a resource for teaching tone

Teaching my IB Diploma (and MYP5) students to deal with tone has always been challenging. Inexperienced readers have trouble with the concept generally, often mixing it up with mood, and even students who have an idea of what tone is struggle to find the vocabulary to describe the tone. I have used tone lists in the past, but few of my students have a varied enough vocabulary to have those be very useful. What I needed was a way for students to look at tone more holistically, not only being to identify the tone but also be able to use it in analysis. I wanted a system.

A source for my own understanding has been Writing with a Purpose by Joseph F. Trimmer, an excellent college-level writing guide. Trimmer breaks down tone into two aspects: the range of informative to affective, and the distance between the reader and writer. I like that idea of breaking down the tone into aspects, but I felt like it could be more comprehensive and more friendly to younger students.

So here's the document I developed (here's the g-doc):
I brainstormed those pairs, then tried them out on a series of texts that I might ask my students to analyze, including poems, articles and stories. It seemed to work quite well.

Then I went through a fairly comprehensive tone list I've had for a while, chose the words I thought most common and most likely to be understood and tried to place them under the right 'category.' I'm not claiming I did a great job on that, and if I had more time and better tools, I would show how some of those terms combine two categories.

I'll be trying it out with my grade 11s (IBD1) next week, and we'll see how it goes. But I would love some feedback or suggestions on it before I do so.


starting a new course: IBD Language and Literature

English language dictionaries and references - photo © John Keogh on Flickr -
noncommercial use permitted with attribution
A little background: I teach Language A English in the IB Diploma, and this year the language courses have all been overhauled. One of the changes is to add a Language and Literature class to the Language A group which has been restricted to an intensive literature-only course. I taught AP Language and Composition in California and really loved it, and so I was happy to see that all of the students taking English A this year opted for the Language and Literature course. 

What do I like about the new course?
  • Students work with language as a more abstract concept, looking at how it works in various social and media contexts. 
  • The idea of a text gets expanded. Yes, we still do traditional literature, but we also look at advertising, letters, journalism, blog posts, SMS messages, film, audio texts and anything else we can find. 
  • Students apply analytical skills to all of these texts. While literary analysis is interesting and a valuable intellectual exercise, analysis of mass media texts is absolutely relevant and necessary for students to develop strong media literacy skills.
  • The Language and Literature course requires the production of other texts besides just essays. Students will be free to choose the text type they feel is appropriate to respond to a text.
  • When looking at literature, we still do the formalist textual analysis that was the focus of the Literature course, but we also do literature in cultual context, applying some critical theory to the reading, including reader response. The idea that I will ask my students to analyze their own construction of the text is exciting.
But enthusiasm for something new is not the same as being ready to do something new. Back in May, several teachers on Twitter set up a wiki and a diigo group. The wiki hasn't really been used, but a few of us have been using the diigo bookmarks. I set my Google reader to aggregate keyword searches -- 'language identity', 'changes English language,' 'political language' -- and found a few interesting resources that way, although a lot more chaff than wheat. One was set to 'political correctness,' a topic I'll cover later, and I got loads of nonsense, but one very thoughtful blog post which I'll use.

So how to start the class? I had this great idea of having them look at a website critical of the IB, like Truth About IB, and analyze the language use. However, the language on these sites was not rational or effective enough to work with. So instead I used an article about responses to accusations against the IB programme. We looked at the expectations of a newspaper article -- objectivity and distance -- but the students were quick to pick up on the bias for the IB and the portrayal of the legislators as a bit nutty. They were able to spot the significance of the headline phrase 'conspiracy theories', and I introduced connotation as a topic; they could see how the emotional language in the quotes stood out in the neutral language of the article, and I gave them the language of slant and bias. We looked at the structure of the piece, how we start with a giggling girl, go to irrational-sounding and ungrammatical legislators, ending with a concise pro-IB statement. It allowed me to emphasize the interaction between purpose, audience and genre/context.

I was pleased with how the activity went. It allowed me to model the analysis that will be a core of the class with student input and observation. But it also set the basic format of class operation: that we will examine texts as a class, using them as a basis for looking at how we use language and uncovering, as it were, the meaning behind the language.

In the week since then, we have started our first unit, looking at Language and Identity. We've looked at the English as the official language movement in the US, British annoyance about Americanisms, and the relationship between social classreceived prononciation and accent.

The first written assignment is some notes on the purpose and elements of a spoken advertisement for a speech improvement course. So far the conversations and quick responses have been rich and creative, and now we need to move toward thoughtful and detailed as well.


first day of class and class management

The first days of class were last week, but I've been immensely, breathlessly busy.

Anyway, what should happen on the first day of class? As a young teacher, I spent the whole first day on procedure, explaining class expectations and rules, getting to know students, etc. And at some point I realized two things:
  1. High school students should know how to behave in a school classroom at this point. Assuming otherwise is insulting and doesn't hold my students responsible for their behavior.
  2. I want to get to know my students, and have them get to know each other, in a real context, not an abstract activity involving a bingo game.
My current strategy is to quickly go through the class list, doing a quick language survey -- what they speak at home, what level of English study they've done if new to the school -- and a quick check of how to pronounce names. I quickly go through the units we'll study with some enthusiasm, cover any classroom procedure issues likely to come up in the next week, and a word about behavior: that I expect that they know how to behave in school. All of that takes ten minutes. And then off we go.

