Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Short But Rarely Sweet: Short Stories in the Classroom

I don't naturally love short stories, even though I do like small things: fairies, marshmallows and babies all come to mind. But in my personal reading, I prefer the meatiness of a long book, be it fiction or non-. Even in my magazine reading (and I am a devoted magazine reader), I catch myself flipping ahead to see how long an article is before I start. To my mind, the longer the better, which is why I am inordinately fond of Malcolm Gladwell's articles in The New Yorker.

I'm not alone, am I? Lots of people are ambivalent about short stories, if my extremely informal poll is correct. We all seem to like the bite-sized nature of the form, and the way they allow for a perfectly reasonable one-sitting reading. (I once read The Color Purple in one five-hour sitting, but I can't recommend it.) But conversely, a bite isn't dinner, and we can be left feeling that we want something more substantial from our reading. Whether a short story has been crafted meticulously to lead to a stunning, ending twist, or slapped together with equal parts chutzpah and glitter, it's over soon. Five or so pages may not be enough time with the people and situation you've met.

Nevertheless, I spend a lot of time reading short stories. Not for me, but for my students. Short stories proffer all kinds of advantages for the English classroom teacher. They are, of course, short enough to read in one or two classes. Alternately, you can read the beginning of one in class and send the kids home to finish; that human compulsion to find out what happens often will keep them reading in a way the beginning of a long novel won't. Short stories are a great way to introduce students to the style of a particular writer before reading one of his or her longer works, or give your students a chance to read a variety of authors in a way they wouldn't be able to get through with longer works. And short stories help you, the teacher, cover a lot of ground quickly, especially if you, like me, teach in chronological units. (By the way, that's just this year's choice, not an undying allegiance.)

Indeed, as my class moves through pre-Civil War American literature, we are clipping along at a brisk pace. Jumping from Washington Irving to Edgar Allan Poe to Ambrose Bierce, I like to imagine the pages of a calendar peeling off and flying by, as in an old Jimmy Stewart film. It's a feast of appetizers, for sure, not a fully cooked, sit-down dinner. But you know what? At this time of kinda-Spring, still kinda-Winter in my classroom, I'd rather serve the kids some crab puffs, guacamole and those little cocktail wieners than a full seven-course meal. They ain't that hungry right now, you know?

One other point in short stories' favor: I think reading them is empowering for kids. No matter how well you've read, understood and enjoyed a novel, when you're done with it, you've just read one novel. But short stories? Those you can rack up pretty fast, and that gives any student a sense of accomplishment. Now, I'm not advocating for reading as a numbers game, of course, but most human beings do enjoy that feeling of checking something off and adding another chip to the pile. (Or am I the only person in my mid-30s who still rewards herself with a sticker on return from the gym?)

In fact, finding reason to concoct another series of bad puns to make this month may be the only other thing that gives me such a sense of accomplishment. So, without further ado...

Making the Short List

Let me (re-)introduce you to a few short stories which I think are worth your time, in a classroom or out. This list, much like my life, is not comprehensive or authoritative. I'm not an expert or even, as I mentioned, much of a short story reader on my own. I attribute this aversion to short stories to two formative experiences. First, when I was, I think, a 9th grader, we read a Stephen King short story called "The Monkey" in class. My teacher had photocopied it and brought it in, which was remarkable at the time, when all reading came from the textbook and only the textbook, so help us, God. The story was about a cymbal-slapping toy monkey that was possessed by an evil spirit, and it scared the living hoo-ha out of me. Seriously, I think I had cold sweats reading it in class that day. I do have a very low tolerance for horror, in general, but still, it was one scary story. I guarantee, if you read it with your students, they will be riveted. It's in King's anthology Skeleton Crew... if you dare. (I don't — just look at that cover!)

The other experience was poor judgment on my part. I had read an interview with my personal hero/future husband Bono, in which he praised Flannery O'Connor. I decided to read some Flannery O'Connor, taking her Complete Stories out of the library for a car trip with my family. Well, Flannery O'Connor's books should come with a warning: "Extremely Unsettling; Not for Oversensitive Teenagers Who Barely Made It Through 'The Monkey.'" But I didn't know, and I read two of them in a row, then shoved the book way down into my bag and sang quietly to myself for the rest of the trip.

Still, you can't beat O'Connor. Older, I loved reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find" with my students. I think that sometimes short story endings can be obscure; I find that I often don't quite understand what has happened (Nathaniel Hawthorne and Kate Chopin, I am looking at you). This is surely not true about "A Good Man" — but, at the same time, it still leaves you with more questions than it answered. That's a wonderful way to discuss ambiguity and author's intention with students. The language is considered "Southern Grotesque" and is unique to O'Connor, which can lead to vigorous conversations about dialogue, imagery and vocabulary choices. Plus (spoiler alert!), the kids just never fail to be completely freaked that at the end the thug actually shoots everyone, even Grandma.

As mentioned, I do like Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," even if I do tend to mash it up with The Ox-Bow Incident (The Occurrence at the Owl Ox Creekbow Incident?). It's got a killer (really) of a twist ending and really flummoxes the kids. There are some terrific vocab words in there too, with frequent opportunities to infer meaning for them. Inferring meaning is my favorite technique for vocabulary, in case you haven't guessed. I'm prejudiced — that's how I learned about 90% of my own vocabulary. Here is a link to the public domain text.

Literature textbooks are always trying to cram Katherine Anne Porter's "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" down our throats, but I find that story really, really hard to understand. Call me a crazed egotist, but if I don't get it after two college degrees, I doubt my students will. On the other hand, if you're learning (or teaching) about stream-of-consciousness, better to start here than Joyce.

