Teaching Tone II

The first time I knew my bags were searched during a peaceful and relaxing flight, I was a little upset. Knowing that someone opened my bags and went through my stuff was annoying. The only way I knew was a little message left behind by that TSA employee: the “Notice of Baggage Inspection.”

TSA English

As I read the notice, I was impressed by its crafting. It anticipated my emotional reaction and attempted to dispel my anger with a calm and reasoned voice. It understood my need to know “Why?” by answering that question right away. It stayed in the conditional, not commanding or demanding, but reassuring. I wanted my students to see this, so it became part of the lesson on tone.

1) After the music introduction (see Teaching Tone post), I have the students play around with words, noting especially their denotation and connotation. After defining those two words, we look at house and home. What feelings do the words evoke? After a few moments the kids hone in on home, its warm comfortable relaxed feeling. Home is where you belong; a house is where you live.

To further cement the difference, we try out common phrases using home, but with house replacing it. This always gets laughs:

House sweet house.

Welcome to the house.

A house is where the heart is.

2) Now that we are rolling, I have them try to scale words based on their strength: weakest to strongest. You can choose whatever list you want. I like to use this list: abhor, detest, dislike, hate loathe, revile. There is some discussion over how to sequence them, especially when meaning overlaps, but in the end, most kids sense the words that have a more powerful connotation.

3) Next we move the analysis into sentences. I explain loaded language and how connotation plays a role. Their task here is to find the words that use connotation to influence the reader in a biased manner.

“The young governor seems to think that his so-called plan will lower the taxes at the same time as increase revenue.”

“The draft-dodger candidate managed to keep himself out of harm’s way by running off to college rather than defend democracy.”

4) Now onto the TSA notice. With copies of the notice in hand, the students annotation the whole text looking for how the author uses connotation to influence the reader.

The analysis can be extended beyond connotation to layout (font choice, font size, placement), sentence construction (introductory phrases, conditional clauses), levels of language (polite, legal), elements (logo, motto), etc.

After this guided practice, I will either give them another document to analyze on their own, or move to the essay writing process with the TSA notice as their text. Another idea is to have the students flip the bias in a text by using words with the opposite connotation.

For those in a school with large numbers of Spanish speakers, the TSA notice comes in Spanish too. An interesting activity would be to compare the connotation of the Spanish with that of the English. Which allays fear and anger the best?

TSA Spanish

Great material can be found in the most surprising places, even in a suitcase after a long flight. Keep your eyes open!

Teaching Tone

Getting students to be aware of tone in writing can be challenging, but I have found that taking them from the familiar to the unfamiliar is a great way to introduce tone as an element for analysis.

We start with a clear definition of tone and a long list of the words that express tone. The kids can take turns reading a word out loud putting the emotion in their voice that matches the meaning if they’re feeling brave.

Then the media comes in. Every student has a developed taste in music, so getting them to comment on the tone in songs is really fun. The challenge is for them to use language as accurate as they can to describe the complexity of the emotions in the songs. The activity can move from a more familiar sound to something less familiar. Or, the students can be the ones to choose the music, and the rest of the class have to describe the tone. There are so many ways to vary the activity to give the students more engagement in tone analysis.

I like to start with U2 because their sound is so complex and often kids have heard some of their music. The song “No Line on the Horizon,” album title the same, is yearning, dreamy and powerful. Most kids respond well to it. “Get on Your Boots” works well for a more gritty pulsing sound (but watch out for the meaning–depending on your school).

Here is an alternate, the theme song for the movie Borne Legacy called “Extreme Ways.”

I follow the contemporary music with Mozart’s Requiem. The tracks I use are: 1) Rex Tremendae, because the Rex jumps out so powerfully, and as an expression of grief, you can’t get much more dramatic.

2) Lacrimosa Dies Illa, because of the fast shifts in tone from morose to angelic, which opens the conversation to times when authors switch tone in texts.

By this time the students are relaxed and have the sense that they can hear tone and have words to describe it. To drive it home, the kids could choose the songs and lead the lesson.

For less advanced students, the teacher could limit the words used to describe the tone, print them out on cards, and have the kids match the words to the songs as they are played. My low level ESL kids were bobbing their heads and tapping their feet during the lesson–they loved it, because it was so accessible. There are so many ways to use music to understand tone.

The next step is to move the analysis to the written word. For more, see Teaching Tone II.