Revisiting and Exploring Tone in Nonfiction and Fiction

Last week, we engaged in some targeted mini-lessons and learning activities to grow our understanding of tone.  We had practiced analyzing tone earlier this fall, but since this is sometimes a challenging concept for 8th graders and because I knew they would have a constructed response about tone on their 2nd quarter benchmark, I designed a few strategic and new learning experiences around tone for my students.

Day 1

We first began by reviewing some notes on the differences between tone and mood.   In addition, we reviewed the differences between denotation and connotation and looked at examples of both.  Next, I assigned students picked a partner or trio group to do our table talk activity.  We began this activity by reading and watching this excerpt of the “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Students were asked to work with their partner or trio to:

  1.  Identify the tone of the speech.
  2.  Identify specific word choices and/or phrases that created that tone.  Students also shared how the connotative or denotative meanings (or both) of their selected words impacted the tone of the speech.
  3. Groups shared out to the entire class their findings and reflections.

Day 2

The following day, students were asked to find a passage in their independent reading books OR to choose an alternate text I provided (a selection of poems or informational article).  Students then analyzed the tone, following the same procedure from the previous day.  I provided a thinking/drafting script for those who wanted to jot down their thoughts in writing first.  Students were asked to snap the passage they were analyzing and then post it in their Seesaw account.  Students could type a text book with their analysis, record an audio note of their analysis, or type a text note with their analysis.  They also labeled the word choices with highlights and/or arrows of the word choices they felt created the tone.  I provided a model I completed for them based on my reading of Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes.  In addition, I provided a list of positive and negative tone words for students who were struggling to find the right word.

While this task may seem easy to us as adults, it really is challenging for many 8th graders.

Day 3

We did one more analysis activity of tone, but this time, students read an excerpt of an informational text I pulled from NewsELA.  I provided students a drafting template to help them compose a paragraph in which they analyzed the tone of the informational text excerpt.  This task was similar to the one on their benchmark.  Like the previous activity, I provided an optional list of negative and positive tone words for those who needed/wanted it.  For one of my classes, I gave the students of reading the excerpt alone; my 4th period class voted to partner read aloud the excerpt and discuss it before tackling the writing task.

Additional Learning Fun with Gimkit

Depending on the pace of completion, at some points over four days students had an opportunity to play a Gimkit game on tone.  As I shared in my previous blog post, I was able to see strengths and weaknesses in understanding of this concept as my kit included many “application” types of questions.

Overall, I felt these learning activities challenged my students and pushed their critical thinking/analysis skills in a variety of ways.  What are your favorite strategies for teaching tone to middle or high school students?

Student Self-Assessment, Scaffolding, and Seesaw

Now that Seesaw is Chromebook friendly, I am incorporating it as a digital portfolio and space for reflection/self-assessment with my 8th graders.   Earlier in the school year, I walked students through signing up with their class code through their district Google accounts.  For our first entry in October, students captured and recorded their reflections on their best Quickwrite for Writing Cycle 2.

This year I have implemented a modified version of Sarah Donovan’s interpretation of Quickwrites.  Some days they truly are brief pieces of writing, but other days, they may be a little more structured and time-intensive.  I try to provide students choices with prompts and various types of writing purposes (argumentative, analytical, informational, descriptive) to grow their writing skills and to infuse meaningful opportunities to compose constructed responses.  A writing cycle may be anywhere from 4-7 weeks; sometimes the cycle stretches a bit longer because our literacy block is only about 50 minutes per day, and it is sometimes challenging to incorporate as many writing opportunities as I’d like.

We first focused on organizing our four Quickwrites and then writing a reflection about how that piece of writing showed growth in some way.  I crafted “I can” statements based on the writing and/or reading standards embedded in each Quickwrite:

Once students selected their best Quickwrite, they received a copy of the “I can” standards statements for that particular Quickwrite.  Next, I scaffolded their reflection by providing them a drafting template/graphic organizer model because students need support in articulating how they are growing as writers, especially if they are not accustomed to engaging in self-assessment.

