Category Archives: trust

Critical Need for Critical Thinking: Presidential Politics, National Drug Epidemic, and Children

Last evening before dinner, I spent a few spare minutes watching the Billionaire Businessman (BBM) address a crowd of thousands in Kansas City, Missouri.  I found myself sucked in more than I expected, or wanted.  What was the draw of this spectacle?  I listened to him weave one of his stories.  Part of me could not stop listening and watching, mostly out of amazement and wonder.  I felt embarrassed that this “expert provocateur”* was capturing my attention.  He has developed the skill of keeping the camera lights on himself.

This “magic” of the BBM reminded me of the Wizard of Oz.  One of the lines that the BBM threw out to the Kansas City crowd was a reference to the “lyin’, thievin’ press.”  For some reason, this particular line at this particular time stood out to me more than others I have heard.  It was not only the line itself, but also the crowd’s enthusiastic shouts of approval and derision.  Then I thought: the whole press?  Everyone who works as a journalist, regardless of which organization employs them?  His lumping all of the press into one handy package took me around yet another corner in my assessment of these public events.

The crowd’s excited applause at such simplistically critical opinions made me wonder.  How much different was my being drawn in than theirs?  Sure I was at home about to eat dinner and they were in the arena gorging on harsh statements, but we were all being sucked into something exciting, something harmful.

Then I began to see the drug-effect of these rallies.  People who flock to the frenzy are getting high.  They shout, and jump, and say “yessir!” They want more, and the dealer gives them what they have come to believe they want.  After all he is a BBM.  He knows how to create and  satisfy conspicuous consumption.  He can turn a want to a need.  He can make them need him.

Next my mind turned to the United States’ epidemic of opiod addiction (see just one set of statistics below).  Facts from the CDC show that many people struggle with, and even die from, addiction to artificially induced excitement.  I am starting to sense a parallel situation with those who attend rallies designed by BBM and “my [his] people.”

Finally, to the main subject of this post: critical thinking.  As a career teacher of teenagers, I worry.  Any formal schooling they receive must develop skills of critical thinking.  For example, an alarm must go off when they hear someone express an opinion about a whole spectrum of professionals with a blanket reference like “lyin’, thievin’ press.”  Critical thinking involves such skills as making distinctions and asking questions.  When students develop even just these two basic skills, they are equipped to keep themselves and their communities healthy.


  • Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2014.
    (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality File. (2015). Number and Age-Adjusted Rates of Drug-poisoning Deaths Involving Opioid Analgesics and Heroin: United States, 2000–2014. Atlanta, GA: Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at 2014.pdf.)
source:  American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Opiod Addiction 2016 Facts and Figures”



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the play’s the thing: fun and joy in learning

Will_Kemp_Elizabethan_Clown_JigDuring a recent senior class, I was reminded of the value of play.  In lieu of viewing some films, I decided that student troupes would rehearse the opening of Hamlet.  And I’m glad I did.  The troupes traveled to nearby areas outside of the classroom, in order to prepare  the initial fifty-one lines.  This was the very first time we all held these books in our hands, and the players paid memorable tribute to the riches in the text.  Plus they had fun.  One group decided to go outside, using a patio’s walls as Elsinore’s battlements.  When I went out to check on them, I saw three of the boys tilted back in their chairs with feet up on the table.  As I approached, ready to reprimand, the ghost suddenly drifted into view from upstage right with someone’s blanket draped over her head.  The boy actors fumbled in fear to escape the ghost.  Then I realized that I wasn’t catching them goofing off, but was watching their rehearsal.  On the way back to the classroom, when I explained my first thought and subsequent realization, one boy actor exclaimed, “That’s how good we are as actors.”  Indeed.  Another troupe made an artistic choice that stayed private until one of the players delivered their prologue.  Given the appearance of a ghost, they set their scene in Charleston, South Carolina–known for its heavy ghost traffic.  All the players spoke in dialects of the region, lending a special resonance to particular lines and to the scene as a whole.  One girl player, after the performance, when I asked if she had grown up in Charleston, replied that her father had.  From her first lines, her accent rang as true as any in the group.  Each of those players had her or his own version of the regional dialect, which reminds me of Shakespeare’s many voices.  Speaking of dialects, yet another troupe had a boy player who relished the chance to tour the English-speaking world with his performance.  I don’t remember which character he played, but I clearly recall that across the span of his lines he guided us from London to Cork to Johannesburg and finally to Sydney.  In other words, whether consciously or as an accidental linguistic tourist, he entertained us with his expressive exploration.  In all, we had fun while playing.  I was nervous, as I often am, when we hit day one of our study of this most majestic of plays.  These seniors reminded me to trust the power of this text, and to trust them to have fun.  It was the final day of Winterfest at school, and what better way to enjoy the day.  Such moments convince me, if I needed convincing, that with a bit of guidance about theatrical tools like speech, movement and props or costumes, and with clear encouragement to have fun interpreting and inventing, students come away from the experience having learned these opening lines at a visceral, bodily, emotional level.  They heard and responded to lines much more than if they had watched someone else, like Olivier or Jacobi, render those same lines.

