How To Teach Short Stories

Why Do We Teach Short Stories?

First, we teach short stories because it is a great way to engage those who cannot sustain their attention for the entirety of a novel; the second reason as to why we teach short stories, is that it is a great way to cover several of the standards we must cover-which takes much longer during a novel unit; and third reason why we teach short stories answers the question of why short stories are popular? Because they are a lot of fun! For these reasons, every teacher should know how to teach short stories.

How to Teach Short Stories

Short Stories

I teach short stories using the following steps: Graphic organizers, notes on story mountain, read story with audio, watch short film about story, answer reading comprehension questions, create something such as a one-pager.

How to Teach Reading Short Stories: Plot Structure Diagram

Plot Structure Diagram

I begin teaching short stories by teaching students about the plot structure diagram or “story mountain”. Story mountain has 6 different components: the exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. With middle school students you must give them a graphic organizer and have them fill in notes step by step. With high school students you can give them a graphic organizer for review, and quickly go over each part of the story mountain. The most important thing students need to learn when learning about short stories is the plot structure diagram. Within story mountain, students learn about characters, setting, conflict, tension, audience, narrator, introduction, and conclusion.

How to Teach Story Mountain: Exposition

Students will fill in their graphic organizer beginning with the exposition. In the exposition students learn about the characters, setting, and conflict. The exposition is the introduction of the story and it sets the scene. An example by Edgar Allen Poe would be the following, “…It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever…” In this paragraph, which is part of the exposition, we can infer that the main character has lost his marbles. We also know that the conflict has to do with the old man and his blue eye. In addition we know that he has decided to kill the old man. In the rest of the exposition, not quoted above, we learn about the setting, which takes place in the old man’s home. I have found that the most engaging way to teach students the plot structure diagram, and specifically exposition is by providing them with a graphic organizer, having them watch short videos, and fill out the information they learn from the videos. Videos such as Shmoop have great brief engaging videos to cover plot structure/story mountain.

Story Mountain

How to Teach Short Stories in English: Rising Action

The rising action in the plot structure diagram moves the plot forward. We are have already been introduced to the protagonist, and conflict (which can be the antagonist). We now have been introduced to secondary characters and the protagonist is moving his way toward conquering the issue or problem. In Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart”, an example of the rising action is in the following text, “Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers –of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled.” We can see that the main character is now moving forward with the idea to kill the old man.

How to Read Short Stories: Climax

The climax is the high point in the story. It is the point at which the audience is on the edge of their seat. For example, in “Tell Tale Heart” the climax is when the main character kills the old man, “With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once –once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead.” This is the highest point of tension in the story and therefore the climax.

How to Read Short Stories: Falling Action

The falling action in the short story is the part where things happen as a result of the climax. For example, in “Tell Tale Heart”, the falling action is the main character burying the old man under the floor boards, and the police arriving to question him as to the whereabouts of the old man. The tension builds, as the main character believes he can hear the beating of the old man’s heart. All of this is part of the falling action.

“The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs. I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye –not even his –could have detected anything wrong. There was nothing to wash out –no stain of any kind –no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all –ha! Ha!”. The story goes on to the arrival of the police and the beating of the dead man’s heart.

How to Read Short Stories: Resolution

The resolution ties up all loose ends from the story. It can be a solution. For example, in “Tell Tale Heart” the resolution is that the main character confesses to the murder and is then, most likely taken to jail. The resolution is the end of the story. In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “Tell Tale Heart”, the resolution ends with the following, “”Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!” The resolution is that the man is caught.

How to Teach Short Stories: Lesson Plan

Once students have comprehension of the story mountain, we then read the short story aloud in class. I like to provide a copy of the story to all students, and play the audio version of the story. This helps all types of learners with the reading process. I also like to pause the audio and address the different elements of the short story such as the ones in story mountain, dialogue, implications, descriptions, etc. Middle school students are still afraid to read out loud, but in high school, you can have students take turns reading out loud.

Permission Granted for Image

Short Film/Reading Comprehension/Creation

Students will watch a film of the short story they have just read, followed up with reading comprehension questions. Videos can be found on Youtube, or paid for through Amazon or Netflix. Once they have completed the reading comprehension to check for understanding, I have students create something, such as a one-pager.

A one-pager lesson, project, or activity can be a great, engaging way to assess student knowledge. “Create” is at the top of the list for Bloom’s taxonomy: levels of critical thinking. The purpose of the one-pager is to take a close look at the short story and analyze themes, characters, quotes etc. The top half should focus on themes and symbolism using words and images. The bottom half should focus on key characters from the text and how they develop. The border has pictures, symbols and words that symbolize theme.

Students organize their papers in six separate boxes. In one box there needs to be a main idea, an image of the main idea and a quote to support the main idea. In a second box there needs to be 3 quotes of choice that capture the themes addressed in the novel. In a third box, images or doodled words about characterization, physical characteristics and description of character changes. In a fourth box a description of the setting, quotes about the setting, and images of the setting. In the fifth box, images and quotes that show the author’s style of writing. And finally, in the sixth box images and words connecting themes and ideas as well as a connection to the world today.

Once students have created something they have successfully completed their short story unit.

One-Pager

Short Stories for Middle School

Some popular short stories for middle school are as follows:

Tell Tale Heart

The Elevator

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Veldt

Edgar Allen Poe Graphic Novel Bundle

Edgar Allen Poe Short Story Bundle

Short Stories for High School

Some popular short stories for high school are as follows:

There Will Come Soft Rains

Harrison Bergeron

Masque of the Red Death

The Pit and the Pendulum

The Cask of Amontillado

The Most Dangerous Game

If you would like to learn about how to teach writing short stories, please visit my, writing a narrative blog. I would love to hear which short stories you teach. Tell us what short stories you teach in your classroom and which grades you teach them?

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