This lesson plan’s activities are based on Teaching Idea #1: The Interplay of Structure and Mood for the short story “The Trapped Boy.”
Length: 1-2 50-minute class sessions
Grade Levels: 10th-early college
Standards Addressed: Common Core Anchor Standards for Reading: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 9, 10; for Writing: 1, 3, 4, 9, 10
New York State (NYS) 2017 Reading Anchor Standards: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 9
NYS Writing Anchor Standards: 1, 3, 4, 7
NYS Speaking and Listening Anchor Standards: 1, 2, 4
Rationale and discussion: In “The Trapped Boy,” the author’s structural choices create a mood of disorientation. The story is, thus, an excellent opportunity to engage students in productive struggle with a complex, compelling text.
The story’s structure is inverted: the beginning of the story reverses to form the end. The first sentence is also the last sentence; the second sentence is the second-to-last sentence, and so on. The beginning and the ending meet in the middle, separated by the sentence: “Just like the sounds I made, when they beat me.” (If this is confounding, try printing out the story and marking the matching initial and final sentences.)
Upon first reading “The Trapped Boy,” students may make comments like, “There’s something wrong with the story.” That sense of wrongness is, in fact, a mood that the author has carefully established. The repetitions and reversals create a sense of being trapped, of uncertainty and hopelessness—which are also the emotions of the story’s protagonist.
- Identify the author’s structural choices
- Examine the ways in which those structural choices influence the reader’s experience and reflect the narrator’s state of mind
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- Read the story aloud as students follow along with the text, marking passages that seem particularly emotionally resonant, to spark emotions in the reader. Estimated time: 5-10 minutes.
- In small groups, students identify, note, and discuss their immediate emotional responses to the story, using the passages they marked. (Their answers will probably include some expressions of confusion.) 10-15 minutes.
- A speaker in each group shares a summary of their responses with the class. 5-10 minutes.
- Still in their groups, students attempt to figure out the story’s unusual structure. You may tell them “there’s a trick” to this structure, and that the repetitions are an important clue. As a further hint, you might suggest students try numbering the sentences in the story. 5-10 minutes.
- Once students have identified the story’s unusual structure, ask them why the author might have chosen it. “What kind of mood does it create?” In discussing this question, students can refer to their notes from 2. above. 5-10 minutes.
- Have students return to the individual sentences and passages they marked, select one that seems especially significant, and prepare to present a poster and/or discussion of its emotional resonance and meaning for the class. (A poster might include the sentence or passage in the center, surrounded by words describing the reader’s emotional response.) 10-15 minutes.
- Student groups make their presentations and answer questions from peers. 15-20 minutes.
Have students compare this story to William Blake’s “The Tyger,” another work of “fearful symmetry.” (Also available in the Playlist tab next to the story.)
Like “The Trapped Boy,” Blake’s poem uses structure to create an atmosphere of terror. However, there is a key difference: the poem’s disorientation is a response not to chaos but to order, to the perfect formation of a terrifying creature.
- Fiction: Write a short story that uses repetition or other structural elements to reflect the main character’s mood.
- Essay: What is the one sentence that is not repeated in the story? What is the significance of that particular sentence?
- Essay 2: In terms of the reader’s experience, what are the benefits and drawbacks of this story’s unusual structure? Do you think it is ultimately successful? Why or why not?
- Essay 3: Compare fear in “The Trapped Boy” and William Blake’s “The Tyger.” What is the object of the fear, and how does each author create an atmosphere of threat?