Teaching Dickens is like having access to the best available source to teach English culture and language. His writing embraces all the components necessary for a great literary success: an exciting plot, fascinating characters, entertaining and sophisticated language use, social and cultural reflection, all together shaping an evergreen story that is open for adaptations thus guaranteeing constant contact with its new readers.
We are enthusiastic about several Dickens novels, and Great Expectations (first published in 1861) can easily be the favourite one of many of us. How do your students feel about it? How can they engage with this text which is set in Victorian times and might look a bit old for them? The key is making them feel interested in the setting and the characters, the story will manage to keep them hooked on reading the book. Where to start?
We have designed a lesson framework you can use to introduce the novel to your teen classes. You can do all of the steps or you can choose to focus on one topic. You will need a laptop, a projector or an IWB and an Internet connection for this lesson. If you choose to cover all the steps and topics, you will need about three lessons. The amount of time you spend on the steps depends on how much project work you hand out to your students.
You can also read the graded reader Great Expectations Chapter by Chapter in our serialisation.
Words which might need to be checked are in italics in the lesson steps below.
STEP 1: VISIT KENT AND LONDON
1 The novel is set in the marshes in Kent and then in London, two areas definitely worth exploring. Find images of the marshes, and then find Kent on Google Maps.
2 Check out the Visit Kent website to see beautiful images of the county and then pick a destination for a virtual visit.
3 Why do they call this county ‘The Garden of England’?
Project tip 1: Two important cities in Kent
Half of the group can look for information about Canterbury, and the other half about Dover. Search the Internet for historical, cultural and touristic information about these cities.
Project tip 2: The Thames Marshes
Find the Thames Marshes area on a map. Dickens used to take long walks in this area, and it is the setting of the first chapter of the novel. Look at images of this area and describe them. What do they make you feel? Would you like to visit?
- Words to check: estuary, harsh, wild, wilderness, ditch
- Visit this page and find out more about the area: Nature Improvement Area Greater Thames Marshes
- You can also read this interesting article on the BBC News website: ‘Would Dickens recognise Great Expectations landscape?’
Now let’s go to London.
1 What was London like in the Victorian Age? How do you imagine life in the 1850 and 1860s?
2 Choose one (or all!) of these lesson plans to learn more about London:
- Reading the Streets of London
- Literary Time Travel 3: Back to mid-19th century London with Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist
- (Re)visit London
STEP 2: MEET THE CHARACTERS
1 Read these very short character descriptions. How do you imagine there characters? Do you know any people who are similar to them?
- Herbert Pocket is a cheerful and kind boy and Pip’s best friend.
- Estella Havisham is beautiful but cold and distant with Pip.
- Abel Magwitch is a violent man but grateful to Pip for helping him.
- Miss Havisham, a rich but unhappy woman, wants Pip to fall in love with Estella.
- Joe Gargery is a simple, honest man and very kind to Pip.
- Pip is a poor orphan who wants to change his life.
(Activity from the Helbling Reader Great Expectations, page 8.)
2 Look at the illustrations of the characters in the reader, and describe them.
3 Character diary
The novel is a bildungsroman. Bildungsroman is a German word used for novels that show the psychological and moral development of the main character as he or she grows up. The main character, Pip, changes a lot during the novel, and also his relationship with other people. As you are reading the novel, keep a mini diary in which you comment on the development of Pip and other characters.
STEP 3: ACT IT OUT
A great way of understanding a scene is acting it out. Choose a scene, for example the first one in the churchyard, and act it out in pairs. The bravest pairs can perform in front of the class. Find a scene in each chapter that you can act out.
STEP 4: ADAPTATIONS
Choose two film adaptations and watch their trailers. Which one do you like more? Which one would you like to watch?
- Here you can find all the adaptations of the novel: Great Expectations films on IMDB
STEP 5: MODERNISE THE STORY
The 1998 film adaptation of the novel set the novel in a contemporary context. Following the main storyline of the novel, think about the setting, the characters, their jobs, their problems, and imagine how this story could develop in your country and time.
STEP 6: ALTERNATIVE ENDINGS
Charles Dickens originally wrote a sad ending for Great Expectations but he decided to change it to a happier one because of a suggestion from one of his friends. Most books today contain the new ending but there are some that also include the original one. How would you end the story? Write your own ending of the story.
- British Council School Online, Connecting Classrooms Project: Dickens 2012 – Download the Education Pack
- BBC GSCE Bitesize English Literature: Charles Dickens and Great Expectations – Do the quiz about events in Dickens’ life and in the novel.
- Dickens in Context on the British Library website – Read the article about The Gothic in Great Expectations