Introductory Lecture and Objectives

Monster eNotes Lesson Plan content

Introductory Lecture

Author of more than fifty books, award winner, and a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in 2008, Walter Dean Myers, born in 1937, shared the same humble beginnings as many of his characters. Myers’s mother died when he was only two, and he went to live with foster parents in Harlem, where he grew up. An avid reader whose foster father was an English teacher, Myers still had difficulty in school because he suffered from a severe speech impediment. Even though he showed early writing talent, he dropped out of high school and joined the army on his seventeenth birthday. Myers continued writing, however, and his first book, Where Does the Day Go?, was published in 1969.

Thirty years later, Myers published Monster, a striking drama that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Steven Harmon on trial for felony murder; the book includes illustrations and photographs provided by Myers’s son, Christopher. Although the plot of the novel is deceptively simple, Myers probes with candor and depth the immediate and catastrophic effects of one boy’s decision, demonstrating how quickly and completely life can turn. Following the events of a December day, life irrevocably changes for Steve Harmon and his family, formerly ordinary people with productive lives and dreams for the future, who now know the terror and pain of the criminal justice system. As the drama builds toward the verdict in Steve’s trial, readers come to realize that innocence is gone, irrespective of the jury’s decision. Monster was hailed by critics as an extraordinary literary achievement; the novel was nominated for the 1999 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and in 2000, it won the first Michael L. Printz Award, as well as a Coretta Scott King Award.

The story is told from Steve Harmon’s point of view. In order to relate the traumatic events as they happen, Steve frames the trial and backstory through a movie lens, writing his story as a screenplay. The movie is interspersed with diary entries that show the raw fear and terror Steve feels living in the detention center, waiting for the jury to deliver his fate. A book rooted in part in Myers’s childhood experiences in Harlem and researched through hundreds of inmate interviews, Monster has come under some fire for its unflinching look at both the American criminal justice system and life on the street. Myers engages in a careful, probing exploration of subjects often considered in absolute terms, including truth, guilt, and responsibility. The very format of the novel serves to destabilize notions of the typical narrative and outcome: The font shouts, whispers, and begs; the camera angle abruptly changes perspectives, showing the less common viewpoint; easy conclusions evade print or film. Instead, Steve’s black-and-white world is at once stark and grainy, predetermined and shifting, full of terror and possibility.

Leonard S. Marcus of the New York Times Book Review praised Myers in 2008 for his hard-to-achieve balance of realism and optimism that wins over the most cynical of teen readers. Marcus wrote: “Drugs, drive-by shootings, gang warfare, wasted lives—Myers has written about all these subjects with nuanced understanding and a hard-won, qualified sense of hope.”

This is where Myers’s artistry truly shines. He is able to show the humanity in each well-drawn character—from Steve with his naïve wish to front as a neighborhood tough guy to his father with his shattered dreams for his son to petty criminals rendered terror-struck by the realities of prison life.

Even suburban or rural readers with little sense of the world Myers describes can empathize with much they find in these pages and explore their own part in the system of criminal justice which Myers describes with such power and eloquence.

By the end of the unit the student will be able to:

1. Explain the effects of the narrative format of screenplay and journal entries, and identify how filmmaking works as a motif throughout the novel.

2. Describe the protagonist’s search for self and truth, and discuss whether the results of his search are or can be absolute.

3. Identify the “monsters” in both the novel and modern-day society, and discuss the fairness of their portrayals. Explain why the title of the novel is effective.

4. Compare and contrast perceptions about Steven from different points of view—from those of society in general, his mother, his father, the prosecutor, the jury, and his own attorney.

5. Trace the general process of trying a defendant in court, and examine where the system works and where it fails.

6. Identify how the author elicits empathy for different characters, even characters that have engaged in criminal acts, and explain the difference between empathy and sympathy.

7. Describe different ways the characters “edit” their behavior for their particular audience (the viewer/reader, the jury, the police, their parents, or other authority figures).

8. Identify the primary settings of the story, and discuss how they frame and influence the story.

Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan

This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.

Student Chapter Guide

• The Chapter Guide is organized for a chapter-by-chapter study of the novel. Chapter Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.

• Chapter Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in each chapter and to acquaint them generally with the chapter’s content.

• Before Chapter Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.

• Chapter Guide vocabulary lists include words from the novel that vary in difficulty.

1. The vocabulary lists for each chapter are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them.

2. Working from the lesson plan’s chapter vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each chapter that are most appropriate for them.

Discussion Questions
The discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty.

1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry.

2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small study groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion.

Multiple-Choice/Essay Test

Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty.

1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the novel; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and contrasting; and drawing inferences.

2. The teacher may select specific multiple-choice questions and one or more essay questions to assess an individual student’s understanding of the novel.

3. The essay portion of the test appears on a separate page so that it may be omitted altogether in testing.

Before students read through the book, explain that themes are universal ideas developed in literature. Point out that these themes will be developed in the novel; discuss them with students as they read and/or after they finish reading.

