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Short Stories: What Are They and Why Do We Read Them?
The following unit presents the study of the structure of short stories through an allegorical narrative about a mountain hike. Students are then invited to further explore the different types and styles of short stories and realize that we are literally surrounded by stories everyday.
Cognitive tools used:
Grade Nine - Short Stories: What are they and why do we read them?
1.Identifying “heroic” qualities
When we think of stories, we often think of pages and pages of writing, telling the reader a type of drama, adventure, comedy, science fiction, or whatever it may be that we have chosen. However, what about the short story? When thinking of a short story, think of a job. Who gets the job done effectively and succinctly? The short story, that’s who!
Everyday we use short stories and are not aware of it. When talking with our friends or family about what we did over the weekend or that school day, we answer with a short story. We start with an introduction that helps our listeners know why we are sharing, get their attention with the rising action, and top it off with the climax, the real clincher or main piece of information, and conclude with a falling action which helps wrap everything up as it leads into the conclusion, or final point of the story. When watching the news or our favourite sitcom on television, we are watching short stories. They are all around us and help us get information across in an effective manner.
2. Shaping the lesson or unit
2.1. Finding the story or narrative:
It was Kenny’s first week of the semester and already his English teacher had given the class an assignment: write a story. Wanting to make a good impression, Kenny got to work on his story that day, Friday. He toiled all night on ideas and themes, only to end up with an overflowing garbage bin of crumpled paper. He found that as he kept writing, his ideas would become lost and he would lose sight of the end. Frustrated, Kenny decided to go for a walk the next morning to clear his head and get a new perspective on his writing. “There has to be an alternative way to writing stories”, Kenny thought.
As he began his hike, he saw a nest of young birds chirping away, awaiting their mother. He smiled, and continued up the local climb. As he kept walking, he could still hear the birds in the distance crying for their mother. He couldn’t get the sound out of his head. Trying to shake it off, Kenny began the steep incline to the top of the hiking trail. As he reached the top, he found, to his surprise, a poor bird caught in a plastic shopping bag. He slowly approached the poor bird, hoping not to scare it, and pulled out his pocket knife. He was able to successfully free the bird, however, once free, the bird began to walk in circles and chirp, almost with a confused look. That is when it clicked to Kenny, “This is probably the mother bird those babies were looking for!” The bird, being disoriented and not knowing where to go, clearly needed help. Not wanting to touch the frightened bird, Kenny pulled the sandwich he had packed out of his bag. Dropping bits of the bun, Kenny walked back down the hiking trail with the bird following behind. As soon as the bird was under the tree of its screaming babies, it flew up and comforted them. The chirping subsided as the family was finally reunited.
Walking home, it all became clear to Kenny on how he could successfully write a good story. He just needed to use what he experienced on his hike! He quickly ran home and got to writing. He started with an introduction to his story, setting up why he was hiking. Then, as he was climbing up the side of the hiking trail, his observation of the baby birds, a type of precursor to what he was to experience next, a dilemma. At the top, his discovery and the problem he faced. As he descends, his resolution to the dilemma and finally, at the bottom, how it all completes itself.
Kenny’s hike helped him realize the elements that create a good story. It doesn’t need to be pages long, but needs to fulfill a type of outline that will keep the reader and writer interested!
2.2. Finding extremes and limits:
Get students to find the shortest and/or longest short story every made. What classifies a short story as “short” apart from other stories? One could also debate these findings. Another way to find extremes and limits could be to get students to take a short story or novel and try to make it even shorter, without losing what they see as important elements. This would be a great introduction to the short story unit after doing a novel study perhaps?
Students could also write three of the same stories, back to back, challenging themselves to write each one shorter than the last. This could help students discover that short stories can really be short and need only the information they find beneficial.
There are also many other continuous options to the extremes and limits: students could compare and contrast extreme personalities not only of the characters, but of authors as well (Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, etc.). Or, extreme situations in the story or surrounding (war, travel, etc.).
2.3. Finding connections to human hopes, fears, and passions:
Get students to talk with a partner about something they did over the summer or that past weekend, or something they wished they did, in ten minutes or less. Or, touch on students emotions by doing the same lesson, but using an emotional setting to back their story: a time when they felt fear? Love? Loss? Accomplishment? Empowerment? Discrimination?Tape these conversations (with the students knowledge, of course). After discussions are done, get students to listen to their conversations and create a short story outline of their conversations, touching on introduction, rising action, climax, conclusion. See what other aspects of short stories they used such as characters, characterization, setting, mood, tone, irony and so on. This could be a great way to introduce those terms by picking them out of their recorded sessions and using them as prime examples.
2.4. Employing additional cognitive tools of Romantic understanding:
Collections and hobbies:
Have students read the same short story and pick out one or two words each that they find interesting. Compile a class list and have students write a short using the compilation. Share stories in the class to show how collections can be used and interpreted differently.
Students may also find interest in finding short stories based on a hobbie or collection they have a personal attachment to and sharing them with the class. This could help show students that short stories can be about something they’re interested in, not just something a teacher makes you read.
