Jack the Ripper + "Mack the Knife": A Lesson on Deciphering Tone and Bias Through Diction

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A Guest Post by Naomi West

I’ve been an English teacher for 15 years in Central Texas.  I have mostly taught English 2 and 3, but this year I was assigned three classes of Practical Writing, a class for juniors and seniors who haven’t passed one or both state-mandated, end-of-course English tests.

While it wasn’t my “dream job,” I did look forward to the autonomy that comes with such classes off the core subject radar.  However, once these kids found out why they were in the class, and that it was double the English activities they already hate without the English credit, their reactions ranged from apathetic to hostile.  Talk about a roomful of reluctant readers!

Desperate to find a way to make reading and writing easier pills to swallow, I searched Teachers Pay Teachers and discovered a unit plan: Tone and Bias in the Media using old newspaper articles on Jack the Ripper!  The subject couldn’t be more intriguing, so I bought it.  

Nonfiction: Tone and Bias in the Media Coverage of Jack the Ripper

Tone and Bias in Nonfiction Lesson Bundle by Bespoke ELA

Tone and Bias in Nonfiction Lesson Bundle by Bespoke ELA

In this lesson, the students first read a series news article written about Jack the Ripper from The London Times, late 1800s, and they identified the tone of the articles.

Students then answered a series of three, Common Core style, multiple-choice questions for each article.  These questions helped students understand the overall message of each article and encouraged them to read critically.  Students then recorded examples of tone from the articles and labeled the tone accordingly.  Identifying tone helped with part two of this activity series in which students began to analyze sources for bias.

In part two of this activity, students assessed a series of stories about Jack the Ripper all written on the exact same day, all about the exact same grisly discovery of two more female victims.  By reading multiple sources on the same event, students were able to compare/ contrast how each source represented the "truth."  After assessing sources for bias, students evaluated the reliability of the sources and presented their findings to the class. (description provided by Bespoke ELA)

"Mack the Knife":  A Musical Tone Lesson for Jack the Ripper


The articles certainly held the students’ attention better than anything I had tried yet.  Not far into the unit, I remembered the song “Mack the Knife,” which I had always been told was about Jack the Ripper.  A little research revealed that it’s actually about an opera character, but it was close enough in subject matter to compliment our unit.  I decided to use it to teach tone; after all, the song’s ironically playful tone is the reason it’s so easy to overlook the gruesome subject.


Step One

I didn’t dare start the class by telling the kids that we would be analyzing diction for tone. That might have led to mutiny.  I decided to scaffold the analysis: I played an instrumental version of the song in which a trumpet carried the melody.  While the students listened, they had to write down what the tone was and the possible subject; most assumed the song was about a girl or a party - something positive.  Then, I played the song with the words, and the students had to write down all the words they could hear.  We compiled those words on the board, and the class agreed that maybe the song wasn’t so sunshiny after all. 

Step Two

I then showed them a YouTube version of the song where the words are projected.  This was eye-opening.  They now knew it had to do with murder.  Some assumed it was about Jack the Ripper, and we discussed those parallels; then, I briefly told them the history of the song. 



Step Three

Next, I handed out the printed lyrics and students listened again.  I told them to mark words that contradicted the playful tune — all the dark words, the references to murder.  I had the words projected on the whiteboard as well, so students were able to go to the board and circle the words they had marked on their papers.  I had them use black dry-erase markers for this.

Step Four

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We repeated this activity, this time marking words that fit the playful tune - anything from “our boy” and “old Mackie” to the scat sounds and casual delivery such as “don’tcha know.”  After students marked those words on the board using different colors, the board was so full of color that it was clear that the diction, even without the sound of the music, revealed an overall light-hearted tone.  The display also revealed how easy it is to identify the diction that creates tone, a skill that is usually difficult for students.

At the close of the lesson, I told the students: “You just analyzed diction for tone.”  They looked impressed.


The best part was when the students asked if we could do more activities like this one, an affirmation of their engagement level.  Of course, I intend to pull in more music, but also to implement the same strategies with our articles in the Jack the Ripper packet.  It’s an easy trade-off: I provide movement and access to the white board, they read, even re-read, and analyze!  A TRIPLE WIN!

Check out the Bespoke ELA Jack the Ripper Tone & Bias Activity, and then pair it with this lesson on "Mack the Knife" to engage your students in a study of how diction communicates tone.

About the Author

Naomi West has taught high school English in Central Texas for 15 years.  She received her Bachelor’s degree in English from Murray State University in Kentucky and her teaching certification from Mary-Hardin Baylor in Texas.  Her passions have always been reading and writing, and she loves the adventure and challenge of teaching students to appreciate both.  She prefers spending weekends at her country home with her her husband, dogs, birds, and fish.