Postscript: Play presumes fun.  Play also exercises confidence at several levels. When students play together, they build things together–memorable things.  This building looks like collaboration to me.  Finally, I was recently part of a faculty discussion that touched on these subjects.  For example, we were considering Physics students who face the idea that a given problem has multiple solutions.  What to do?  Can’t I have just one way to produce the answer?  The recent Hamlet class suggests that something similar faced these student actors, and they enjoyed finding the solution–the interpretation–that worked best for their troupe.  Fun, I contend, played a role.  As did joy.  They enjoyed the work of interpreting the lines.  That joy took them deeply enough into their rehearsal that they came out and up onto the stage with more confidence, and confidence matters when students face a challenge, whether in the lab or on the stage.

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students advise aspiring leaders

go extra mile when things not going well; take initiative, guide group through task; lead the effort; take control, give honest feedback–without anger, be trustworthy

give voice to voiceless; communicate appreciation; think of others first, help them be better; guide, support, be an example; be a leader, which is different from being a boss; take care of others, take responsibility

trust others; want what’s best for majority; unite the group, be one of them, be experienced

These are my notes from conversations with teenagers (high school juniors).  I asked them what makes a good leader, or what does the word “leadership” mean to them.  My notes record the gist of their answers.  Personally and professionally, I feel grateful to see the patterns in their thinking.

First, these students, who have been my advisees for two and half years, see leaders as people who make the extra effort.  They push themselves forward in some way, in order to guide the group.  Even, or maybe especially, when things are not going well, leaders are the ones who step forward to help improve the situation.  They take control, perhaps giving feedback to the group or to individuals about what actions would make the group stronger and more productive.  According to the students, leaders do all of this in a way that can be trusted, in part because they guide and provide without anger.

The second constellation of comments shows these students see leaders as people who think of others before themselves.  They want to help everyone become a better person, or better at their particular task or role.  A leader takes care of other people–for example, by giving voice to the voiceless.  Though a leader needs the ability to step forward when necessary, he or she also needs to step back, in order to hear and appreciate other voices.  The strongest leaders also communicate that appreciation, so that people feel supported by someone with experience and empathy.  In short, being a leader is different from just being a boss.

Finally, leaders of groups truly trust the other members of that group.  They don’t pretend to trust, or simply say they do, but actually demonstrate trust–for example, by giving others significant responsibilities.  Motivated by wanting what’s best for the majority, a good leader unites the group.  And uniting the group means the leader is part of it, not just in charge of it.  When the leader speaks and acts from experience, the other members of the group can trust her or him.

Again, I am grateful for and excited by the students who shared these thoughts.  As an elder, I am encouraged by the solid ideas  they have about effective leadership.  Their ideas help me consider the leader roles I take on.  Their thoughts also convince me that leaders appear in many arenas in many ways.  Just because you are in a position of public authority or responsibility does not mean you are a leader.  By the same token, you do not have to be in such a position to lead.

Thank you, Advisees!  Feel free to leave a comment.