I like Doris Lessing's "Through the Tunnel" a great deal. It's a story about a boy on vacation with his widowed mother, who sets a challenge for himself and, for the first time, begins to move away from her. This story has genuine suspense but isn't a horror or mystery tale. I have had students both demand we stop reading and insist we keep reading because they are afraid/determined to find out what happens. Good stuff. Since Lessing writes in a British dialect, we often have brief but intriguing conversations about how different words mean different things in the US or the UK. You can find it in Lessing's collected Stories.

Gloomy ol' Edgar Allan Poe is often found in textbooks. His short story "The Masque of the Red Death" is often included, since it avoids the incest and violence of his other stories. I don't mind it, per se, but I think Poe's poetry is his finest accomplishment, so I prefer to focus there. To fulfill the "My Teacher Made Me Read A Story That Gave Me the Willies" requirement of all language arts classes (yet avoid the "My Teacher Ended Up Crying at Her Desk" that "The Monkey" would cause), I prefer Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains." It includes a Sara Teasdale poem, for one thing, and is a spooky little jewel of 1950s Cold War America, when technological salvation and destruction were right around the corner. A great story to help your students understand the concept of intuiting what has happened without being psychic. (Yes, Hawthorne, again, I look at you.) It's in The Martian Chronicles.

I'm not a Hemingway fan, but I feel my students should have read at least one of of his works before they graduate high school. I often settle on "In Another Country." It's a story about war and what war does. Whether as part of a discussion about war (and anti-war) poetry and other writing, or as a chronological unit about World War I, this short story deserves a read.

Turning back to authors I actually like, Lorrie Moore is amazing. Her latest collection of short stories has just come out, A Gate at the Stairs. If I've got a mature class, I'll share "People Like That Are the Only People Here" from her earlier collection, Birds of America. It is a devastating but deeply powerful story, and is written in a very accessible style, which can be a nice change for students used to reading with a dictionary nearby.

Speaking of strong female writers, there's Alice Walker, too, a must-read in my classroom. I like my students to know Walker so much, I'll chose to read both a short story and a novel by her. This year, we're going to read the title story from her collection The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart. This story is about her long-ago marriage to a white man, and how they were drawn together and pulled apart by being involved in a mixed-race marriage. She still doesn't understand what happened, and I can't wait for my students to experience her words of affection, analysis and befuddlement.

You may already know The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, a collection of related short stories about a platoon of soldiers in the Vietnam War. The title story is the one I keep coming back to. It is a rare example of an author making repetition work to powerful affect in a piece of prose. It is not easy to read, but it is truly haunting. I find it is often my students' first experience with lyrical prose writing, while equally serving as a reminder that every generation has had it's own vocabulary and slang. I just realized it's only 20 years old, too. Seems much older to me, no doubt because it contains what sounds like ancient wisdom about war and human failing.

Let's end happily, shall we? I want to point to the story "The Doll's House" by Katharine Mansfield, not to be confused with the class Ibsen play A Doll's House. Mansfield has sort of drifted away into the literary ether, but, because the textbooks at my previous school were hopelessly out of date, I stumbled upon this story in one of them. I don't want to tell you too much about it. I want you to read it! The ending moves me to tears, as it defines, to my mind, hope.

And I'll close this list with a short story that my students always love: O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." They tend to focus on the undeniable sweetness of the story (whereas I seize upon it as an opportunity to discuss the importance of clear communication). It's a story that's difficult enough in vocabulary and sentence structure to be a challenge, but, thankfully, intriguing enough that my students want to try to understand it. Give it a read. It's my gift to you!

Short Stop

I began by mentioning I'm not much of a short story fan. But surveying the breadth and depth of these wonderful stories reminds me of the scope and power of the genre. Sometimes short is sweet, it seems. I hope you've found something here for yourself and/or for your students. I know I've missed bazillions of good short stories. Leave a comment and fill us all in on what I should have included.

Next month, a wrap-up of my playwriting class! Till then...

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday March 15th 2010, 3:04 AM
Comment by: Winston D.
I do enjoy short stories, but prefer to take them in collections. That way I am equipped with a long read with satisfying breaks throughout. If a novel is dinner and a short story is but a bite, then a collection is a picnic buffet!

In the genre of science fiction, I much prefer the short story over the novel. For me, it's a lot of work to grasp the very foreign terrain of other worldly locales as I follow the plot. But a writer with a firm grasp of short story elements can set the stage of those other worldly locales quickly, precisely, and leave me to savor the action and texture of the story.

The best way to read a collection of short stories (a variety of authorship, a plus) is to sit under an umbrella on the beach during the uncrowded off-season with only the surf stretching before you.
Monday March 15th 2010, 3:35 AM
Comment by: Jennifer I.
Oh, my. How timely. Just as I'm developing the syllabus for a 10th grade advanced reading in English class (Japanese school). Thank you for your insight.
Monday March 15th 2010, 6:20 AM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Winston, I do hope the VT higher-ups will see the wisdom of your words and send me to the beach so I can read more short stories! :)
Monday March 15th 2010, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Rachel V. (Methuen, MA)
Thanks for the reading list! I love long books and short story collections too, the spookier the better. But I can't believe I've never gotten to Flannery O'Connor. *hangs head in shame*
Monday March 15th 2010, 12:47 PM
Comment by: Margaret E. T. (OH)
I too, am not a fan of Hemingway. (In fact, my colleagues and I discussed the clash between those who are earnest about Ernest (sorry) and those of us who are not. What do our preferences for and against Hemingway show about us?) In any case, my advanced students enjoyed "Hills Like White Elephants"--short enough to devour in a sitting, and excellent for performing aloud.

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