Students composed their reflection drafts and then shared their written or typed drafts with me.  Once I checked their completed drafts, students were “cleared” to photograph or video their work and then record the reflection.  Students could capture their work in one of three ways in Seesaw:

  1.  Snap a photo of your best Quickwrite (the actual piece of writing) and record an audio note of their reflection “script” they composed with the drafting template.
  2. Video the work and read aloud the reflection script.
  3. Upload the typed copy of the best Quickwrite draft from Google Docs and then record the audio note of the reflection.

I modeled these processes for students and also provided a Google Slideshow for students to use for reference outside of class:

It took us about four days of class time to complete all of our work; a few students were given extended time if needed.  Students who wanted to use their phones and had parent permission to install the free app were allowed to use their devices if they preferred that method over a Chromebook; about 25% of my students chose this option.


I do think it is easier for students to use their smartphones with Seesaw, but the Chromebook option is still a good option.  Our biggest challenge was getting good photographs of their work with the Chromebook if students wanted to use that option with an audio note.  Aside from that issue, the Chromebooks were great for recording and for students who wanted to incorporate text labels and some of the other features students can use in Seesaw when posting their work.  As I’ve shared in the past, I love Seesaw as a formative and summative assessment platform, and there is something very powerful about hearing students discuss their work.  In addition, Seesaw is yet another way for students to practice their speaking skills.

I’ll continue to share how we are using Seesaw as we move through the school year.  If you are using Seesaw in your classroom, how do you incorporate into your instruction and assessment practices?

Turn Up the Volume on Learning–My DonorsChoose Project

Please help me help fund my DonorsChoose project, Turn Up the Volume on Learning!  All donations of any amount are TRULY appreciated. I am requesting 15 headsets with microphones so that my students have easy and daily access to these tools to enhance our learning experiences in CommonLit and Seesaw.  We will use the headsets to:

  1.  Take advantage of the read aloud feature in CommonLit, a resource we are using as a digital textbook this year.
  2.  Record audio notes to describe their work and reflect on how their work shows mastery of Language Arts standards.
  3.  Record video notes (we need the headsets to capture the audio clearly) to describe their work and reflect on how their work shows mastery of Language Arts standards.

You can read more here about how I’ve used Seesaw in the past with my students, and I’m excited to make this tool a centerpiece of our literacy lives with my 8th graders.

Seesaw: A Space for Sharing, Community Building, Feedback, and Formative Assessment

For the last year, I have been wanting to try Seesaw, but the timing was not right until last week.  Seesaw is a digital portfolio where students can “capture their learning” in any form.  The Seesaw “Learn More” page says that Seesaw “empowers students to independently document what they are learning at school” and that students can  can “show what they know” using

  • Photos
  • Videos
  • Drawings
  • Text
  • PDFs
  • Links/URLs.
  • Students can also import directly from most popular apps, like Google apps.

Seesaw provides a treasure trove of helpful videos on their YouTube channel; they also provide you helpful checklists for getting started once you sign up and set up your classes.  You can invite students to join the class via email and a code; younger students can use the QR code option.  Since I teach 11th and 12th grade, my students sign up with an email and then join my class with a course specific class code.   You also have the option of inviting parents to join as well.  Finally, I am using the free edition for now, but I’m consider purchasing the teacher “plus” upgrade so that I can better document mastery of standards.

In the last few years, I’ve become wary of “shiny” technologies that offer a lot of promises but very little return on the investment of time, energy, and sometimes money for a product.  However, this is the most excited I’ve felt about a technology in a long time because Seesaw offers so many possibilities and is so easy to use.  They also offer terrific support through the YouTube channel, and you can also join a Facebook group (here is mine for high school) for your students’ age group for additional “in the trenches” ideas and support.