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ethical decisions in the digital age. exam preamble

Students in my high school classes recently wrote their semester exams.  Before turning to the test questions, they signed the following “Exam Preamble.”  Last week, I asked them to write a brief response to the preamble, so that the paragraph would not surprise them during the exam and so that I could revise parts to fit their thinking.

I welcome your feedback, too.

Before you read it, though, you need background information.  First, throughout the semester students have been using a “prescribed writing template” each time they submit a digital document.  Almost all of their assignments are submitted to, where I leave scores and comments they can access.  Second, they wrote their entire exam on a laptop, which means they had ready access to the internet during the test.  They submitted the completed exam to Turnitin.

I explained to students last week that I am taking a risk in placing this preamble at the front of their test, but this risk represents my respect for them.  The following preamble is founded on several other ideas that I won’t discuss here, but not because they aren’t important.  We have been through an agricultural revolution, an industrial one and now the digital/information age is upon us.  We’re in the thick of it, and we have to wrestle with new flavors of ethical decisions.


Exam Preamble. December 2014

Acknowledgments: Philosophy and Policy

Using a prescribed writing template, with a default pledge-header and acknowledgment-footer, gives you, today’s students, the important experience of recognizing and appreciating your individual interpretations. Waist deep in the digital revolution, today’s students need guided experience of meaningful struggle because the media-saturated culture is relentlessly telling you what to think and do. iPhone sales are up, again. We need to have the newest model, or we won’t keep up with our friends or the world. Stories of long lines outside the Apple store reveal this compulsion. Whether you are eyeing a new phone or considering your stance on immigration policy, other voices are poised not only to give you their chosen information, but also to tell you what you should think. It is important to know your own thoughts, independent of other people. How else can you digest their information or opinions? Experience tells me people, not just students, import other people’s thoughts because they lack confidence in their own thinking. Struggle is natural. Everyone has his or her own struggles. Don’t run away from yours by borrowing someone else’s solution. Stay with the problem and work through it. At schools across the country, I have served on Integrity Councils. Students appearing before the student-faculty boards almost always reveal that a lack of confidence helps explain their wrongdoings. These students, be they freshmen or seniors, say they were worried about their grades or reputation. Sometimes, they simply did not want to be wrong. Ironic? You have reason to feel confident. I want to know your ideas, your way of seeing things. Plus, it is unfair and dishonest to represent someone else’s ideas as your own, when you know you have found them in a source other than your own mind, our class discussions or the literature we have been studying. Class work, brief exercises and past exams all show me the creative ways students respond to questions about character motivation or thematic development. For example, seniors have offered new ways of seeing the sources of Dr. Frankenstein’s struggle, and sophomores are producing insight into the central tensions within Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Students who are creative, confident and honest can make a difference in this world. The world is smarter and stronger, when diverse individuals clearly express their particular perspectives.




I, the undersigned, hereby confirm that I have read and understand the above paragraph.


Also, I understand that if I should access any online source(s), which Mr. Brown strongly advises me against doing, I am responsible for clearly identifying the source(s) in the acknowledgment-footer of my exam. Failure to do so will result in an exam failure and further disciplinary action.



Student signature___________________________________________(date)______________



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high stakes reflecting: screw your courage to the sticking place


summary of recent events with high school seniors:

After a month of studying Beowulf, seniors wrote and re-wrote individual essays, based on ideas they themselves generated.  They spent about a week identifying, developing and refining those ideas in their essays.  They revised their writings with classmates’ feedback, and with mine.  Not until then did they submit the essay for formal assessment–i.e., grades.  Given the time spent, these grades were entered in the most weighted category of “Major Grade.”

Shortly thereafter they completed a written response to four questions (see below*).  I call this exercise a “Regular Reflection,” and students write one after each unit.  This is the third time they have done so since we started school in early August.  And here is the “high stakes” idea reflected in this post’s title.  Though most students completed the reflection in the one class period (50′) made available, they all had submitted this writing by the end of the day, as expected.  So, time spent on this exercise equalled less than 20% of that devoted to the revised essay.  The score for this Regular Reflection, however, carried the same weight as the essay.  It, too, went in the “Major Grade” category.

It feels risky to place both assignments in this category, which means high stakes for me as an educator.  The students have less time to produce quality work, without feedback from anyone else, which translates into high stakes for them, also.