  • Guilt vs. innocence
  • Reality vs. perception (stereotypes, self-perception)
  • Social justice
  • Prejudice
  • Fairness
  • Survival
  • Nature vs. nurture (rising above one’s circumstances)
  • Freedom
  • Power
  • Empathy vs. sympathy

Talk with your students about how a motif is a recurring pattern or a repeated action, element, or idea in a book. As they read, have them look for the following motifs:

  • The close up/self-examination
  • Fading in/fading out
  • Point of view
  • Violence/sexual violence
  • Truth (the search for truth; whether “the truth” is knowable)
  • Fear

A symbol is a concrete object or place that has significance in a literary work because it communicates an idea. Have students discuss how the author develops the following symbols and what ideas the symbols could suggest. Have them look for other symbols on their own.

  • Prison
  • Termites
  • Mirrors

Essay and Discussion Questions

1. The opening scene of Steve’s film contains this passage: “Sounds of inmates yelling from cell to cell; much of it is obscene. Most of the voices are clearly Black or Hispanic.” How do you imagine these voices sounding? Objectively, can a voice “clearly” be Black or Hispanic? Steve is Black. Does he “clearly” sound Black? Why or why not? What assumptions are you being asked to make? Who is asking you to make them? What assumptions are being challenged? What realities are you being asked to confront?

2. Is Steve a reliable narrator? Do his age and alleged part in the crime affect his reliability in narrating the story? Why or why not?

3. Crime dramas and courtroom thrillers are consistently popular television shows, books, and movies. From whose point of view are those stories usually told? Does Steve’s “movie” change your perception of courtroom thrillers as entertainment? Why or why not?

4. Feeling sympathy for others means feeling sorry they are going through something difficult; feeling empathy means feeling the difficulty personally from their point of view. Do you feel sympathy or empathy for Steve or other characters? What contributes to your feeling one or the other? In what ways does Steve’s relating his experience as a screenplay affect how you feel?

5. O’Brien tells Steve that her “job is to make sure the law works for you as well as against you, and to make you a human being in the eyes of the jury.” Why does Steve need to be made human? Are the rules different for Steve than for other defendants? If so, which defendants, and why?

6. Steve acts in a manner very unlike his parents and contrary to his upbringing in an effort to “be tough” like King or Evans. Have you ever acted in a way that felt contrary to who you really are inside in order to change other people’s perceptions of...

(The entire section is 794 words.)



dispensary: a clinic where medicines are prepared and provided

prosecutor: the attorney who initiates a legal prosecution; the attorney for the people

Study Questions

1. What is the first thing a reader notices about the text? What effect does the treatment of the text have on the reader?

The prologue of the novel is typeset in a handwritten scrawl, as though it were pages written by the narrator while in jail. The age and state of mind of the narrator is revealed through the use of boldface type in certain passages. The effect is almost one of an oral narration, his...

(The entire section is 730 words.)

Monday, July 6


articulate: well-spoken

Assistant District Attorney: the deputy of the elected or appointed official who represents the government in criminal proceedings

careens: swerves at high speed

conspirators: legal accomplices who plot a crime or other bad act

defense attorney: the attorney representing the defendant in a criminal prosecution

felonious: related to a felony or a designated set of serious crimes

grandiose: impressive, overly lavish

impede: to hinder, to hold back

john: slang a toilet

medical examiner: a physician appointed by the government to examine a body and determine the cause of death


(The entire section is 2216 words.)

Tuesday, July 7


adjourn: to suspend proceedings with the intention of resuming them at a later point

blunt: slang a marijuana cigarette

overruled: legal dismissed an objection raised in court

pertinent: relevant to

run his mouth: slang to brag, to gossip

stoop: the shared staircase and landing of an apartment building

Study Questions

1. What do Steve’s notes suggest about his state of mind on this day?

The omnipresent danger and senseless violence of Steve’s neighborhood has been harnessed and intensified in the detention center. The movie is Steve’s only grasp on reality. Everyone...

(The entire section is 1171 words.)

Wednesday, July 8


affidavit: legal a written sworn statement

cross-examines: legal questions a witness called by the opposing attorney

DA: legal short for District Attorney, the person elected or appointed to represent the government and prosecute crimes in a certain jurisdiction

faggot: slang a derogatory synonym for homosexual

gruesome: horrible, shocking

hemorrhoids: swollen and often painful anal veins

hostile witness: legal a witness called to testify for the opposing side that is assumed to have an adverse interest or bias

informants: legal people who share confidential or...

(The entire section is 1834 words.)

Thursday, July 9


apprehended: legal arrested

cacophony: a discordant mixture of sounds

culprits: criminals; people responsible for a crime or a bad deed

cutting a deal: slang receiving favorable treatment or a reduced sentence in exchange for information or testimony that helps the prosecution

grisly: horrific, disgusting

let him walk: slang to find a defendant not guilty of charges; to drop charges against a defendant

Study Questions

1. Describe Steve’s reaction to the first day of Cruz’s testimony. What does his reaction suggest about conflicts he is feeling?

Steve believes in the...

(The entire section is 1408 words.)

