Sunday, January 26, 2014

Teaching Tone in Poetry

   I started teaching about tone several weeks ago. As part of a thank you letter unit, we learned about formal and informal language. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the students were able to distinguish between formal and informal. In fact, the words have become part of our classroom discourse. Consider:
   Thursday: I was writing directions on the whiteboard. "You need to finish your rural, urban, and suburban--" I paused, considering whether to write essay or writing prompt, and a student filled in, "--thingie."
  "Sure," I said, because it was amusing, and I wrote thingie on the board. The other students started laughing.
   "Mrs. Kissner," one said, "I'm surprised that you wrote that, because usually you're more formal."
   Thursday dismissal time: A student asked, out of the blue, "Mrs. Kissner, are you formal with your family, or informal?"
   Friday: A student came in from math breathless with excitement. "Mrs. Kissner, ___ and I are so informal all the time. We're starting the Awesy club--it's short for Awesome. Right, __?"
   The other student grinned from the other side of the room. "Totes."

   As we were comparing poetry, then, I decided to take a quick look at tone. Knowing how authors control word choice comes naturally from a discussion of formal and informal, and I was pretty confident that my students would be able to notice tones that were playful, thoughtful, and so forth. Identifying tone has students looking very carefully at a poem, selecting the words that show the tone. This is the kind of careful reading that I want my students to engage in.
   To introduce this to students, I showed them one of my favorite commercials ever: the Ikea lamp commercial. Students were easily able to pick out how the creators cultivated a sad tone:

   (For our discussion, I did stop it before the narration at the end. Older students may recognize that the narration pretty much negates everything that came before it in the commercial, which could lead to an interesting discussion of why the creators chose to do this.)

    In a poem, however, authors can't use tools like music, lighting, or rainfall--all they have to work with are words. But the words can show a great deal. We looked at the poem "Classroom Creature"and talked about how the metaphor creates a playful tone. Students then tried to find the words that create this tone: ravenous and devour, when applied to a pencil sharpener, are playful.

   In this kind of activity, a word bank is very helpful for all students. Many do not have much experience with this kind of academic writing and need some examples of good adjectives to use. I used a scaffolded chart that showed students what they could look at to compare.
   Lots of great thinking went on as students worked on this. Even students who struggle with reading were able to read and reread the poems to consider the questions. The last box, "What the metaphor reveals about the subject", was difficult for some students. However, it gets at the heart of poetry. What was the speaker showing us about the pencil sharpener by making this comparison? Its usefulness? Its quietness? This is a deep analysis of the metaphor and its role in the text. Even though the poem is fairly simple, the thinking that students had to do was more complex.
    All in all, we had a great time talking about tone and how it is created in a poem. The next challenge will be to see if students can apply this independently!

**I didn't think it was important to go into the difference between mood and tone at this point in time. If you think otherwise, please leave a comment!

-The poems from this lesson are my own. They are included in my Figurative Language pack. You may feel free to use the poem and chart from this blog post for classroom use.
-I finally have Daily Sentences in a folder on Google Drive. I've gone to Week 17 in creation, and I'm at Week 12 with my students. I'm so pleased with my students' progress and I think that this structure is working for them! Please send your Gmail address to me at and I will give you permission to view the folder and download the documents.
-Anyone still using the Spelling units? I'd love to hear your feedback--I'm thinking of making some changes for next year.

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