Teaching Tone: Second in the Poetry Series

Posted on April 15, 2008


I confess: I simply haven’t had time to catalogue all the lessons in the poetry unit, so this is not actually the second lesson. It just happens to be today’s lesson. I’ll get back to the others—when I can find time to do them justice.


Created by my student intern, Ashley Dorsey, this lesson’s goal was to have students understand how an author’s diction often conveys tone, how—as readers—we need to be able to select the key words and phrases and identify the author’s tone. It is a long post, but I wanted to capture, step-by-step her teaching of the lesson. In hindsight, I wish I could have had a camera in hand to capture a still shot or video snippet of her in action; sadly, I don’t yet have that luxury—the luxury of having 24-7 access to a camera.


I teach in a ninety minute block, and Ashley and I have been working on improving her lesson design by using a variety of instructional strategies in one setting, creating hands-on activities that keep kids moving, not allowing them to lapse into that Ben-Stein-I’m-so-drooling-mode.  She did an excellent job keeping the pace moving–not too fast that students don’t “get” the concepts but not too slow that they get bored, which, if you’ve been teaching long, you know is no small feat.


Students Role-Play

First, she began with what they know: tone of voice. Displayed on the projector were four tone words: sarcastic, concerned, skeptical, and curious. She handed each student a piece of paper, each piece containing the same sentence: “What are you doing?”.  The four volunteers huddled to choose a tone word then “performed” their sentence for the rest of the class, the class guessing what tone word fit.


After explaining how we can usually determine tone in the spoken word—through body language and tone of voice—she moved into the written word, pointing out that authors have only written words to indicate their tone, and that we the audience must decipher the author’s attitude through his word choice.


She jumped to a new slide, showing three quotes. The class discussed what tone each displayed, explaining what words keyed them to the author’s tone. In the next slide, she had re-written the three quotes, replacing key words with different words, showing how just a word or two can completely change the tone.


Poetry Group Big Paper Activity

Students then moved quickly into their poetry groups (assigned at the beginning of the unit and displayed on the board), each with a Big Paper. I got the idea of Big Paper (11 ½ x 17 copy paper) activities from Barry Gilmore’s Speaking Volumes, a treasure for high school English teachers. Big Paper Activities allow students to dive in—with colored markers—to DO. Something about the big paper and colored markers—perhaps the childhood reminiscence of butcher paper and crayons—brings energy to the classroom. On each Big Paper,Ashley had written a sentence, each group getting a different sentence. Below are the sentences she composed:                   

  1.  The poor innocent boy passed away quietly last night.
  2.  Get out of my house, right this second.
  3.  How stupid do you have to be not to understand that?
  4.  How can’t imagine how someone so good looking could also be so sweet.
  5.  He has millions of dollars that are just sitting around.
  6.  From across the room, I dreamed of her shimmering blonde hair.
  7.  So you told him that without asking my permission first.
  8.  So you honestly believe that out of all the susupicious-looking people here, that plain-dressed man is the most likely suspect.


Using a couple of the sentences (not on students’ paper), she modeled what she wanted them to do.

  1. Determine the tone of the sentence, and circle the key word(s) indicating that tone.
  2. Re-write the sentence, changing the key words to create a different tone.

For example, the class decided in the first sentence above, that the tone could be sad or sorrowful, indicated by the words “poor,” “innocent,” and “passed away.” She rewrote the sentence: “That idiot got himself killed last night.” Immediately, students gasped, “That’s harsh,” to which Ashley responded, “Exactly. This sentence conveys a harsh, critical tone. Killed is much harsher than passed away.”

Students Prepare to TPCASTT poem

After students shared their Big Paper sentences, Ashley directed them to a very short poem displayed on the projector, one by Alexander Pope: Engraved on the collar of a Dog, a two-line poem. Students repeated the same process they had with the sentences—choosing key words with strong connotations and identifying tone—as a whole class. She then rewrote the poem, replacing dog in line two with pet. The students immediately recognized the different connotations associated with pet versus dog, and a lively discussion ensued.

Next, she presented students with a more challenging poem, For a Lamb by Richard Eberhart. Back in the their poetry groups, students circled words with connotative power and brainstormed tone words. This poem presents two tones, allowing Ashley to discuss the contrast between the two tones and how they help reveal possible themes for the poem. A quick Internet search did not reveal a legitimate copy of the poem (it did turn up a few blogs that had copied it—no doubt without permission). We found the poem in Perrine’s Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry.

As a concluding activity, students returned to their poetry groups to TPCASTT (explanation  & blank graphic organizer) Langston Hughes, A Dream Deferred.

Students Compose Poem

For homework, students rewrite A Dream Deferred, changing the tone. As they analyzed the poem for the TPCASTT, Ashley encouraged them to highlight the words with strong connotation, words they might consider replacing for their version of the poem, words that would alter the tone, and, in effect, the author’s purpose.

Stay tuned for more! We’d love to hear your feedback on this lesson. Hopefully, in a future post, I’ll have some awesome student examples to share of the Langston Hughes re-write.





Arp, Thomas R. and Johnson, Greg. Perrine’s Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, 11th ed. New York: Heinle, 2004.


Gillmore, Barry. Speaking Volumes: How to Get Students Discussing Books—And Much More. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2006.