Friday, July 10


pleas: legal formal responses made by defendants to the charges of the prosecutor in a criminal case

presumably: done based on reasonable supposition

trapezius: large muscles located in the back of the neck and shoulders

trauma: distress

Study Questions

1. What is Steve’s reaction to seeing the photos of Nesbitt’s body a second time?

Steve still refuses to acknowledge his part in what happened. The photos greatly disturb him: “I didn’t want to think about them or know about them. I didn’t look at the jury members when they were looking at the pictures.” Steve refuses even to write about the time he was in...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Saturday, July 11


bustling: busy, energetic

copping some z’s: slang sleeping

liable: likely

Study Questions

1. How does O’Brien seem to feel about Steve? Explain the details of their conversation. What do they reveal?

Facing a weekend alone in the detention center, Steve doesn’t want O’Brien to leave him. She is still cool toward him, though a bit less formal than in the beginning. She seems to think he is guilty, which bothers Steve: “She writes down what is being said, and what is being said about me, and she adds it all up to guilty.” He says to her, “I’m not guilty,” hoping this will sway her. O’Brien points out the...

(The entire section is 841 words.)

Sunday, July 12


star witnesses: the main or most important witnesses in a trial

State’s case: the prosecution’s case against a defendant

Study Questions

1. In Steve’s opinion, why are there so many fights in jail? How does his explanation relate to his being in jail?

Steve explains what he believes causes so many fights: “In here all you have going for you is the little surface stuff, how people look at you and what they say. And if that’s all you have, then you have to protect that. Maybe that’s right.” What Steve doesn’t acknowledge overtly is that “the little surface stuff,” worrying about the perceptions of others, is what led him to...

(The entire section is 317 words.)

Monday, July 13


attaché case: a slim, rectangular briefcase

basket case: slang a crazy person

cop a plea: slang, legal to plead guilty to a less severe charge

cop some rocks: slang to buy crack cocaine

diminutive: small, little

dropped a dime on him: slang informed on him to the police

hurdy-gurdy: a musical instrument played by turning a crank

lay low: slang to stay out of sight, to hide out

light him up: slang to shoot him

lineup: legal a group of similar-looking people (including a suspect) from which a witness is asked to identify the person he or she...

(The entire section is 855 words.)

Tuesday, July 14


botched: badly carried out

closing argument: legal the persuasive speech an attorney on each side of the case gives to the members of the jury before they begin their deliberations

depicting: showing

gullible: easily fooled

he’s cooked: slang he’s done for, he’s in trouble

the joint: slang jail, prison

menacingly: threateningly

nodding in the affirmative: nodding yes, nodding in agreement

soliciting: asking for

surly: bad-tempered

verify: to prove

Study Questions

1. How does Steve explain ending up where he is, in jail on trial for felony...

(The entire section is 1473 words.)

Friday afternoon, July 17


distorted: twisted out of shape

jury foreman: a member of the jury chosen to lead the group in deliberations and communicate with the court

Study Questions

1. As the chapter opens, Steve says that the night before he “was afraid to go to sleep.” He adds, “It was as if closing my eyes was going to cause me to die. There is nothing more to do.” What does he mean? Why is he feeling so desperate?

Steve can think of nothing but the court case. The arguments have all been made, and there is nothing to do except wait for the jury to make a decision and render a verdict. Steve feels desperate and impotent; he has no control over his own life or his...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

December, 5 months later


reformatory: a highly structured and disciplined school young offenders may be sent to instead of prison

Study Questions

1. What has happened to the other participants in the robbery since the trial?

James King was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Osvaldo Cruz was arrested for stealing a car. Bobo Evans remains in jail.

2. What has Steve been doing since the trial? What are his motivations for doing it?

Steve has been taking movies of himself, talking to the camera about who he is and what he thinks he is about. He has been examining himself, literally, from different angles. Steve is no longer the naïve...

(The entire section is 286 words.)

Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key

1. How does the novel open?

A. Sandra Petrocelli is giving opening remarks in the trial.

B. Steve is talking about how to survive in the detention center.

C. Alguinaldo Nesbitt is being shot.

D. Steve is watching cartoons with Jerry.

E. Steve’s mother is weeping as the prisoners are brought into the courtroom.

2. Who refers to Steve as a monster, and in what context?

A. Alguinaldo Nesbitt; before his death

B. Jerry; when Steve confesses to him

C. Kathy O’Brien; as Steve tries to hug her

D. Sandra Petrocelli; during opening remarks


(The entire section is 1355 words.)

Essay Exam Questions With Answers

1. How and why is filmmaking used as a motif in Monster? How does telling the story through film affect the reader’s access to the narrator and to the truth?

Filmmaking is an anchor for Steve, one of the most beloved vestiges of his former life where he participated in a film club with a trusted mentor, Mr. Sawicki. It provides a tenuous pathway back to reality as Steve once knew it, and it gives him the necessary distance he needs from the horror and violence of the detention center. Through his film, he can examine who he is, how he is perceived, and how his life led him to jail. Steve clearly points out in the beginning of the book that his is not a movie about prison: “It is about being alone when...

(The entire section is 4095 words.)