Short stories are great teaching tools that can fill a variety of needs. You might teach stories in conjunction with major course texts, to introduce an important course theme in a more digestible way, and/or to fill small gaps in your syllabus. Because short stories are self-contained and can often be taught in a single class period, they can be especially useful for teaching close reading. Instructors might consider beginning the course with a short story to introduce close reading to students before they are asked to perform close readings in the (much larger) space of a novel.
Strategies & Tips
Close Reading Passages: Close reading can be particularly useful in short stories, as short passages can be easily discussed in relation to the full text, which students will have just read in its entirety. See this Close Reading Worksheet for an example of how to run a close reading exercise.
Make a List: Listing out material objects in the text is a great way to get your students to pay attention to detail in the text. Give them a category of material objects that are significant to the text and ask them to go through the story and list all of those objects. (Think of the personal contents of the GI’s packs in O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” or the groceries in Updike’s “A & P.”) Why are these objects described in detail? How do the material items focus your attention on immaterial things, like character’s emotions? How do they convey important information about character and setting by signaling personality, historical/geographical location, and class status*? * Sometimes this requires helping your students make contemporary comparisons to understand the significance of these items (Herring snacks=caviar).
Map it Out: Anything you can to do help your students visualize the story more vividly is good. Asking them do visualize it literally, by making a map, is really good, because it helps them order things like plot events and identify the significance of settings in a really concrete way. You can map settings or you can map out characters movements over the course of a scene/story. If you story takes place in a real location, you might make use of Google Maps/Google Earth to show various locations relationships to one another.
Model Paragraph Assignment: Have students produce a substantial paragraph interpreting an element of a short story. The purpose of this paragraph is to highlight an implicit critique in the story and to use evidence to show how the text makes this critique clear. Can be assigned as freewrite at the start of class.
Repeated Readings: Have students read a story four times at home and chart their understanding and enjoyment of the text with each reading. Then, during class time, ask them meet in four small groups and give short presentations about their experiences with each reading and then to summarize their discussions to the larger group.
Repetition, Repetition: Another way to reinforce authorial choice and to teach students to be aware of how an author might be focusing their attention in very specific ways, is to attend to repetitions in a short story. Ask you students to track repeated words, phrases, or images in a story. Why are they there? What are they supposed to communicate to you? Students are occasionally resistant to this idea, but a good way to affirm that these repetitions are not simply an accident made by an inattentive author is to have your students remove them from the text and replace them with variations. What is lost in the communication and content of the story if you remove the repetition(s)?
Round Table Reading: For short stories, you might have students read the story aloud and ask them to comment on the variations. They have never failed to make excellent observations, which, of course, gives me an opportunity to applaud their ability to read and encourage them that they can do this with everything they read. This is also a nice way of getting students to discuss what they like in a good story—not just plot, but how the story is told. (Adapted from LeDon Sweeney)
Significant Quotes: Ask students to bring in passages or quotes that deserve attention in discussion. They should have reasons why the quote is important and what it might signify. Often several students bring in the same quote and this is a great opportunity for discussing notions of individual reader responses vs. inherently poignant moments in the text. This is a great activity to do since it 1) requires very little time of the students, but also guides their reading of the text; 2) provides you with 20 launches for discussion if you need them; 3) can be used as proof that your students are doing your homework (you can collect them, or randomly call on people to present them, or have them share in groups); and 4) close reading is one of the best tools they can cultivate as they improve their interpretative reading skills and prepare to write persuasive essays. This activity can also be easily adapted: consider asking them to bring in single words they find significant or quotations they believe to be controversial.
Teaching Interpretation through a Parable: This lesson plan introduces the concept of “interpretation.” It is a very short reading of “the parable of the elephant and the blind men,” which is well-known in several Eastern religions. (From Kelly Budruweit)
Tone: As with poetry, tone is a particularly tricky element of literature for our students to understand. To help students arrive at a definitions of a story’s tone more organically that just asking what mood the story creates or what emotions it draws out, as them to come up with a list of things they might associate with a short story, however vaguely. These things could be songs, other stories they’ve read, characters from TV or movies, people they know, etc. (I find this activity works particularly well if you narrow their associations to songs.) For each item they list, they should identify what motivates the association in their minds and what feeling or quality each represents. Through these comparisons, students should become better at assessing tone more directly.
Class Consciousness: Have students find examples of a character’s class as compared to the other characters. Then discuss how these details affect your reading of the story. (Adapted from LeDon Sweeney)
Highlighting Character: Short stories use different techniques to set up character than novels or drama (which have the advantage of development over a longer stretch of time). Short stories have to establish character quickly, often in just a few words or sentences. Ask students to choose a character from the story and describe him or her in detail. Then ask them to identify passages from the text that support/flesh out their descriptions. What are the author’s physical descriptions of the character? What do we know about their demographic factors (age, gender, race, class, etc.)? You can divide your students into different groups for multiple characters and have them compare and contrast their descriptions. You might even want to put a focus on secondary characters: what is their purpose, especially in relation to the central characters?