This past week I piloted Seesaw with my 2A and 3B Honors 11th grade classes; I’ll introduce the app and platform to my 12th Honors ELA and 11th CP ELA in the upcoming week.  Last week, our Writer’s Notebook Invitation 7 in my 11th Honors courses invited students to choose one of two Puritan poems (“Huswifery” or “To My Dear and Loving Husband”) and create  Sketchnote of their thinking and interpretation of the poem.  I gave students some tools to help them get started:

  • A list of talking points/elements of Sketchnotes and how they might use those in their original creation
  • A shared Google Folder of examples of Sketchnotes to help them see the possibilities and variations in creating an effective Sketchnotes
  • A graphic organizer of “compass points” for thinking to help them explore and inquire into their selected poem
  • Colored pencils and markers for those who didn’t have their own

Over the course of two periods, students worked on inquiring into their poem and crafting a Sketchnote to visually represent their thinking.  Once finished, students signed up for SeeSaw and joined the class with the appropriate code for their section (2A or 3B).  Students then:

  1.  Snapped their Sketchnote using the app
  2.  Used the microphone feature to record an audio note; students described their thinking and the design behind their sketchnotes in these recordings.
  3. Students had the option to add a text note as well.

Since we don’t have a space for a “recording booth” in my room, we simply used the hall.  Students could rehearse what they wanted to say before recording.  Some wrote out their script while others recorded extemporaneously.   Most students recorded and snapped during class time so I could help them if they needed it, but some chose to finish their work at home.

I LOVE hearing their recordings!  There is something unique about hearing a student talk about his or her work and thinking.  I enjoy the text notes, too, but the audio recording feature is powerful and transformative for me.  I can then provide feedback with comments, audio notes, “likes”, or a combination of all three tools.  I LOVE recording audio feedback for the students because it feels more  personal and is faster than typing written feedback.   I think Seesaw has the potential to be a space where I can have back and forth (hence, Seesaw!) conversations with my students about ongoing work; I think this application and use will be especially transformative as we begin our first unit of writing study the week of September 18.

Here is a student example using the video recording feature instead of the audio feature to point and walk me through her Sketchnote in her Writer’s Notebook!

Students can also “like” the work of their peers and provide feedback, too.  In both classes we talked about how a community of learners supports EVERY student, not just those who are our friends, and does so in a constructive positive way.  We also talked about how we can learn from each other by looking at each other’s work.

There is also an option to easily click an icon in Seesaw and print the student entry right from your phone if you have a wireless printer (which I do at home) that will generate a cool poster with a QR code that other Seesaw students can scan to see/hear that piece of work; I think this feature would be great if you were doing some cross grade level work with another teacher or collaborating with a course team teacher and his/her classes who were also Seesaw users.

Here are some ways I see using Seesaw with my kids this year:

  • Virtual writing conferences
  • Ongoing conversations about writing projects in progress (these could be snaps of work with audio recordings by students and me, or they may link to work in progress in Google Docs and we can converse about a specific piece of work)
  • Writing circle/group work among students
  • Reading conferences
  • Book snaps/chats
  • Student self-assessment work (major and smaller/process work)
    Example:  Each month, students will pick their writing notebook entry for that time period.  They will compose an argument to justify the grade they feel they deserve and record that argument with the audio tool as they point to specific evidence in the entry to support their claim for a grade.
  • Inquiry circle work

You will notice that feedback and formative assessment are the two major threads that run through my working list of ways we will use Seesaw.  These two areas, along with improving my skills in facilitating more effective writing conferences, are part of my professional goals for improvement and growth this year.  I have been wondering how on earth I would do that with over 200 students in six sections of classes.  Though it won’t replace the written and face to face work we do, I now believe Seesaw is the missing piece of the puzzle I’ve been looking for to provide relevant and meaningful feedback in a virtual space that not only provides genuine interaction, but Seesaw gives me and my students to build a portfolio of work over the year on a regular and organic basis (not just 2-3 times a year), a feature that will support our efforts to embrace a growth mindset.

I am still learning many of the features available, but overall, I am elated with Seesaw and am excited to learn from fellow high school ELA teachers on Twitter and those across content areas in the Facebook group!  Are you a Language Arts teacher using Seesaw?  If so, I’ve love to hear you are using it for formative assessment, strategic feedback, and community building with your students!