It’s October (or “spooky szn” in Internet speak), so English teachers might be selecting some suspenseful short stories and poems for their students to read and study. Edgar Allan Poe is typically analyzed around this time of year. When I taught sophomore English, my students and I read “The Pit and the Pendulum,” a terrifying account of the Spanish inquisition.
Somehow in my thirteen years in the classroom, I never read W. W. Jacob’s 1902 classic horror story “The Monkey’s Paw.” I recently worked with some English teachers to develop a lesson plan on it, so I thought it might be helpful to share my process with you.
First, I read and annotated the story. Actually, I found an audio version of the story on YouTube and treated the story like a book on tape from my childhood.
I could have predicted which objectives I could teach with this short story, but that is risky. It’s best to read the story first to determine which objectives to teach with it. The school was using a StudySync version of the story, which I discovered was different from the original text, which I accessed from CommonLit. As I read / listened to the story, I had a number of thoughts and questions, including:
- The setting really is a dark and stormy night.
- Does the son always beat the father at chess?
- Sergeant-major Morris has three drinks before he tells the monkey’s paw story. I wonder if he has PTSD from his time in the army.
- What were Morris’s three wishes? Why didn’t anyone in the White family ask him about his wishes?
- The son (Herbert) does not believe the monkey’s paw can grant his father’s wish.
- Why did Mrs. White so eagerly let a stranger into their home?
- Maw and Meggins must be the name of the factory where Herbert works.
- Why didn’t Mr. and Mrs. White cry when they learned Herbert died?
- I would totally burn the monkey’s paw after Herbert’s death.
- Does Mrs. White blame her husband for Herbert’s death?
- How old was Herbert?
- The story ends somewhat ambiguously.
By using the CommonLit version, I not only had access to the full text, but I also had access to vocabulary, twelve guiding questions, eight assessment questions, and three discussion questions.
- There were fifty terms defined, but I picked one that was most crucial that I would introduce to students: talisman.
- Of the eight assessment questions, two of them (#3 & #4) helped me to notice a shift in the story’s mood/tone. I began to wonder how I could make that more concrete for middle school students.
- I liked the discussion questions okay, but I thought of another one I liked better and seemed more relevant to students and the story: How do we know when we can trust someone?
- Should the Whites have trusted Morris’s story about the monkey’s paw?
- Should Mrs. White have trusted Mr. White to make a wish?
- Should Herbert have trusted in the power of the monkey’s paw?
- Should Herbert have trusted his employer to provide a safe working environment?
- Should Mrs. White have trusted Mr. White to make a better wish?
Since I was partnering with seventh grade English teachers, I referenced the OAS for ELA and identified some objectives that could be taught with the story. Since two of the objectives contained multiple concepts, I further narrowed the focus of the lesson to focus on plot, theme, and tone.
- 7.3.R.3: Students will analyze how key literary elements contribute to the meaning of the literary work:
- characters (i.e., protagonist, antagonist)
- conflict (i.e., internal and external)
- 7.3.R.4: Students will evaluate literary devices to support interpretations of literary texts:
*Students will find textual evidence when provided with examples.
Then I hopped online to see what other resources I could find on “The Monkey’s Paw.”
Slate has a version of the story with some engaging illustrations that could be displayed while reading the story.
YouTube has the two segments from The Simpsons version of “The Monkey’s Paw,” which was part of its Treehouse of Horror II episode back on Halloween 1991:
YouTube also has a thirty-minute movie adaptation (2011):
I was struck by how different the ending of the movie adaptation was compared to the original text. I decide to incorporate one more objective into the lesson:
- 7.7.R.1: Students will compare and contrast the effectiveness of techniques used in a variety of written, oral, visual, digital, non-verbal, and interactive texts to generate and answer literal, interpretive, and applied questions to create new understandings.
The K20 Center has two lesson plans:
With all of these thoughts and resources swimming through my mind, I began to brainstorm a rough outline of how I would teach this story in a seventh grade classroom over the course of three days.
I would begin by sharing a fable from Aesop, “The Old Man & Death.” I would display it on my screen / TV or write it on the board.
