Short stories have probably saved my teaching sanity more than any other type of text.
There’s nothing quite the feeling when a good short story weaves its charm on a reluctant class. Even the most miserable of days beyond the window - and turbulent psychic weather inside - can be dispelled in a haze of storytelling.
When I started teaching, we were at the end of the gritty-Northern-realism era. Writers like Stan Barstow and Alan Sillitoe were the stalwarts. Their raw emotional content always packed an amazing punch. Barstow’s “The Fury” – about Mrs Fletcher secretly butchering her husband’s prize rabbits – would usually leave a class reeling in shock.
And now, of course, we are spoilt for choice, with an astonishing range of world writers whose stories captivate and inspire pupils of all ages.
I suspect our approach to the short story has moved on too. In my early years, in Leeds, I’d read the story aloud (and still do, always); we’d talk a bit about the characters, and then students might retell an event from a different point-of-view, or we’d hot-seat someone, or create a character grid, or make a newspaper front page, or something similar.
Now there’s more emphasis on form as well as content. The national curriculum and national literacy strategy stress the importance of actively exploring the conventions of literary forms. There is the same emphasis on reading skills, plus a healthy focus on the writer’s craft.
This, I think, is a big breakthrough. Now we’re not simply expected to see texts from a reading perspective – at its worst, students encouraged to tiptoe and then worship at the shrine of great writers – but explored actively from the standpoint of the writer.
This means that, as teacher, I am also lead-writer – exploring short extracts of texts, using an overhead projector to focus on sentence- and word-level work, redrafting ideas at the front of the class, debating points of style and punctuation.
Stories Old and New places side-by-side an unusual and lively mix of stories. There’s pre-1914 writing, modern stories, realism rubbing shoulders with more stylised work.
I suggest some ideas for teaching these below.
In the meantime, I recommend the collection – one of my own favourites. It contains many of the stories that have served me best in the classroom, even in the face of adversity! That’s what gives the collection a special resonance for me – stories that do more than interest and entertain. They fascinate, provoke, disturb and linger in the mind.
And even if I can’t quite claim they’ll save your sanity, they might be just the thing for a wet Thursday afternoon.
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5 Hints on Teaching short stories
Focus on form as well as content: build students’ awareness of the conventions of short stories (smaller range of characters, simpler plots, use of symbolism, resonant denouements). Give them a mini-lecture; let them research the history of the short story; get them to produce a range of quick posters on famous short story writers, or a two-column grid on features of the short story v features of the novel
Spend time comparing the openings of two stories: explore with students how writers build characters and settings and, crucially, how they develop tension.
Make this active. Get students rewriting openings in different styles, changing sentence styles, adding modifiers, shifting tenses. Focus just on the first sentence or paragraph.
Encourage personal response by setting wider reading assignments – compare two or three stories; keep a reading log; write a letter to a friend about one or two stories you have enjoyed.
Explore structure by dividing the stories up. Break it into sections and shuffle. Mix up sentences in a single paragraph. Students work best in response to very small, controlled activities – which can then be placed in the context of the whole story to build the skills.
Click here to see the contents list of Stories Old and New
The revised national curriculum for English emphasises these reading skills and areas of knowledge:
c) how ideas, values and emotions are explored and portrayed
d) to identify the perspectives offered on individuals, community and society
Plus a closer focus on the writer’s craft – for example:
h) to reflect on the writer's presentation of ideas and issues, the motivation and behaviour of characters, the development of plot and the overall impact of a text
j) how techniques, structure, forms and styles vary
k) to compare texts, looking at style, theme and language, and identifying connections and contrasts.
Plus an emphasis on range and heritage:
2. Pupils should be taught:
b) the characteristics of texts that are considered to be of high quality
c) the appeal and importance of these texts over time.
Texts from different cultures and traditions
3. Pupils should be taught:
a) to understand the values and assumptions in the texts
b) the significance of the subject matter and the language
c) the distinctive qualities of literature from different traditions
d) how familiar themes are explored in different cultural contexts [for example, how childhood is portrayed, references to oral or folk traditions]
e) to make connections and comparisons between texts from different cultures.