Picking Short Stories for a High School Literature Class
April 4, 2009 3:00 PM   Subscribe

If you could plan a high school course introducing freshmen to the short story, what stories would you recommend?

I'm designing a ninth-grade class, Introduction to the Short Story, and I've got a rough idea of what I'd like the students to read, but I've had a lot of luck polling Metafilter users in the past, coming up with a lot of texts I wouldn't have thought about, so let's try this again. (Yes, I've spoken to reference librarians, other teachers, and a couple of professors at a nearby college, but, c'mon, there are tens of thousands of readers on this site, so . . . .)

In addition to building reading comprehension and improving students' use of reading strategies, I'm going to focus on plot, character, theme, point of view, and setting, so, Metafilter, what stories do you think I should teach?

(Reading levels will vary, from third grade- to college-level readers, with a couple of ESL students, too.)
posted by John of Michigan to Writing & Language (72 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
"To Build a Fire", Jack London
posted by Marky at 3:05 PM on April 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Any one of Salinger's 9 Stories (I think MeFi's own bananafish will agree)
posted by radioamy at 3:05 PM on April 4, 2009

You can't teach short stories without Poe. Every single detail in his stories is important. Every word is deliberately and very carefully chosen. There's a lot to work through in "The Fall of the House of Usher," which I'm pretty sure I read my freshman year of high school.
posted by giraffe at 3:07 PM on April 4, 2009

i highly recommend Kilter: 55 Fictions. i studied it in a short story course and it is fantastic. lots of things to talk about throughout the collection (some stories focus on plot, some character, some theme, etc.) the stories are very short (1-4 pages, i think).

poetic and heartbreaking: The Secret Lives of People in Love

quirky, funny, sometimes heavy: Natasha: and other stories

one of my favourite short story collections, some sci-fi: Golden Apples of the Sun

a short story that i studied in grade 10 or 11 that is particularly memorable to me is "The Rocking Horse Winner" by D.H. Lawrence. frightening and gorgeous.
posted by gursky at 3:09 PM on April 4, 2009

The Swimmer by John Cheever. Hills Like White Elephants by Hemingway. The Garden of Forking Paths by Borges. Cathedral by Raymond Carver.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:11 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

For Poe I like The Masque of the Red Death.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:11 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

John Updike's A&P.
posted by tealsocks at 3:16 PM on April 4, 2009

Without a doubt (great short stories, though a tad dark):

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin
posted by blithecatpie at 3:21 PM on April 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

Ray Bradbury's "All Summer In a Day" or "A Sound of Thunder," Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge," yeah, something by Raymond Carver, "The Three-Day Blow" by Hemingway, and something cool and goth-y by Neil Gaiman so they don't think it's all ancient 20th century texts.
posted by Kirklander at 3:22 PM on April 4, 2009

(Echoing above answers,) I know it's like the easiest answer ever, but there's a reason Poe is taught in every high school english course. My favorite back then (and still) was "The Cask of Amontillado".

T.C. Boyle's "The Hit Man"

John Barth's "Life-Story"

Julio Cortázar’s "Blow-Up"
posted by carsonb at 3:23 PM on April 4, 2009

Those two stories have haunted and remained with me all these years.
posted by blithecatpie at 3:24 PM on April 4, 2009

Seconding blithecatpie's recommendation of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery. We did short story my freshman year (now a junior), and that is the one that stays with me to this day. Another good one was Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart.
posted by mck9235 at 3:27 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had a great high school english class about short stories back in the day.

We covered a lot of standard stuff like John Updike's A&P as well as some more interesting stuff like Roald Dahl's The Landlady and The Great Automatic Grammatizator For Poe, I would read The Telltale Heart.
posted by dunkadunc at 3:30 PM on April 4, 2009

Perhaps this could be good time to introduce some Sci-Fi and/or Fantasy into their lives. Some excellent short stories in that vein:

"They're Made Out of Meat" or any of the stories in Bears Discover Fire, by Terry Bisson.

"The Gift of a Useless Man" by Alan Dean Foster

For Halloween, read them the story (it's a rip-roaring fun to read this one aloud) "Pin" by Robert McCammon (in his collection, Blue World).

Any of the excellent Ray Bradbury short stories.
posted by mrbarrett.com at 3:36 PM on April 4, 2009

The Bet by Anton Chekhov.
posted by Seeba at 3:51 PM on April 4, 2009

Check out the Great Books catalog (pdf). This is one of the finest programs for teaching kids how to read and understand literature. They pick a lot of good material for reading and discussion some of which you might find useful in your course.
posted by caddis at 3:53 PM on April 4, 2009

"Reunion" by John Cheever. Because it's told through the eyes of a young boy it may be more accessible than "The Swimmer."

