It is not always easy to teach an entire novel to high school students. Most of the reading needs to be done at home, and the proliferation of online sites offering summaries and notes for popular texts means there’s no guarantee that the book will be read at all. Then there’s the expense to schools or students, and the sheer time involved in building a worthwhile understanding of themes, characters, and narrative techniques.
While novels certainly have a place in the English syllabus, teachers may find that a selection of short stories can offer students a much more manageable way of learning about good quality literature. Short stories can be read during lessons, allowing for timely pauses to discuss important events or techniques in the narrative, and many worthwhile examples can be simply downloaded and photocopied. Best of all, stories like those suggested below may help students to see that the works of great writers are to be enjoyed, rather than endured.
“Man from the South” by Roald Dahl – Dahl is an indisputable master of the short form, and this thrilling tale is one of his very best. In truth, nothing very much happens, but that is one of the reasons for studying it. Students can marvel at the way that Dahl builds and then maintains the suspense through careful language choices. If students enjoy the black comedy and twist ending, they may want to read other tales by Roald Dahl, such as “Parson’s Pleasure”, or “Lamb to the Slaughter”. Teaching several of these little masterpieces will help students to recognise stylistic and thematic elements in the writer’s technique.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson – One of the great examples of speculative fiction, “The Lottery” has been a controversial tale ever since it was first published in 1948. It’s a chilling examination of what happens when the mob blindly follows an unreasoned ideology. Still relevant in today’s society, “The Lottery” has become a fixture in high school and college English courses with good reason.
“The Ransom of Red Chief” by O. Henry – A funny and clever tale from one of America’s greatest writers of short stories. Although originally published in 1910, it remains accessible and entertaining for modern readers.
“The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe – The writing of Poe is not particularly easy or immediately enjoyable for today’s students, but as an introduction to classic horror stories, it’s hard to go past the old master. “The Black Cat” offers enough thrills and chills to engage older students before they begin to consider its complex themes and imagery.
“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut – Only about four pages long, but there are as many big ideas in it as there are in most full-length novels. “Harrison Bergeron” is a great story to teach, as most students seem to enjoy its dark humor and offbeat ending. It is also a fascinating parable about equality, conformity, and mediocrity – all relevant and approachable themes for teens.
The examples mentioned above are just a sample of the many thrilling and enjoyable short works of fiction that teachers can use to engage their students in the process of reading for pleasure and for meaning.