Change of context:
Get students to act out short stories instead of reading or writing them, actively engaging drama and role-play. Also, a good game of Charades through short story line with the class could help students’ comprehension of short stories and evoke their sense of wonder.
Have students play the game “Mafia”, having one student be the story teller, one the detective, one the doctor, and three the mafia. Only the story teller is to pick who is who while everybody’s head is down. Example: “I am now picking the detective” and tap that person on the head, and so on. The three members of the Mafia, when asked to look up, will recognize one another. The Mafia picks one person to kill - just the story teller and other mafia members are in the know. The doctor is then allowed to choose one person who they want to save, if it is the same person the mafia has chosen, then they will live. The detective gets to choose a person who they think is part of the mafia. If correct, that person is eliminated. If wrong, that person dies as well. When everybody is chosen, the story teller tells the ‘townspeople’ (this is everybody) to look up and from there the story tellers tells a story of how the person chosen has passed. From there, with everybody’s heads up, the townspeople are able to choose who they believe is part of the mafia and has killed the person chosen. Three people are to make an accusation with a story to back their accusation. When the group votes on one person who they believe is the killer, that person is eliminated and reveals their identity (mafia, doctor, detective, etc.). The game continues until all Mafia members are discovered. Story telling helps this game move along and the story teller can be switched game to game.
The literate eye:
The typical response to this is showing students the plot outline of short stories, with the introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. However, using the narrative, I would use the image of a mountain and a hiker, getting the students to follow along with him where the elements of his short story emerged. Spending time with the students on the visual can help students also understand the sub-classifications of stories (comedies and happy endings, tragedies are typically sad, and so on.) Building on the struggling hiker, the tension, and the drama in the story, helps students connect not only visually but emotionally.
Another visual flowchart students could compile could be a short story chart , storyboard, or cartoon strip of their own life. From birth until now, they would be challenged to find what their climax of their life has been thus far. This is also a great way to get students to connect with their own fears, hopes, and passions.
The sense of wonder:
Short stories are great for creating a sense of wonder. I typically like to read or watch a story, stopping at times and getting students to write what they think will happen next. Even reading/watching a suspenseful story and stopping before the ending, leaving students to conclude on their own what they think the resolution to the story will be.
Another way to evoke a sense of wonder in the class is to get them to create a class short story, kind of like the game of telephone. In this game, however, the class is divided into five groups and given a theme. Each group is responsible for either the introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, or resolution, giving them a type of mad-libs short story to discover in the end.
Embryonic tools of philosophic understanding:
A great way to get students to look abstractly at the world and see different voices is through short stories. Getting students to read two short stories on the same topic/story, and discovering the differences and why they are there, is a great way to achieve this. It can be transferred to other subjects, such as history and the diary of Anne Frank, looking at two different accounts of her experience and the time surrounding her. A big idea to focus on for something like this could be “Truth” and the difference between objectivity and subjectivity.
2.5. Drawing on tools of previous kinds of understanding:
Somatic understanding -
Getting students to listen to a story with their eyes closed and draw pictures of how they saw the story, helps use the sense of listening and interpretation. They don’t have to draw pictures, but can also do abstract or modern art to project their interpretation. Also, getting students to translate a story through pictures only, no words, can help students imagination as well. I also like getting my students to find songs (country songs are great for this) that tell a story or even write their own. One could also have students consider the somatic dimensions of each part of the story. For example, how does their body respond (heart beat, breath, sweat, etc.) to the intro? Rising action? Climax? Etc. The other activities above also touch on somatic understanding as well.
Mythic understanding –
The binary opposition that is used in this unit is their meaning. What stories are meaningful/meaningless? Why? Getting students to create a visual collage of pictures that represent short stories surrounding everyday life can help students vivid mental imagery on the topic of short stories. We lose a sense of reality when we read short stories, yet gain a type of entertainment for that time. Other aspects of mythic understanding are evident in the above activities and the narrative provided.
Other possible dimensions of short stories: Entertainment vs. Philosophy - Good Writing vs. Bad Writing - Long Time vs. Short Time - Efficiency vs. Deeper Understanding - Succinct vs. Drawn Out
What resources can you use to learn more about the topic and to shape your story? What resources are useful in creating activities?
Great resources such as video, powerpoint (see attachment), short story books (even differentiating age genre books such as Amelia Bedelia or , to show absurd/extreme stories), music (country music, especially), and television are evident resources in the above activities are used to shape this unit and story.
The narrative ends with the realization that short stories are an easy and effective way at telling a story. We see them in our every day lives and as people, we are co-creators of these stories. Students realize that short stories are not as daunting as they originally perceived them to be.
How can one know that the content has been learned and understood and has engaged and stimulated students' imaginations?
Get students to create a collage of all the short stories they see around them in every day life.
Get students to create a short story using pictures only.
Students to make and illustrate short stories.
Students personal short stories with plot outline.
Activities above can be evaluated according to teacher’s discretion.
Sub-units and Resources