"The Most Beautiful Drowned Man in the World" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It's interesting to read with "The Drowned Man" by JG Ballard because each stories suggest societies with a completely different ethics.

How about some Donald Barthelme? For example, "I Bought a Little City"
or "The King of Jazz".
posted by subatomiczoo at 3:55 PM on April 4, 2009

"Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story" by Russell Banks
posted by aheckler at 3:57 PM on April 4, 2009

On second thought, the Sarah Cole story is probably a little risque for high school. Sorry, I just read "freshmen" and pounced with my suggestion.
posted by aheckler at 3:59 PM on April 4, 2009

a really great anthology of short stories is Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules complied by David Sedaris. It's a bunch of stories that inspired him, classics and modern. It's also published to support a nonprofit tutoring center in Brooklyn.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:10 PM on April 4, 2009

"Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell
posted by aheckler at 4:12 PM on April 4, 2009

The Necklace - Guy de Maupassant
Two Bottles of Relish - Lord Dunsany
posted by Andy's Gross Wart at 4:24 PM on April 4, 2009

Anything by O. Henry.

I'd also highly recommend anything from Rope Burns, the short story collection that Million Dollar Baby came from.
posted by tylerfulltilt at 4:27 PM on April 4, 2009

I will just give you the best short stories I know:

F Scott Fitzgerald:
"Winter Dreams"
"the Diamond as Big as the Ritz"
"The Offshore Pirate"
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (might be a treat for those who have seen the movie to realize the source material is actually incredibly good and has little to nothing to do with Hurricane Katrina)

"The Snows of Kilamanjaro"
"The Short Happy Life of Francis MacComber"
"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"

Haruki Murakami:
"A Slow Boat to China"
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:29 PM on April 4, 2009

oh and scoff if you must but,
Dave Eggers, "After I was thrown into the river and before I drowned."

I think that one and the Murakami are important to let kids know the short story is not a dead art form, despite evidence to the contrary in the major story magazines.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:30 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Clean Sweet Ignatius by Jeffrey Archer - A Nigerian Minister of Finance wants to cut out the heart of corruption and flys to Switzerland to get the names of the citizens in his country who have Swiss bank accounts.

It's available in several Archer collections.
posted by chudmonkey at 4:43 PM on April 4, 2009

It may not be the best for your purposes, but I'm gonna throw out Porcupines at the University by Donald Barthelme. It's just one of my favorite all-time short stories. I first read it as a college freshman, and loved it immediately, FWIW
posted by Shohn at 4:47 PM on April 4, 2009

If you can find it, "The Long Sheet" by William Sansom.

"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson is also good, but very, very dark.
posted by honeybee413 at 4:57 PM on April 4, 2009

I always enjoyed Saki and Dahl.
posted by headless at 5:06 PM on April 4, 2009

N-thing "The Lottery" for both quality and darkness! When I was in high school we also did "Flowers for Algernon" which was moving and very very good too, although a bit longer than the average short story. Those are the two that stick with me to this day.
posted by skaye at 5:10 PM on April 4, 2009

Anything from Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut, but I especially recommend Harrison Bergeron. It's an all-time personal favorite, and a *huge* hit in all of my high school classes.

Also Nthing The Lottery.
posted by batcrazy at 5:13 PM on April 4, 2009

Seconding Salinger's "Nine Stories". "The Laughing Man" is an absolute favorite of mine.
posted by willmize at 5:28 PM on April 4, 2009

I came in to say what batcrazy just said; "Harrison Bergeron" is a solid Vonnegut choice for high schoolers. But my favorites are "The Foster Portfolio", "D.P.", and "The Kid Nobody Could Handle".
posted by Daily Alice at 5:30 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love Tobias Wolff, especially In the Garden of North American Martyrs and Bullet in the Brain.
posted by davidamann at 5:35 PM on April 4, 2009

"The Open Window" by H. H. Munro
"Repent Harlequin!" said the Ticktock Man" by Harlan Ellison
posted by crazylegs at 5:54 PM on April 4, 2009

"The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 6:01 PM on April 4, 2009

Anything by James Thurber; something like "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" or "Draft Board Nights" (the latter from My Life and Hard Times) might make a nice change of pace from the heavy stuff while still being good literature. I generally enjoyed what I read in high school English, but I got a little tired of constantly being up to my eyeballs in Symbolism.
posted by Commander Rachek at 6:11 PM on April 4, 2009