My grade 9 class is starting a unit on Life and Death, reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich and various carpe diem poems. I asked them if they had a day to live, what would they do? Then we watched part of a speech by Steve Jobs, starting at the 9:00 mark:
Then I asked, 'What's stopping you from doing most of the things on your list today?' The discussion was fantastic.

My grade 10s will be reading Catcher in the Rye, so I played 'Institutionalized' by Suicidal Tendencies:
Again, it drove a quick-write and discussion on teen angst and relationships with parents that set up the reading perfectly. 

In both cases, we drove toward something compelling, combining media and our own discussion. I got to know them on a personal level, not just their name and where they went this summer. That's the tone I want to set for the class: that this will be an interesting place to be, and that interest will define the class management, not the other way around. 


fun with homeroom

Today was the first day of school. It was a half day, and I spent the part part of three hours with the tenth grade, for I am this year's grade 10 homeroom teacher. (We are a small school, and each grade level has only 1-2 classes. There are 22 grade 10 students in the school.)

I volunteered for it after a decade of trying to avoid being a homeroom teacher whenever I could.

I avoided it because it always seemed to me that being a homeroom teacher was more work than the benefit I got from it -- that I ended up being involved in a lot of stuff that I didn't care about.

I volunteered because I recognized that I have some gaps as a teacher. I am not as close to my students as I should be. I do not enjoy the pastoral care of teaching and only serve that role when necessary, although I think I fill that role well when forced to. I teach intense and focused classes and sometimes loose the grasp of the whole student.

In addition, it has seemed to me that for the last few years, the grade 10 students -- at our school a transitional year before the IB Diploma kicks in -- have not been terribly focused, and I've thought a lot about what they could get to help them. I plan to combine a curriculum based on self-discovery heading toward post-school planning with a pastoral care process that involves personal conversation and clear identification of strengths and challenges. I'm not saying past teachers haven't done that, but I want to try it out myself.

Most of the students know me, either from having me in grade 8 English or being on the trip to London last year. We have 7 new students, but I interviewed many of them during the last week as part of their entrance process.

So we started today with quick roll call, some business of going through the schedules, a tour of the school, and then a get to know you activity.

I gave out some paper and asked them to write down the following:

  1. Where are you from?
  2. Where have you lived?
  3. What are some places that are especially interesting or important to you?
I made a map for the bulletin board and put blue pins for #1, black pins for #2 and red pins for #3. They all stuck their pins up, and then we went around and shared. 

Of the 20 students present, we had 16 nationalities and over 50 places where we've lived. We had stories about heritage, about hopes and dreams, about curiosity, even stories about love. We should have been going over the fire drill process and the dress code, but it was so much better to hear their stories and go through the mechanics very quickly. 

It was a satisfying day. 


preparing for a new school year

photo by Avolore http://www.flickr.com/photos/52636849@N00/204934333/
Wednesday is my first day back at work. I woke up this morning, thinking I had better prepare myself for that reality.

I don't approach each new school year with the enthusiasm that I did when I was younger. Part of that is the mellowness of age, but more significant is the time I am able to spend with my family during the summer. I had an amazing time with my wife and sons this summer, and not unsustainable run-around-the-world fun, either: we were mostly just hanging around town, having minor adventures and major laughs. I will miss that, and I can see some of the appeal for home schoolers.

But I am looking forward to the year. I am teaching some classes I've taught before with content I enjoy, giving me the time and space to be creative with them, and  some new classes, which I'll go through later. There are many unknowns at this point: my schedule, a new principal, a new department member, a new IT coordinator, and the launch of the whole-school laptop program. I feel an edge of nervousness about these issues, but my experience and confidence as a teacher reassure me.

So what have I done to prepare for the new year so far?

  • IB Diploma Information Technology in a Global Society (ITGS). I'm taking over the ITGS class in its second year, and there are only three students, so I haven't made a huge investment into any planning for that course, but I have familiarized myself with the assessments and the key concepts, or at least how they are organized. I developed a loose concept for how to proceed through the material, but it is very loose. I need to meet with the students first.
  • Language and Literature. This is a new course, so I spent some time with the curriculum documents available from the IBO and quite early in the summer developed a basic plan for the class, choosing the topics in which I think students will have interest and which will prepare them for exam papers. In the last week or so, I refined that as a real syllabus for the students. I've been gathering texts for the first unit (with the help of a diigo group of L&L teachers), and I've been thinking about the kinds of work I'd like them to do. I've thought my way through the course opener as well.
  • Year planning. Every year, I do a quick grid like this. It just helps me see how I might fit things together and make sure I keep moving. One of the biggest complaints of students about English classes is that they move too slow, so plotting the year like this encourages me to keep moving, unless I see a good reason not to. I've never stuck to it religiously, but having a structure gives me the space to improvise without feeling like I'm completely out on a limb. 
  • Reviewing last year's self-assessment.  I did this in May, and I looked it over again today. Some of my thinking about technology has changed, and I may revise that element of things to do this year. Basically, I was going to make it a bigger part of my assessment, but I've changed my mind a little. I'd rather offer some tools as possibilities and let them choose what to use. But it's important to have that list in my mind as I make decisions in the coming weeks.
I feel ready. I have a vision for the year generally and have done a little so I can get through those first few days and see what's really going on.