Why do this?  To represent the high value I place on reflective writing and learning.  The student excerpts below** suggest this pedagogical risk is worth taking.  These writings offer me and the students valuable insights.  I wonder if we could imagine a standardized way to implement high stakes testing like this.  Can we scale up such instruments?

long mtn pond

*Regular Reflection questions

Subject/Activity: Beowulf & Old English Poetry

Associations (linking new information to existing knowledge)

What did you already know about this subject? What have you learned from our activities? Explain the connection between your previous knowledge and your new understanding.

Patterns (making patterns from these associations)

In considering your new understanding alongside everything we have studied so far this year, what patterns do you see?

Emotions (feelings about the new experience/information)

How do you feel about what we have been studying or doing? Please develop (explain) your response beyond a single statement.

Meaning (establishing personal meaning)

What personal relevance do our studies have for you? Or what personal relevance might they have? If none, please explain that response.

An enriched environment comes from matching teaching practice to nature of how the brain learns. It learns in six ways:

  1. By associating—e.g., in sensory cortex; it links new information to existing knowledge; it uses power of personal associations (cf. difference between learning as information and as transformation)
  2. By shaping associations into patterns (sometimes forcing patterns that do not exist?)
  3. Runs on emotions—limbic system works as a relevance detector
  4. Mostly beneath the level of awareness
  5. Learns through the body
  6. Makes meaning

(personal notes from “Teaching to the Teenage Brain” conference leader, Gessner Geyer, 25 July 2005)


**student excerpts

“We have been exposed to unique forms of poetry that I had never encountered before. I have learned to enjoy English class because this is definitely not your average class. We expand upon our thoughts much more than I ever have in any other class, and we explore meanings and learn to understand characters. We also learn why the form of poetry we are studying at the time is written the way it is, and learn to write that way ourselves. As far as Beowulf, I feel knowledgeable now about a story I would have never picked up before. I learned to enjoy the poem . . .  I feel much more confident about my understanding of poetry now that I have learned how to dissect poems.” [emphasis added]

” Preliminarily doubtful that I would enjoy Beowulf because of its old age, I astonished myself when I started to become interested in the storyline and characters. Confused when I felt sorry for a demon, I began to almost feel sympathetic for the monsters, especially Grendel’s Mother who suffered great grief after the loss of her son.”

“I see a pattern of exposure to something we may not know much about at all, and then after a brief exposure, explanation of the subject material. We are allowed to explore the material a little on our own and attempt to draw some of our own conclusions before we are taught the material. I like this tactic a lot as it give[s] us students the chance to tackle new material on our own before receiving assistance. This can translate pretty well to the post-school world as we will not always have a teacher their [sic] to help us right away, and we may have to attempt to draw conclusions ourselves.” . . .

“Beginning to reflect on this section of studies, I realize that the impact it may have on me will not be as much related to the content as to how I went about interpreting the content. The paper helped me to look at things I read or study differently. When prompted with a vague [sic] question, you do not respond with a vague response. The point of the ambiguity is to allow you to interpret the question the way you want. It is open ended to allow you to pick a specific point that you are passionate about instead of forcing you to write something you don’t care about. The paper will help me in the future to look at writing prompts a little differently.”

ed park.07nov14

For me, the issue of trust lies at the heart of these conversations.  High school students, especially seniors, are thirsty for trust.  They want to trust adults in the community, and equally importantly, they want to be trusted.  Placing high value on their reflections shows genuine trust.  Why not find ways to do this?  I was powerfully reminded of this lesson, when I read about a former student who, as a high school senior, asked me to direct the original play he wrote that year.  I trusted his talent, responsibility and commitment to creative expression.  You just never know, but if you screw your courage to the sticking place . . . .



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Reflecting Students in Novel-Journals



Since I am just starting to read several classes’ worth of student journals, I thought I would share the watercolor work on one of the journal covers.

For each of the five chapters in Gail Tsukiyama’s novel The Samurai’s Garden, students recorded passages, analyses and personal responses that focus on one character.  Their main goal was to see new sides of this character, as the light changed around him or her.

