Why I Teach “Monster” in High School

Monster, by Walter Dean Myers, is a text frequently read in middle school about a 16 year-old boy on trial and facing a life sentence. Because it has a Lexile score of 670L, students at the middle school level can read the text. This actually makes it perfect for my special education students (and sometimes standard students) who are usually reading at around that level. It’s one of those books that is accessible for younger audiences but can also be more thoroughly analyzed by older students in high school. The subject of a teenager in jail and witnessing the horrors of what goes on in jail is certainly appropriate for high school students.

To give you a few ideas of how to approach teaching Monster, I’m listing out what I focus on with my high school students when reading this text. If you’re interested in checking the book out, here’s my shameless affiliate Amazon link. Just click on the book below.

Reliable vs. Unreliable Narrators

Monster is broken up into two different sections that alternate throughout the book. One section is from Steve’s personal point of view and is written out in his notebook. The text is even printed with a font to look like handwriting. The other section is written as a screenplay that Steve is writing in his notebook. This section uses a more formal font and is written in third person, but Steve, the narrator, is writing it.

This sets up for good discussions on if Steve is reliable or not.

Examples of Steve’s Credibility

  • is incredibly honest in his notebook writings about his fears in jail. His vulnerability and  admitting to crying makes us feel he is telling the truth. This is how the book starts.
  • somewhat admits through his movie scenes he was at least approached by King about the robbery.
  • never clearly admits in court or in his writings if he was apart of the robbery.
  • his lawyer tells him not to write anything in his notebook he wouldn’t want the prosecution to see (don’t admit you did anything in writing)
  • is coached by his lawyer on how to answer questions. He is shown lying to his lawyer and being coached by his lawyer how to answer questions.
  • admits he doesn’t really understand himself if he is guilty or innocent.

I have a Prezi I use to introduce the idea of a reliable narrator. Click here if you want to check it out. It just goes through a quick explanation of reliable, unreliable, and somewhere-in-the-middle. I feel like Steve is somewhere in the middle. I give students quotes or have them find their own in order to demonstrate Steve’s varying level of credibility. Then I have them draw an arrow on the reliability gauge and write out a response to support their answer.

Themes about Identity

From the very beginning the reader sees Steve struggle with his identity as he calls his movie Monster in reference to himself. Throughout there are instances where Steve can’t tell the difference between himself and the other inmates, the prosecutor is trying to make Steve look like all of the other criminals, and his parents no longer look at him the same way. Again, I either give students quotes or ask them to find their own in order to identify what the text is trying to say about identity.

This novel is great for struggling students because a lot of the quotes for his identity crisis come from the section of the text that looks like his handwriting. All my students who are overwhelmed skimming a text for quotes do much better with the natural chunking this book provides.

Lesson ideas for teaching Monster to high school English classes. Reliable narrator, Internal conflict, Theme, Accompanying Ted Talk

Accompanying Ted Talk

To go along with this, I have the students watch a Ted Talk given by someone who was incarcerated at a young age. It’s called “Why your worst deeds don’t define you.” Click here to check it out. The common theme is the title, so I have my students find the different examples of the theme in the text and the talk. Much of the talk is how the speaker turned his life around and found himself again. He gives suggestions for how we can change jails so people leave and are rehabilitated instead of hardened, angry, and more violent. Steve is still struggling to find himself again, so I use the talk to begin discussions on what Steve can do now and what the government can do to help others like Steve.

A few examples: create transition programs, train guards to have better interactions with the youth in jail, create programs for inmates like Steve to learn or work at a talent.

Inferences about O’Brien/Complex Character Developing Theme

Everything we hear about Steve’s lawyer, O’Brien, comes from Steve’s perspective. We don’t know what she is thinking, so the students have to make inferences on her feelings towards Steve based on her actions and dialogue. I focus on the relationship between her and Steve since it is complex and seems to change from day to day. For my students, I have a list of quotes involving O’Brien and they have to write out what they can infer about her feelings/attitude towards Steve. In the end, they need to summarize her feelings and explain the internal conflict she is feeling.

In a quick summary: O’Brien occasionally acts maternally or at the very least as a mentor towards Steve which shows she does view him as a child or young person. She also seems him as guilty based on her conversations with him. She likely doesn’t think he deserves a life sentence, but she’s conflicted about helping him to avoid any additional jail time.

The effect of her actions on Steve is significant. Steve is found not-guilty and O’Brien packs her things and walks out. She turns from his open arms and leaves. Steve spends months making movies about himself trying to figure out what O’Brien saw in him that she reacted that way. He is still haunted by the idea that O’Brien sees him as a monster and it causes him to question if it’s true. This is part of the development of the identity theme.

Classroom Discussion

The ambiguity of this text makes it a perfect fit for class discussion. Here are a few of the topics I like to have the students discuss. I hand out the paper at the beginning of the text so students can take notes on it throughout. When we have finished reading, everyone is ready to discuss with notes and textual evidence in hand.

-Is Steve guilty?

-What is an appropriate punishment if Steve is guilty?

-Is O’Brien’s behavior after the verdict given warranted?

-Is Steve’s environment to blame for his actions?

Reliable Witnesses

Okay, so this is just more of a fun activity than anything that is going to align with ELA common core standards. I like to show the opening of the movie Mystic River. I would include a link here, but I can’t find it anywhere. It’s rated R, but nothing in this scene is beyond PG.

The scene is of three boys in the 70s in Boston playing hockey in the street. They write their names out in wet cement when a car pulls up. A man steps out and scolds them. He makes the one boy he caught writing in the  cement get into his car and they drive off. I stop it there and then put the students in small groups. I tell them they were in one of the neighboring houses watching what happened. The boy never came back and the police want to know what happened. I ask them to write down everything they can remember: what people were wearing, what they said, and what they did.

They struggle. They get into watching the movie and they forget key details. It links back to the novel in that one of the witnesses has trouble remembering the people in the store and what exactly was said.

Again, not totally in line with the standards. However, it breaks things up and is relevant to the text. It’s a game, and what student doesn’t like a game?

Possible Movie Coming Soon

A movie for the book was shot late 2016/early 2017. According to the only person I know in LA, there is not set release. Not sure if it will go to theaters or straight to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and so on. I will update the post with anything I hear on the topic.  Once a movie is available I’ll shot it with some sort of movie comparison for the students as long as it’s decent and follows the general plot of the text.

In the meantime, click here for a trailer put out by a theater company. It’s professionally done and true to the movie. I use it as an intro to voice overs and different camera shots – both of which are used in Steve’s screenplay.

Want my Lesson Plans?

I have everything available on Teachers Pay Teachers which you can access by clicking here. My students really get into this story and appreciate that it is something a bit more modern and easier to understand than, say, Oedipus. Speaking of, that’s the topic of my next blog: Teaching Oedipus to struggling readers in high school.

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