students on the sofa

The Art of Creating Critical Reviews

In the relaxed yet focused atmosphere of the Year 10 classroom, clusters of pupils huddle in groups of three or four around the room, ready to embark on the challenging task of writing critical reviews. In preceding weeks they have practiced and refined their skills using mentor texts to model and analyse the use of language and linguistic techniques. Now they are ready to evaluate and judge pieces of work, delving deep into understanding the context, style and role required for each type of review. Preparing for the mock IB e-assessments they will sit next week, today the pupils get to rise to the challenge of taking ownership of their writing, signalling a significant step towards independent learning.

The room erupts into lively discussions as pupils debate the components of a good critical review. They considered the importance of unbiased data and factual cores, while acknowledging the critic’s need to inject personal but not overtly biased opinion. Some humorous suggestions like writing in Mongolian or Turkish lightens the mood and showcases the pupils’ creative thinking and comfort with their Teacher and peers.

Matt, their enthusiastic teacher, draws the class together to discuss technical aspects of writing. Noting key points on the small moveable whiteboard, he engages actively with the pupils inviting everyone to contribute their thoughts and stretch their understanding. In an atmosphere that encourages contribution without attachment to outcome, the pupils show no fear in making errors, knowing mistakes are celebrated and accepted as a key path to learning.

With the class in open dialogue, one student asks if ‘logos’ and ‘pathos’ are needed in critical writing, drawing on concepts they have learnt about in previous weeks. Building on their curiosity, Matt explains the significance of logos in this context, the ability to appeal to the audience’s sense of reason or logic and the need for drawing facts together to provide well-reasoned arguments. “If you say one part is important, you have to expand on it and explain your thinking,” he emphasised. The pupils brainstorm ways to do this, considering personal anecdotes and expert opinions as potential tools to substantiate their points.

“What in your eyes makes a good critical review?” Matt asks, prompting a cascade of thoughtful responses. The room buzzes as pupils generated ideas about structure, content and the delicate balance between factual information and subjective analysis. They debate whether to include spoilers, how to understand their audience and how much emotion to weave into their reviews.

A natural rapport and light, sassy exchange between Matt and an eloquent student brought humour and lightness to the room. Their conversation touches on language use, with Matt encouraging everyone to contribute to the discussion. Pupils suggest they could immerse their reader in the subject by incorporating descriptive and figurative language, metaphors and sensory details. Examining there notes, one pupil raises their previous work on poetry cautiously suggesting they could use antithesis—placing opposing ideas together to create a striking contrast.

As pupils work quickly and independently, questions fill the air. “Would it be too much to review a whole album?” one asks sparking discussions on style, purpose and the necessity of maintaining a balance of emotion. The room is alive with the gentle hum of conversation as pupils engage in research, ready to craft their written pieces over the upcoming lessons and during self-directed learning time at home. Each of them mindful that this style of critical writing will likely be present in their IB mock e-assessment the following week.

With no desks present, the chairs hug the edges of the room, laptops balance precariously on knees while feet are propped up on chairs, giving the room a relaxed, at-home feel. Pupils delve into their chosen subjects, from “Breaking Bad” episodes to “La La Land,” to albums of their favourite music, each eager to explore and critique their selected media. Matt moves quietly around the room, sitting on chairs in the gaps between groups of pupils, talking through and supportively challenging their questions and ideas. Challenging the pupils on their approaches and ensuring they use their time wisely, encouraging them to take notes and begin to structure their ideas – instead of going down rabbit holes of research and immersion in the topics they are passionate about.

“I find it hard to start, to write my first sentence,” one student admitted. “I think I need to come back to that once I know what the piece looks like.” This sentiment is echoed by others, highlighting the common struggle of finding the perfect opening line. Matt encourages them to dive into the research and let the structure evolve naturally, advising them to think back to their recent comparative analysis lessons on what makes a good film, album or piece of media.

As pupils engage in discussions, they critically analyse their chosen subjects, considering aspects like cinematography, message, music score and themes. Using a facilitative coaching approach, teacher input is minimised. Matt is present mostly to provide a steady, guiding hand as pupils navigate their thoughts and ideas. “Are you using your time wisely?” he asks, reminding them to stay focused on their tasks and not get lost in personal interest.

The room’s atmosphere is a blend of focused energy and collaborative spirit. Pupils ask questions of Matt, each other and themselves, seeking clarity and direction. “You know it’s good if it’s not something you would normally want to watch or read, and then you read the review and feel compelled to watch/listen/read it over the weekend,” one student noted, capturing the essence of a successful review.

Another adds, “There has to be a balance in how much emotion you put into it. You want people to feel something but not be overwhelmed by your personal bias.” The balance of emotion and fact is a recurring theme, with pupils striving to find the perfect blend.

In the midst of discussions, one student humorously remarks, “I just got the ick from someone else’s review writing… who do they think their audience is?” The comment sparking a light-hearted debate on audience perception and the importance of writing with a clear understanding of who the review is for.

The classroom is a hive of intellectual activity, with pupils fully immersed in their projects. They compare notes, share resources and offer constructive feedback. Some pupils focus on reviewing specific episodes or songs, while others tackled broader subjects like entire seasons or albums. Each approach is valid, every pupil encouraged to find their unique voice and perspective.

As the session draws to a close, Matt gathers the pupils attention for a final discussion. “Think about your audience and your purpose,” he reminds them. “Your review should share your opinion, provide factual information and engage your reader.” The pupils nod, their minds buzzing with ideas and plans for their reviews.

The gentle hum of conversation continues as pupils pack up their laptops and notes, ready to continue their work at home. They leave the classroom with a sense of purpose and excitement, eager to craft their critical reviews and share their insights.

The engaging and collaborative process exemplifies the principles of Atelier 21, where learning feels more like an applied collaboration of minds, than a didactic rhetoric of knowledge acquisition. By combining critical thinking, creativity and independent learning, the pupils are well-prepared for the challenges ahead, ready to transition to Year 11 with confidence and skill.