I am enjoying reading these journals even more than I expected.  The pace and tone of the novel, reinforced by this journal exercise,  encourage the students to slow down and reflect on slight developments of character.  I am happy to see how many can sustain such reflection over the course of the whole story.



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astute student explains strife and grief

“It is common throughout the history of man that the failure of individuals to respect and recognize the beliefs, culture, and commonality of other human beings leads to, or creates, strife and grief. The inability or unwillingness to understand, also known as ignorance, is a generator of strife and grief.”


Although just a first draft of an essay’s opening,  these two sentences by a sophomore boy inspire me.  They remind me that the young people with whom we teachers work have deep appreciation for life’s challenges.  The job of adults in school communities is to give them chances to express such appreciation in ways that mean something to them and those around them.


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I’m a designer

As one of the guinea pigs canaries faculty members trying out our school’s new evaluation system, I received visits from two generous, respected colleagues.  One of my colleague’s comments helped me realize that though I often go by the label of “teacher,” I’m a designer at heart.  I design experiences from which students can learn about literature and its capacity to develop imagination, empathy and expression–especially written expression.

I am grateful for colleagues who help me reflect on my intentions and impacts as a designer.  I merely mean that I design experiences.  Then I stay alongside the students long enough to monitor their struggles and satisfactions.  A colleague from another school once told me that the term “assessment” comes from a word meaning “stand next to.”  I have not researched this etymology, but the idea has stayed with me ever since.  I am grateful for that colleague’s conversation, too.

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teenagers examine A Doll’s House

In the previous post, I said that young people’s abilities to think and write richly give me hope.   Below, I have posted two such responses to their exam question about Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.  A young woman and young man wrote these, both sophomores in high school.  See if you can tell who wrote which.


In A Doll’s House, a play by Ibsen, Nora is ultimately responsible for her decisions, but other people such as Torvald, Mrs. Linde, and her father influence her self-perception perhaps more than she does herself. Torvald Helmer, Nora’s husband, plays a very large part in swaying Nora’s self-perception. Reaffirming his care for her, Torvald tells Nora that he going to help and protect her: “How warm and cosy our home is, Nora. Here is shelter for you; here I will protect you like a hunted dove that I have saved from a hawk’s claws; I will bring peace to your beating heart.” This statement that Torvald tells Nora, along with many others of similar message, provides Nora with a mask of protection. Although Torvald seems to genuinely mean what he is saying, it is giving Nora a false sense of self-perception that she is happy with Torvald and sheltered by him. This sense of security lies on the surface of Nora’s feelings and self-perception and if she were to dig deeper into herself, that superficial mask would no longer be there.  Not only does Torvald influence Nora’s self-perception but others do as well. Mrs. Linde affects how Nora thinks of herself by putting Nora below her and making her seem less important: “You are still very like a child in many things, and I am older than you in many ways and have a little more experience.” As a result of telling Nora things like this repeatedly, Mrs. Linde affects Nora’s self-perception by leading her to believe that she really is less important than others such as Mrs. Linde, and lacks many skills and experience. This shows that by persistently telling someone something, it will begin to affect how they think about themselves as they will begin to believe what you are saying is true about themselves. Admitting and realizing that others have effected how she thought of herself and lived her life, Nora expresses her suffering to Torvald: “I mean that I was simply transferred from papa’s hands into yours. You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you or else I pretended to, I am really not quite sure which—I think sometimes the one and sometimes the other. When I look back on it, it seems to me as if I had been living here like a poor woman—just form hand to mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.” Nora, expressing her awareness of the impact of others on her own self-perception, shows that because of her father and Torvald she has been living an act. Nora says that she has “existed merely to perform tricks for you, Tovald” which shows that she thought of herself as being okay with simply living for others but now has come to the realization that this is not what she wants. She also conveys that this has been going on forever because of her father, which shows that others influencing her self-perception is not a new concept. Through Torvald, Mrs. Linde, and her father, Nora has formed a superficial self-perception of herself which, although seeming like it may have been correct, when she digs deeper she realizes is not fine and that it is not how she wants to think about herself. “I must stand quite alone, if I am to understand myself and everything about me.”


