A short story unit is the perfect way to begin a school year. Short stories are quick and applicable to so many learning standards. Yet, they are versatile, so you can really incorporate them whenever and however you want. People often debate which short stories should be taught at which grade levels. There is no clear right or wrong answer for that question.
The answer is fuzzy because not everyone uses a textbook. Not all schools within a district use the same textbook series. We just don’t know which stories students will have already read when they enter our classroom. For this reason, I try to be flexible. In this post, I’m sharing the stories I’ve used most commonly at the ninth grade level and what standards I cover with them.
SHORT STORIES: A TEACHING APPROACH
Begin by establishing a purpose.
What is your purpose for reading short stories? If your answer is “because it’s in the curriculum map,” “because students like them,” or “because it’s what I’ve always done,” it might be time to re-evaluate. When teaching short stories, always establish and learning objectives and identify related standards first. What do you want students to be able to do before, during, or after reading the story?
Collect student evidence.
Before reading, I suggest giving students a pre-assessment so that you can accurately assess current understanding and track progress. Pre-assessments don’t always give me valuable information about specific students, but they do sometimes help me to see a bigger picture of what the entire class might need. They point out misconceptions I might not have anticipated.
Model reading skills for literature.
I suggest modeling and discussing reading skills with one whole class study of a short story. Students are often adept at basic comprehension level skills. They probably don’t need for us to model types of conflict, for example. Instead, older students can gain insight when a teacher models how to analyze the way a character’s motivation impacts the story’s conflict.
This approach works well in readers workshop or other student-centered classroom formats. Teachers can easily move from guided practice in whole class or small group format to more of an individualized learning approach.
Give students choice.
Give students choice to work with partners or small groups for a second round. This freedom allows students to select stories they enjoy while also providing us with data we can use to reassess understanding. It’s difficult for students to demonstrate mastery of skills when we are leading the discussion and guiding them to the “correct” answers.
Some teachers are uncomfortable with giving students complete freedom. That’s understandable, especially if you are used to running a tight ship. Simply allowing students to choose what story they’d like to practice a particular skill with is a good start. If you’re feeling ambitious, try allowing students to select the skill they feel they need help with the most. This approach works best when teachers have already modeled expectations and examples and students have had some time to dabble with them.
When offering choice with short stories, it’s a good idea to have texts available that represent the variety of reading levels in your class.
Reflect, reassess, and reteach (if necessary).
As we ask students to respond independently or with small groups, we should analyze their performance and adjust instruction to meet students’ needs. Providing small group or independent work time frees us up to provide support for small groups of students.
SHORT STORIES: STANDARDS AND TEXTS
These are some of the standards I cover with short story units along with texts that I’ve enjoyed sharing with high school students.
Character Motive and Inferences (RL.1)
MENTOR TEXT: “The Scarlet Ibis”by James Hurst is a great story for teaching students to make inferences and analyze textual details.
- “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
- “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe
- “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell
You can ask students to record specific passages and their inferential or analytical responses to those passages as they read and reflect. Simply model expectations with the mentor text and require that they demonstrate that same skill level when working on their choice text.
Plot Analysis and Objective Summaries (RL.2)
I find it’s easiest to ask students to objectively summarize a text that has a clear plot and conflict. Short stories work well because there aren’t usually many subplots to complicate the work. In order to write an objective summary of a fictional text, students need to be able to recognize the plot.
MENTOR TEXT: “The Interlopers” is an easy story to use to model plot analysis and summary writing.
- “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury
- “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl
- “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
Development of Theme (RL.3)
What short story isn’t good for analyzing theme, really? These are some of my favorites.
MENTOR TEXT: “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry is not just for the holidays.
- “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune” by Chris Crutcher
- “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury
- “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Author’s Craft (RL.4)
I try to select texts that have interesting word choice and tone when teaching author’s craft. Figurative language and sentence structure are also traits to consider.
MENTOR TEXT: “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl is good for examining sentence structure, tone, and word choice. Plus, this text contains a plethora of imagery and description.
- “Hey You Down There” by Harold Rolseth
- “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving
- “The Bridegroom” by Alexander Pushkin
Text Structure (RL.5)
When analyzing text structure, it helps to use short stories that have suspense, obvious pacing techniques, flashbacks, and tension.
MENTOR TEXT: “The Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury
- “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs
- “The Lady or the Tiger” by Frank Stockton
- “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce
Those are some of my favorite texts and approaches for a high school short story unit. These same teaching ideas can be used in middle school classrooms, but the texts may need to be altered depending on the reading levels and maturity of your students. Do you have a favorite short story to teach? What is your purpose for including it in your curriculum? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
If you’d like a more comprehensive picture of what I teach at the beginning of the school year, you might want to read this post about my first nine weeks ELA curriculum.
My friend Lauralee teaches short stories, too. Her approach is slightly different. Read about her short story lesson plans if you want more inspiration.
Use these teaching resources to differentiate and support student choice in your classroom. Model first. Provide options second. Graphic organizers and reading guides are good for scaffolding students’ understanding. These tools can be used with any short story.