1.02: Alligator River (English Lesson)

Alligator River is a short story that will have your class yelling at each other, screaming at each other, becoming enraged at each other. And that’s fantastic, productive learning. This story is about five characters caught up in a story that brings so many different assumptions to the forefront.

It’s a perfect way to address bias, encourage groupwork, develop the need to compromise, and get students actively engaged in full-class conversations.

English Course Pack: Unit One – Literacy Skills

This assignment is part of the The Full English Course Park. This piece is part of Unit One: Literacy Skills, which focuses on creating a strong foundational understanding of literacy skills, PEE paragraph writing, and embedding quotations as textual support.

If you would like to say thanks, consider buying me a coffee. But that is neither required, nor expected.

1.02 – Alligator River

Step One: Read the Story to the Class

Read the story to the class. Simple, right? Simple is often a great way to start. You don’t even need to explain what the story is about, or what the focus of the text will be. That will come in the later parts.

Step Two: Tell the Students Why you Read the Story

Tell the students they’ll rank the characters from Best to Worst. What does “best” mean? What does “worst” mean? That’s something they can self-select, so long as they can justify their responses.

Step Three: Read the Story… Faster!

Read the story again, so they’re reading-with-meaning.  Now that they understand the task at hand, and are returning to a familiar text, they will be listening with purpose.

Feel free to read it faster now. Challenge yourself to see just how fast you can read.

Step Four: Individual Ranking

Give students ten minutes to rank the characters – without talking to their peers (time for that soon!). Ten minutes seems like a lot of time, but students are doing a lot of work considering each of the characters, ordering them, and then adding an explnation for their choice.

Some students will complete this faster than others. The focus should be to keep student-to-student talk to a minimal during this portion of the class, ensuring that the ideas students record reflect their own beliefs, not those of their elbow partners.

Step Five: Group Ranking

Create groups of 4 or 5 in your classroom. Tell the students that they need to create a new list from best to worst that everyone in the group agrees with. This is where some of the yelling begins. There are often a lot of feelings, and because “best” and “worst” and self-defined terms, students may actually agree with each others’ reasons, but not their rankings.

Ensure that no disrespectful behaviour occurs during this section.  Wander around the classroom.  Learn who is quick to speak, who is quick to listen, who is quick to try and silence voices, who is quick to and who is quick to try and ensure all voices are honoured. 

There’s a lot of observational learning that happens here.  Do not sit at your desk and miss this opportunity.

Step Six: Bringing Groups Together

Have students combine two of the large groups (In most classes this should create 3 or 4 large groups across the class.  You can break up your Step Five groups if you have an odd number).

Once again a final list must be created that everyone in these larger groups agrees with.

Instruct students to send a representative to the board to record their final lists for the entire class to see.  Alternatively, have them edit a google sheet that is being projected.  Whatever format you use is fine.  The important thing is that all students can see all the lists.

Step Seven: Explaining Choices

Have the representative that wrote the list for the class to see choose someone from their group to explain the list. This rewards their initial effort, and also allows them to self-select themselves if they want to.

Step Eight: Supporting Choices

Once all three lists have been explained, compare and contrast them.  Ensure students are respectful of all choices.  Indicate that what matters isn’t the order, but that the order can be explained and fully supported. 

Students don’t need to agree with something, but they do need to be able to support and understand the support.

Step Nine: Sharing Your List

Now’s the time to throw a curveball and share “your list”.  Ensure that students know your list is no more correct or incorrect than theirs.  Try to have your list contrast theirs, so you can highlight points that weren’t raised yet. Your list doesn’t have to actually be what you believe in the moment.

Now, you’ve shown that you’re not on a higher level than they are, and that all ideas are equal provided they are backed up by the same level of quality support.

The Impact

You can explain that your class was thrown into chaos by discussing one short story, not even a page long, and that it was all because we approach texts through our own lenses.  Describe how our lenses are shaped, and how that impacts how we view texts (be they visual, audio, written).

By the end of this class your students will understand that this is a course where they can share their ideas freely, as long as they support those ideas. They will know that their voice is welcomed and respected even if they have a viewpoint that differs from that of their teacher. 

English – Unit One: Literacy Skills

English Course Packs: Full Units

Unit One: Literacy Skills
Unit Two: Poetry
Unit Three: Literature Circles
Unit Four: Creative Writing & Choose Our Way Tales (In Progress)
Unit Five: Essay Writing (In Progress)
Unit Six: Culminating Tasks (In Progress)

Written by…

Michael Barltrop has been teaching since 2006, integrating comics, video games, and TTRPGs into his classroom. He has been the head of English, Literacy, Special Education, and Assessment & Evaluation and Universal Design. Feel free to reach out through Twitter @MrBarltrop!

Feel free to support the website hosting by buying him a coffee or sharing this post on facebook, twitter, or whatever social media is trending these days.

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