In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the main character, Nora, is pushed to walk out on her family and leave her children behind due to her own warped self-perception. However, Nora is not the one who shapes her own beliefs and ideas. Instead, outside sources such as Torvald and Krogstad direct and control Nora’s self-perception. Torvald has a particularly large amount of power over Nora’s actions, being her husband. When Nora finally realizes that she has not been in control of herself, she says to Torvald, “You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you or else I pretended to”. Torvald nearly entirely controlled her actions, how she dressed, what she said, and everything else about her public appearance and demeanor. This escalated to the point, where Nora was more like Torvald’s doll than an actual human being, at least on the outside. Krogstad, however, influenced Nora in a very different way from Torvald, indirectly. Krogstad never forced Nora to do anything or directly controlled her actions like Torvald did. Instead Krogstad caused Nora to constantly dread and worry herself over the debt that she owed him. Nora was ashamed of this debt and told no one except her friend Christine about it saying, “Speak low. Suppose Torvald were to hear! He mustn’t on any account—no one in the world must Know, Christine, except you”. Nora could not pay the debt off by herself and also could not tell Torvald, due to the fear she had of him finding out. As such, Krogstad had arguably more control over Nora than Torvald. While Torvald controlled how she acted in public, Krogstad controlled her thoughts in private. When Nora finally came to understand her situation, she realized that she could not escape the control of either of these two men by doing anything but leaving and starting over completely.

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she’s a C student: naming the creature in FRANKENSTEIN

letter sweater CMore than once I have heard teachers say something like “she’s a C student.”  Having taught in NY, OK, CA and now GA, I have heard such comments in each school.  Although I have tried, I never have understood precisely what my colleagues mean.  Traditionally, students take a variety of courses.  Couple this tradition with the knowledge that we all have affinities for certain subjects: she loves Biology, and he always look forward to History class.  Is she a “C student” just in Art or Math, but not in Biology?  How about him?  More importantly, once a teacher imbibes the thought that “she is a C student,” how does that belief affect the “C student”?
In the paragraph below,  a high school senior  addresses the power of naming.   Through this brief writing about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, she argues that when someone consistently receives  a judgment about herself, she starts believing that label.  Student readers, when thoughtfully engaged, have plenty to teach us about how to teach them.  We have to keep our minds and hearts open to such possibilities. (n.b. I have left this writing as is–without editing, except in one case of bracketed letters.  The student wrote this during class as an email, in response to a particular question about the story’s driving forces.)
Based on my reading of Volume 2, I believe that the most paramount concern that governs the direction of the novel is the questionable judgements by which physical differences are termed monstrous. Many times, society unjustly characterizes people’s qualities as “evil.” The monster in the novel “Frankenstein” was not necessarily created bad, but over time, after society socially exiled and evaded him, he turned into what they deemed him to be. One can only stay good for so long when everybody else is telling him that he is bad. “They are kind–they are
the most excellent creatures in the world; but, unfortunately, they are prejudiced against me. I have good dispositions; my life has been hitherto harmless, and, in some degree, beneficial; but a fatal prejudice clouds their eyes, and where they ou[gh]t to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster” (102). Society’s preconceived notions of good and evil turn innocent people into monsters because they do not give them a fair chance to prove their innocence. If people are called something for so long, they will eventually turn into
that very thing. For example, the monster eventually turned evil and “the mildness of my nature had fled, and all within me was turned to gall and bitterness” (107). The monster could not control himself anymore after being repeatedly shunned and ridiculed by society. He gave up trying to be a noble and good person because no matter what he did, society always found a way to exclude and punish him. Society unfairly judged his differences as evil just because he did not look, speak, and act like everybody else did. As the monster became more and more excluded from society, he developed more and more negative qualities. This made people think that he was evil all along when in actuality, it was just their harsh judgements that turned him against mankind. The monster said “All men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!”(72). After being told so many times that he was “the wretched” because of his differences, such as his appearance, he began to believe it himself and accepted the hatred.  Overall, it is societies prejudice towards those who are different than the norm that turn the monster evil and shape the majority of the direction of the novel.
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