Picture by BlackCustard
In California, both Third and Sixth grade teachers are required to teach students to recognize elements that contribute to the tone of a written piece. I struggled with this abstract concept before landing on an engaging tool to help express the meaning of tone: movie previews.
1. Introduce Tone
Since tone is very abstract in contrast to plot, characters, or setting, let’s nail down the meaning in a way students can comprehend. To do so, start with what your students already know:
- Ask whether previews accurately represent the plot of the movies they advertise.
- Ask whether previews present accurate representation of characters.
- In both cases, the answer should be “no” because this is not the purpose of movie previews.
- Ask what, then, do previews show us about a movie? What do they accurately represent?
- Students might answer: the feeling of the movie, the genre, or just “what it’s like.” What they’re dancing around is tone.
- Create a clear definition of tone with your students to refer to later.
At this point, introduce your students to the generalization:
“Specific details converge to create tone.”
This generalization uses Sandra Kaplan’s dimensions of depth and complexity as well as content imperatives. It should be the big idea that guides the rest of the lessons.
2. Practice With Movie Previews
Watch a pair of previews at this point. They should have very different tones (I showed Lord of the Rings and Wall-E, for example – these are readily available through iTuens or Apple’s Movie Trailers). The purpose is to identify the tone of each preview: comedic, exciting, frightening, intense, romantic… try to push students to use exact terms to describe the tone.
Now return to the generalization and demonstrate that “details converge to create tone.” Ask students what specific details in each preview contributed to its tone.
Possible answers include:
- Musical moments
- The color pallet
- Words spoken by characters or the narrator
- Camera movement
- Characters’ movements
- Facial expressions
Build a graphic organizer showing that all of these elements converge to create a tone.
3. Practice With Poetry
At this point, transition to the true purpose: identifying the literary elements that contribute to a story or poem’s tone. Pick two poems with vastly different tones for your students to read. I used Poe’s The Raven and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 with my 6th graders.
Once students are familiar with the poems, have them identify the poems’ tones. Just as before, they must identify the specific elements that create each tone. Refer again to the generalization. Possible details include:
- Word choice
- Figurative Language
- Line length
As before, students should build graphic organizers to show how an author creates tone using specific examples.
4. Culminating Activities
After teaching students to analyze the details that converge to create tone, my students produce a compare-contrast essay covering the tones of two poems or stories.
Students also produce their own poem with a goal of establishing a clear tone. Students present their poem to the class, first introducing the tone and explaining the specific details that created their tone. Choose the type of poem you are most comfortable with, I have used sonnets, free verse, and even haiku.
By beginning with an accessible example and a generalization to attach meaning to, your students will have an easier time identifying the elements that create a poem’s tone.
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