Highlighting Plot: Plot is also condensed in short stories and, because of its small scope, it is often easier for students to see and understand how plot is working in a short story than in a longer work. One way to help them focus on plot specifically is to have them list characters’ actions and reactions. Which actions/reactions are the most important? What about reactions that aren’t fully explored in the text but may occur as a result of actions in the text? (This is also a useful way to demonstrate the unity of plot and character.) Another way to focus on plot is to ask your students to write a timeline of the events in the story. This is especially useful for stories that have nonlinear plots, or when there are significant flashbacks (as with Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”) It’s also a useful way to discuss the unity of plot and point of view: Is the author recounting the story while it is happening or after the fact? Writing a narrative timeline allows students to explore the author’s purpose in telling the story as well as confirm actions of the plot.
How Would This Be Different If…?: Students struggle to remember that every word in a story is a choice; they often talk about literature as if it were fact or if it emerged complete, Athena-like, from the author’s head. A great way to counteract this impulse is to ask them to consider how the story would be transformed by changing small things (specific words of descriptions, minor details) and large things (point of view, important facts about the characters, etc.). If the ending of the story is unsatisfactory to your students or surprising to them in some way, asking them to rewrite the ending is a particularly effective way to make them think about authorial decisions. (Students also tend to think that short stories are always depressing. Giving them the opportunity to give a sad story a happy ending can be really cathartic—and educational.)
Liking a Character: In something of a reader-response method, you can ask your students if the author wants them to like or dislike a particular character. Then encourage students to provide textual evidence for what makes the character likable or unlikable. (Adapted from LeDon Sweeney)
The Nuts and Bolts of Literature: For all that students use them every day, they are often unaccustomed to thinking about the formal elements of literature when they read. Instruct them to read a story while paying particular attention to sentence and paragraph length. Why are some sentences/paragraphs longer than others, or even run-on sentences? Why are some short and choppy? Often it’s the case that descriptive sentences are really long, sustained by endless commas, while dialogue is fragmentary. Students will tell you that this is because that’s how people really talk. Encourage them to think about whether or not that’s actually true, and also what the difference tells us about descriptive writing. What would it be like if you reversed this? Getting them to pay attention to literature’s most basic elements (punctuation, sentences) not only gives them something concrete to begin with in their analysis, but gets them to start paying attention to grammar more generally—which, hopefully, will bleed into their own writing.
Surprise! Epiphany: Short stories often contain some kind of revelation or significant turning point in a character’s thought and/or action. This moment of realization is a major, defining attribute of the short story genre. Although students will be familiar with the idea, they may be unfamiliar with the term, so take some time to define what an epiphany is and how it works in literature. Then ask them to look for the epiphanic moment in a particular text. When and why does it occur? What changes because of it? It’s often useful to ask students to select the specific sentence where they believe the epiphany occurs. Make the students support their choice with argument: How does their sentence show change? Is it internal, external, or both? What kind of change is it? Ultimately, the most important question is not “Which sentence is the exact epiphany?” (although that does trick them into close reading), but rather why does it occur and what is its result? This is a nice lead-in for discussing the conclusion of a story.
Adaptations: A useful way to get students to think about genre specifics is to ask them to adapt a short story into a short play. Divide them into groups and assign them either a short section of the work or the entire thing itself (if you think they’re up to it). Once they’ve written a short script, ask them to act out their scene for the class. How does the loss of descriptions change their interpretation of the dialogue? What editorial decisions (omission of dialogue, addition of action, etc.) did they have to make and why where they necessary? This activity can be time consuming, but it’s also a good way to draw out quiet students and visually engage the students’ interest in an active way. It’s also easy to expand this adaptation exercise by asking them to consider what a film adaptation of the short story would be like: Who would you cast in the roles? Would we see the characters in close-up, medium, or long shots? What colors would you want to present on camera? How long would the scene be? Bringing in real theater terms (like “blocking” and “beats”) for either version of the activity can give students some ideas of how to proceed with the task in a thoughtful way.
Alternative Ending: Have students write an alternate ending to the story and explain the critical difference between their endings and the author’s.
Back to the Future: Many short stories may seem “old” to the students, and they will often preface their interpretative comments with the phrase “back then”—or, worse, “back in the olden days.” While it is obviously important to address the historical issues and contexts (and clarify which “olden days” we’re talking about), an interesting challenge for the students is to ask them to modernize the story to make it seem relevant to them today. Their changes can include updating the setting or the use of language, increasing the severity of the transgression or crisis so the impact is consistent with what they think it would have been at the story’s original publication. Their changes can be quite innovative, and even radical, but theymust maintain the overall theme and effect of the story as it is written. For this reason, it is important to lay very specific boundaries for your students when doing this activity: requiring that they not only update the story but set it in the neighborhood they grew up in can be useful.
Perform the Story: For stories that rely almost entirely on the dialogue and actions of the characters to convey meaning, rather than exposition, you might have your students perform the literature. It is an effective way for them to figure out what is going on and to pick up on things like sarcasm because it forces them to contemplate how each character delivers the lines, the mood, and what lies beneath seemingly mundane phrases. You might break up the class into groups of four and assign a director, an assistant director, and lead actors. Each group performs a section of the story. They spend some time rehearsing, and the director and assistant director help with directing the actors, which is where the real learning takes place, as they puzzle it out.