Online English Teaching: Tone in non-fiction texts

13 Jan 2021

The motivation for resurrecting this weekly blog this year is very simple: to reflect carefully on how to be a better English teacher. Is that a possible aim in our new online teaching world? Last week, as I sat with a computer wrestling with Teams and becoming more and more enraged, I would have offered a resounding no.

Some teachers chuckle and modestly claim to not being very “technologically savvy”. I would like to be very clear from the start: I am utterly, comically, ludicrously useless when it comes to technology. My students know it, I know it.

I would go as far to suggest that I am rather anti-technology in my teaching and life. One of the chapters in my latest book, ‘Teacher Resilience,’ is called Digital Minimalism, in which I argue the case for stepping away from all things technology as much as possible, in order to help provide more calm and clarity in our lives.

How wonderfully ironic that I am now chained to a laptop all day.

Anything I might share on here over the next few weeks will not aim to revitalise any relationships with technology, or provide any slick ten top tips for using Teams. Instead, I am interested on reflecting what is within my own scope of influence to improve and develop when teaching online, while hopefully in the meantime helping my students get better at our wonderful subject.

Non-Fiction Texts 

One thing I am hoping to use lots of is a collection of non-fiction texts, that can form the basis of a few online lessons. I stumbled across this rather splendid article called ‘The Science of Nostalgia.’ Am I nostalgic for the days in which my interaction with a laptop was merely perfunctory? Let’s more on swiftly.

Defining nostalgia is where we started. The chat function on Teams is about as far as I have got this week, and have found that setting a short timer then asking students to submit their answers at the same time works fairly well. It is also rather splendid in encouraging them to read each other’s work and decide which answer they think is most effective. They all wrote a definition of nostalgia, then I pounced on a muted voice and asked them to pick the answer they think was the best.

Last week I wrote about etymology being one way to connect and interest students in words. The sea of muted silence we are now faced with means that there is ample opportunity to ramble on about this particularly enjoyable area of English teaching.

I’m sure you will find the etymology of nostalgia as fascinating as they did:

1726, “morbid longing to return to one’s home or native country, severe homesickness considered as a disease,” Modern Latin, coined 1688 in a dissertation on the topic at the University of Basel by scholar Johannes Hofer (1669-1752) as a rendering of German heimweh “homesickness” (for which see home+ woe).

Transferred sense (the main modern one) of “wistful yearning for the past” is recorded by 1920, perhaps from such use of nostalgie in French literature. The longing for a distant place also necessarily involves a separation in time.

The class broke into a spontaneous round of applause when I finished that nugget. Or remained mute.

The Teams chat function was then employed again to ask students to write what they felt the tone of an article is, and to try and come up with some ways in which tone is created. I could then jump in with a definition (this seems to me a very positive feature of the online teaching world: the ability to model lots and lots of answers and writing).

The definition of “tone” in literature is the way the author expresses his attitude through his writing. The tone can change very quickly or may remain the same throughout the story. Tone is expressed by your use of syntax, your point of view, your diction, and the level of formality in your writing.

I also rambled on last week about the beauty of sharing our own reading and its various manifestations with young people. The fact we are pottering around or own homes, and can leap with ease (possibly even while live online in a feat of superhuman brilliant that our students will gasp at) to overwhelming book shelves to read out an extract to students, strikes me as another wonderful feature of online teaching. We can also really go for it when reading out loud, there is nothing to hold us back (apart from angry wives coming downstairs and telling us to keep the noise down and they are in “an important meeting”- just me?)

For this particular lesson, I had prepared two extracts to share with the class. I am a running obsessive, and some of the articles from the RunnersWorld magazine can be rather splendid as non-fiction pieces. This was the first one I read with them:

When I was growing up, the ‘c-word’ was banned in our house: ‘can’t.’ My parents instilled in me the belief that if I put my mind to it, anything was possible, including, in my deluded dad’s mind, swimming the English channel. (If you could see me floundering about in a pool, you’d know how daft this idea was). 

Teams chat again (I know hugely repetitive – next week things might have moved forward slightly) with a five minute timer for students to decide on the tone, and to list some of the ways in which the tone was created. There was a moment of profound shock when one rather eager chap decided to verbally volunteer some answers in this space, which helped to give those who were struggling some more ideas. I was pleased when they got some of the general points:

Chatty/informal: “I”, “c-word”, “daft”
Humorous: “Deluded Dad,” “Floundering around in a pool”
Open/honest: “anything is possible.”

We then looked at Obama’s statement about last week’s incident at the Capitol:

Another online positive is the time and scope that is offered to explore vocabulary choices. We looked at a few words in here – I gave them thirty seconds or so to think about the word, then pounced on mute faces to ask them for a definition. Then in the Teams chat they have the opportunity to use the word in a sentence to demonstrate understanding – quickly arriving at a range of different examples of the word used in the correct context. Helpful stuff.

Again, they came up with some good ideas that I was hoping they might:

Anger: “baselessly lie”, ”great dishonor,”
Formal: “History will rightly remember…”
Collectivity: “we’d be kidding ourselves”.
Optimism: “we need leaders like these.”

Finally we looked at the first paragraph in the article:

Oh… my… GAWD. Friendsfest is back. Could we BE any more jealous of anyone who actually managed to bag tickets? It’s going to be a no-holds-barred nostalgia immersion. We’ve heard rumours of smelly cat karaoke and an actual Central Perk. But all anyone really wants to do is take a photo with the purple door right?

I wanted them to look beyond the superficial here, and to find as many things as they could. So I gave them a fair bit of time to actually write a response to this with the question: how does the writer use tone to engage the reader? The process of modelling and discussing the previous two examples hopefully helped to show them the sorts of things they should have been aiming to identify. I then showed them some of the detailed points they could have made:

Register is informal: contractions and colloquialisms all make is seem as though the author is talking directly to the reader. The chatty/colloquial tone is conveyed through the following: * Short sentences convey excitement * Rhetorical questions and use of ‘we’ give the impression that the reader is being addressed directly * ‘Right?’ creates friendly discussion. There is an assumption that the reader will agree. 
Trust me when I say I was deeply miserable about the prospect of online teaching. Deep in the dusty legions of my brain, however, there are some positives: there is opportunity to encourage students to read lots of great extracts; we can model lots of strong answers and writing; students have more ability to read each others answers and understand what makes a strong answer.
Finally, it might just give us English teachers the opportunity to pause and reflect deeply on how we approach the teaching of the different areas of our subject.
Reading this week: For any other running enthusiasts out there, Michael Crawley’s  book ‘Out of Thin Air’ is fascinating. The author lives and trains with elite Ethiopian runners for fifteen months, and the book describes what he found out about their training.
Listening to this week: My two year old has developed an obsession with this song this week. Absolutely no complaints whatsoever, and our wee dancing sessions to this have been complete escapism.  Just try and listen to it without feeling the similar urge to dance:
https://youtu.be/ru0K8uYEZWw
Thanks for reading.
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Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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