Character Paragraph

Students write an analytical paragraph on character having generated claims, selected evidence and read a model paragraph.

Lesson 16 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Eric's Decisions and Consent

Students consider the role power plays in the interactions between characters, focusing on the relationship between Eric and Eva, before discussing consent.

GCSE Supplement
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Persuasive Writing: A Speech about Consent

Students write a persuasive speech for sixth-form students on the importance of consent, having reviewed persuasive devices, generated claims and content, and read a model paragraph.

Lesson 17 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Inspecting Inspector Goole

Students create an identity chart for Inspector Goole, analyse his parting words, and look for clues to uncover who or what Inspector Goole is.

Lesson 18 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Social Systems and Individual Agency

Students identify the parts, people, and interactions of various social systems, thinking about what bearing they have on character choices and behaviour, before considering responses to injustice.

Lesson 19 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Putting the Characters on Trial

Students finish reading the play and participate in a court trial to decide which character is the most responsible for the death of Eva Smith.

Lesson 20 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Bearing Witness to Eva Smith

Students reflect on Priestley’s portrayal of Eva Smith and consider the symbolism of having a character who only appears in the narrative second-hand.

GCSE Supplement
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Analytical Writing: The GCSE Character Essay

Students write an essay on character having generated claims, selected and annotated evidence, and read a model essay.

Lesson 21 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

What Lessons Can We Learn?

Students address the essential question of the unit in a people's assembly, reflecting on the lessons that we can learn from An Inspector Calls.

GCSE Supplement
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Persuasive Writing: A Letter to a Newspaper for a Caring Community

Students write a persuasive letter to a local newspaper, which outlines the importance of considering the needs of others and suggests ways to create a more caring community.

Lesson 22 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Recurring Themes in the Play

Students prepare to write an essay on theme by identifying and analysing the themes explored in the play.

Lesson 23 of 23
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Theatre as a Call to Action

Students consider theatre as a call to action, discussing its power and limitations to spark real social change, before plotting their own play inspired by An Inspector Calls.

Requirements
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Alignment with Ofsted Requirements

Read about how this unit assists teachers and schools in fulfilling a range of statutory and non-statutory requirements as outlined in the 2019 Ofsted inspection handbook.

Requirements
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Alignment with the GCSE Specification

Read about how this unit is aligned with Ofqual’s subject aims and learning outcomes for both the English Literature and English Language GCSEs.

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