AP English Language Arts Reading Teaching Theme Uncategorized

T3: How to initially approach a piece of art or writing

“Is anyone there?”

“This is John Connor Crystal Peak”

“Who’s in charge there?”



“I am.”

The ending of Terminator 3 reminds me of the Nordic warrior mindset. In Nordic mythology even the great and unstoppable Odin and Thor will meet their end in the mouth of a wolf and the fatigue of fighting a serpent, and yet they rise up to their responsibilities and enjoy the adventure and trials of life as an individual and as a part of something greater. It’s an idea that I come back to again and again.

At the end of the movie Se7en (this movie is brutal to watch- so be warned) one of the characters muses “Hemingway said the world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” He then pauses and adds “I agree with the second part.”

John Connor has to learn to accept this idea in the brief moment before he picks up the radio transmitter and resolutely says-

I am

This theme ties together not only the movie as a whole, but the whole trilogy. It gives us an insight or a glimpse into the human condition aka an insight into the nature of humanity. That is my definition for theme and theme is where we are headed when we discuss T3 in class: Topic/Tone/Theme.


So before we can discuss a piece of art (I use the word art to refer to any artistic endeavor including writing) we need to understand its specifics. When we talk about topic we are talking about basic comprehension: vocabulary, setting, situation, choices of details, characters, color, line, stroke, subject etc… if a student doesn’t understand a word or an allusion they will miss out on the ultimate intention and any corresponding theme.


Tone is the sulking Satan sitting on a ledge fuming over his Pandemonium. I require all students to have just ONE definition of tone. Tone is the author’s attitude towards the subject and the audience. Tone is crucial to understanding any piece of art. Tone starts with the title of a piece and works its way down and out. Tone can be tongue-in-cheek, playful, ironic, despondent and more. Tone colors every specific covered in the TOPIC section and leaves us with a palpable emotion. Students also need to understand the difference between tone, atmosphere and mood. Often in class I’ll say something like “listen up scumbuckets of Hades… I love, love, love teaching English.” The students quickly see that I can have one Tone (negative- illustrated by an epithet) towards the audience, and one tone (positive-illustrated by the repetition of the word love) shown towards the subject.


As we return to John Connor’s difficult decision we move into the pragmatic section of an artist’s purpose. (See this post for a brief discussion of the four purposes of art) Artists teach. They grab our attention by foregrounding an experience. The artistic dialogue is Hegelian in nature. There is a thesis made, a push back by the audience and society and then a synthesis of understanding. This is theme. I tell students that topic is what the story is about, but theme is what the story is REALLY about.

A poem that I love discussing early in class is Marge Piercy’s poem “Beauty I Would Suffer For,” or her poem “A Work of Artifice.” Her poetry is dripping with tone and has a fairly easy to understand initial theme. Of course there are more complex themes at work that you can explore later. I would link to the poems, but I’m not sure if the ones you find online are authorized postings by the poet.

If you want to really challenge your class, you can have them do a T3 with William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say.” I enjoy using his poem once students experiment with the S.C.O.U.T. process which I will discuss in my next post.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them below.


  1. I’ve been struggling with teaching Tone. I’m working with younger writers, and so I’ve tried to tie tone to setting to help students find evidence in their novels. Is there an easier way?

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