Something from Bukowski, like where his blanket it trying to kill him or something. High School students love Bukowski.
posted by milarepa at 6:19 PM on April 4, 2009

If you want to include some Faulkner that might be readable, try "The Odor of Verbena," which is the last chapter of The Unvanquished. IMHO it's his most readable work - it was written as a serial and so all the chapters had to be self-contained, sort of, and it's a great intro the Man that is NOT that godforsakenthing called "As I Lay Dying," which even I as a Faulkner nut cannot get into.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:22 PM on April 4, 2009

Only one mention of Chekhov so far? He is the best ever at this form, in my opinion at least, and I think I have a lot of company on this one. Some of his classics include "The Lady With the Little Dog" and "Ward 6." There are so many more. Today's finest short story writer is perhaps Alice Munro. I love these stories, but their messages are subtle and thus are perhaps not great candidates for high school discussion. I would suggest you read a few and see whether they might interest your students. I am currently enjoying her recent collection "Runaway."
posted by caddis at 6:37 PM on April 4, 2009

Try "The Love of My Life" by TC Boyle. A teen pregnancy tale may seem overly moralizing, but I found it pretty compelling. It was printed in a book of short stories targeted at young adults, The Human Fly and Other Stories. Descent of Man is another great collection, "Bloodfall" and "The Big Garage" stood out.

Also, I second Vonnegut.

This list is heavily male-biased. To balance this for your female readers, try something by Carol Shields, such as "Hazel".
posted by crazycanuck at 6:44 PM on April 4, 2009

In ninth grade, I quite liked Stephen Vincent Benet's "By the Waters of Babylon." In middle school, I thought Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" was really awesome. I like short stories with surprise twists, I suppose. I really didn't like "To Build A Fire" (and I had to read it in both 6th and 8th grade), but maybe it doesn't traumatize others so much; dog-killing is never okay reading, in my opinion.
posted by lysimache at 6:54 PM on April 4, 2009

I second Thurber, Chekhov, and Hemmingway. I have very distinct memories of reading "Hills like White Elephants" and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" in high school.

In addition, Nathaniel Hawthorne has some interesting short stories. "Rappaccini's Daughter" would be a compliment to any Poe story. Washington Irving could also be worth a look.

As far as non-canonical authors, I really enjoy Neil Gaiman's short stories. "Snow. Glass. Apples" sticks with me, and his one page story about Santa conveys so much in so little space.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 7:03 PM on April 4, 2009

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin

It's a spectacular example of metafiction.

It's based on the philosophy of William James and tips its hat to Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

It won the Hugo Award for Short Stories in 1974

It's a rarity among short fiction in that the setting is much more developed than the characters.
posted by cmchap at 7:10 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

"The Turn of the Screw," Henry James - then you can talk about unreliable narrators!
posted by edrnjevich at 7:30 PM on April 4, 2009

Carver's "A Small Good Thing" is terrific.
posted by shallowcenter at 7:31 PM on April 4, 2009

Borges, "The Library of Babel". Ambrose Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". Fitzgerald, "The Ice Palace".
posted by orthogonality at 7:34 PM on April 4, 2009

"The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell is apparently 'widely anthologized' and is something I remember reading at that level.

Also, seconding any recommendations of Poe and Bradbury. I remember particularly liking Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day" (also mentioned above).
posted by AnimalKing at 7:34 PM on April 4, 2009

"The Catbird Seat" by James Thurber is one of my favorite short stories from high school. Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" is one of those (to me) classic high school reading short stories, but it'll likely be hard to grasp for the less advanced readers (non-continuity is a big part of the story).

Also, if you can find any English translations of Hoshi Shinichi's stories, they're fun twisty PKDick-ish things with a Japanese nature.
posted by that girl at 7:54 PM on April 4, 2009

Just about anything from The Wind's Twelve Quarters by Ursula LeGuin, but particularly "Winter's King" and "Nine Lives." "Winter's King" is a nice introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness if you were hoping the short stories might lead to more reading. And "Nine Lives" is just one of the best stories ever written.

If you're interested in switching up genres a bit, why not some Sherlock Holmes? I think I first got into Holmes ninth grade-ish. Although that is a very particular taste--the Edwardian London setting can be really alien for a lot of readers.

And for Halloween, forget Poe; throw some Lovecraft at them! Hah!
posted by miss patrish at 8:00 PM on April 4, 2009

All of Salinger's "Nine Stories" are, with the arguable exception of Teddy, just wonderful examples of the form; if you must choose one, I strongly remember reading "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" in high school, and it was just one of the most intense, defining reading experiences I've ever had - totally changed my mind on the capabilities of a short story.
posted by Ash3000 at 8:24 PM on April 4, 2009

Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," which is the first chapter of the novel of the same name, and was published first as a short story.