The Old Man & Death
An Old Man, bent double with age and toil, was gathering sticks in a forest. At last he grew so tired and hopeless that he threw down the bundle of sticks, and cried out: “I cannot bear this life any longer. Death come and take me!” As he spoke, Death appeared and said to him: “What do you want Old Man? I heard you call me.” “Please, sir,” replied the Old Man, “would you kindly help me lift this load of sticks on to my shoulder?”
I would invite students to work with a partner to think about what the fable’s moral or lesson was. Hopefully, students would infer that that we don’t always want or get what we wish. This foreshadows the short story and one of its themes. Also, fables are on the list of genres students are to study as found on page 89 of the standards booklet.
Then we would begin reading the story. The goal would be to finish reading Part 1 by the end of class. I would provide some context about the setting (England, early 20th century), British crown rule of India, and chess. Since the text is fairly formal and elevated, I would either read it aloud myself or play the audio for students. I would occasionally pause the story to check for understanding, and I would also pause to have students turn and talk to one another about the plot and characters–to make inferences and predictions. Also, I would create a chart to keep track of the wishes when we came to that part of the story.
We would conclude the first day by writing down a prediction as to how the story would end. After students finished their predictions, we would share some aloud. Then I would have students go back into the text to find some textual evidence to back up their predictions.
Depending on the ability level of students, I could have them read Parts 2 and 3 on their own. Of course, I could also continue to read aloud to them or play the audio. Students almost always prefer for me to read to them. As we finished the story, we could complete the chart from yesterday. We could also have a discussion about what Mr. White’s final wish was.
To process a major plot point of the story (7.3.R.3), I would engage students in a modified version of the Four Corners activity from the K20 Center. Around the room before class, I would hang pieces of paper that read:
- Sergeant-Major Morris
- Mr. White
- Maw and Meggins
Then I would ask students, “Who is most to blame for Herbert’s death?” Students would reflect on their answer for a minute or so before I told them to vote with their feet and stand by the piece of paper that aligned with their choice. Once in their groups, students would discuss with one another why they voted the way they did. They would also need to decide on the best reason shared in the group. After a couple minutes of sharing, I would ask a spokesperson from each group to explain one of their group’s reasons. Then students would return back to their seats.
To teach students about tone (7.3.R.4), I would focus on the shift I mentioned earlier, which takes place at the end of Part 1 (ominous) and the start of Part 2 (cheerful). To begin, I would pass out some words from that passage to students. I could have the words on index cards or just plain computer paper strips. Working with a partner, students would perform a Card Sort to categorize the words into two different groups. I would have students share aloud what they noticed and how they categorized the two groups. Then I would invite students back into the text to see the words in better context. I would ask them what they noticed and wondered about the differences in the tones of these passages. Students could record their notices and wonders in their notebooks. I might consider asking these questions if my students did not ask something similar:
- What is the effect of this change in tone?
- How does the cheerful tone at the start of Part 2 fit with the rest of the story?
- What would happen to the story if the tones were switched?
These final two activities may not take an entire class period, but they are an important way to wrap up the story and make connections to another standard.
Reflecting back on the story, students would write for five minutes to answer this thematic question (7.3.R.3): How do we know when we can trust someone? I would want students to reference at least one character from the story in their answer, but they could also use their own life experience. I would give students time to share with a partner and then invite 2-3 students to share with the whole class. To extend this activity, I could model how to write a claim about “The Monkey’s Paw,” which answers this question about trust. This would address 7.3.W.3, an objective I did not initially plan to teach with this story.
The final activity involves a multimodal text (7.7.R.1). I would show the last three minutes of the movie adaptation, starting at the 25:00 mark. Then I would ask students to compare and contrast the two endings: the movie version and the text version. They could use a Venn Diagram to take notes on how the plot (7.3.R.3) is similar and different. After sharing aloud some responses, we could move into a discussion about the adaptation’s choices. Possible questions include:
- Why was the movie’s ending more concrete than the text’s ending?
- What do the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. White add to the movie’s adaptation?
- What is gained by the ambiguity of the original text’s ending?
- Which ending was better? Why?
You can also access my Google Slideshow here.