From the Front Lines

Shaking Up Short Stories

Summer break is running out for many school districts around the county, and teachers are slowly starting to get back into planning mode. For secondary ELA teachers, that means digging out the short stories they will be teaching this year. Many teachers use short stories to teach Reading standards with the idea that students can then apply those standards to larger works. Others teach short stories as their own unit of study. Either way, it seems that the same old works get chosen. 
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A quick glance at any ELA group on Facebook, the suggested stories the Common Core State Standards list, and most 9th grade English textbooks, and you will see that the short stories used to teach kids today are pretty much the same ones used 20+ years ago: written by old white men (with Kate Chopin thrown in occasionally). The recent movement to diversify what students read by replacing the old canonized with works by and about women, People of Color, the LBGTQ+ community and more has spread through classrooms across the country. Why then, can’t the same happen with short stories?
According to We Need Diverse Books, the benefits of children seeing themselves in books include “seeing reflections of themselves, learning the true nature of the world around them, and seeing themselves in characters and in their environments.” This should be true of the short stories we expose them to as well.
Below are some common short stories that are still used with suggestions for contemporary, diverse replacements:
“The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell (published 1924)
Used frequently to teach plot structure and inference.
Replace with “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist (published 2017) – this story follows 5th grader Isaiah in the months after the death of his father. The story follows a traditional plot map and includes many opportunities for students to infer (mother begins drinking, there is no money for food, etc).
“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe (published 1846)
Used frequently to teach setting, mood, and tone.
Replace with “The Trouble With Drowning” by Dhonielle Clayton (published 2019) – Lena has been obsessively keeping track of this year’s drownings while her family doesn’t want to talk about anything sad. This story is full of opportunities for inference, but also for analyzing the author’s choice of revealing the resolution of the story through the set tone.
“The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst (published 1960)
Used frequently to teach symbolism and theme
Replace with “Flying Lessons” by Soman Chainani (published 2017) – Santosh’s wealthy Nani has taken him on a trip to Barcelona. Throughout the story, images of birds are used to describe both Nani and Santosh as Nani over and over forces Santosh to spend time alone on the Spanish beaches. Students will not only be able to track and unpack the bird symbolism but look at the universal theme of what constitutes freedom.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber (published 1939)
Used frequently to teach narrator/point of view
Replace with “The Ingredients” by Jason Reynolds (published 2019) – An unknown narrator illustrates a summer day in the life of Brooklyn teens Jamal, Big Boy, Flaco, and Randy from the pool to one of their apartments including the dialogue in between. Students can work to unpack the role of the narrator and play with the story from the point of view of each of the boys. This story also lets the reader analyze characterization through dialogue.
“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry (published 1905)
Usually used to teach irony
Replace with “Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push” by Walter Dean Myers (first published 2007) – A former pro-basketball player’s son is injured in an accident and loses the use of his legs. There is an irony to unpack for sure, but there is complex characterization going on with the father in this story as well. Like the other stories, students will be able to analyze the title as it applies to the content, theme, and symbolism in the text.
Where to find the stories:
“The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn,” “Flying Lessons,” and “Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push” can be found in Flying Lessons & Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh
“The Trouble With Drowning” and “The Ingredients” can be found in Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America edited by Ibi Zoboi
Oh, E. (2017). Flying lessons and other stories. New York: Yearling.
Zoboi, I. (2019). Black enough: stories of being young & black in America. New York: Blazer + Bray.

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