Also Raymond Carver, as mentioned above. "Will You Please Be Quiet Please" is a great story collection.
posted by headnsouth at 8:33 PM on April 4, 2009

Borges. Garden of Forking Paths would be my pick if forced to go with just one.
posted by juv3nal at 8:33 PM on April 4, 2009

Seconding A Perfect Day for Bananafish, The Things They Carried, The Most Dangerous Game, and The Lottery. Bradbury and Flannery O'Connor also have some excellent and memorable ones. The iconic short stories are great, but if you can find some more modern ones, your students would likely enjoy that. By 9th grade, I was already tired of rereading Jack London and Poe.

Have you thought about having your students write their own short stories? Might be a cool final project.
posted by emd3737 at 9:31 PM on April 4, 2009

Mike Resnick is an amazing SF short story writer - and much simpler than many mentioned here. I'm sure they are great stories, but when I was 14, I couldn't understand Salinger, and I was in a gifted program. It's just mentally/emotionally too complex. Actually, I still don't understand the Bananafish story (and I loved some of his other ones).

Actually, I always disliked short stories - but Mike Resnick's Will the Last Person to Leave the Planet Please Shut Off the Sun? (collection of short stories) grabbed me despite my reluctance. I was about 14 or 15 at the time. Many of the stories are very short - including the title story - but excellent and have all that longer short stories do.
posted by jb at 9:38 PM on April 4, 2009

I agree with tealsocks. The A&P is some good readin'. My all time favorite line is from that story- " I slid right down her voice into her living room"
Dern goodern.
posted by Acacia at 9:54 PM on April 4, 2009

Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx.

I also loved The Half-Skinned Steer from her collection of short stories, Close Range: Wyoming Stories.
posted by keep it under cover at 10:18 PM on April 4, 2009

Ooops... actually, Brokeback Mountain might be a tad bit too "adult" for high school freshmen. Still amazingly written though!
posted by keep it under cover at 10:21 PM on April 4, 2009

I haven't read through all these answers, but if you buy a recent college course textbook of collected short fiction stories, most of the above will be included. Such as Jack London, Shirley Jackson, Steinbeck, Carver, Updike, Hemingway , Poe. These stories are all classics and obviously selected in anthologies because of their greatness. They are great for teaching about elements of writing such as tone, character, setting, etc. However, they are a little played out and too heady for 15 year olds . I suggest mixing it up with a little old and a little new. I think most of the classic pieces you can read a freshman class, their is some mature subtext but i doubt few will pick up on it and if they do, great, you cant get in trouble for teaching the classics (well maybe you can). Hmmm, what about some short stories written BY teens, which i am sure you can google.

There are some classic short stories more geared for kids, possibly Nathaniel Hawthorne or Washington Irving (Legend of Sleepy Hollow) but they are kind of wordy and dated as well. Here are a couple of more current suggestions.

"Pretty Monsters" by Kelly Links
"All that remains" by Bruce Brooks
"Close ups: Best stories for teens" by Peter Carver
"Rites of passage: Stories about growing up by Black"
"skin" by roald dahl.

*haven't read all of these, so cant be held accountable

The couple of stories that stand out to me are The Velveteen Rabbit ( I will never read it again because I cried so hard) and a short story by Katherine Anne Porter called "The Grave". Also if you venture into any longer stories I hugely recommend "A Wrinkle in Time"by Madeleine L'engle or even "Charlotte's Web" and a sci-fi book I read in junior high called "Ender's Game" Re-reading books your students may have read in junior high or elementary and looking for the deeper subtext might be cool. I can certainly appreciate the intention of some of those stories more as an adult. Lastly, I recommend reading over anything you might share with your kids, personally i think it is good to be subversive but parents and administration may not agree. Good luck to you! Reading is the best, I hope your kids dig it.
posted by madmamasmith at 1:43 AM on April 5, 2009

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.

The novel is better than the short story, but that's a bonus: if they like it they can go read the longer version.
posted by Xany at 2:04 AM on April 5, 2009

Anything by David Sedaris (with the appropriate edits to make it suitable for a group of 14-year-olds). Since his books are memoirs they aren't great for plot but they've got some fantastic characters and his writing style has a strong voice, is easily approachable for all reading levels, and he's hilarious.

The story of his that I always thought would be perfect for a classroom project is The Youth in Asia* from Me Talk Pretty One Day. It's about all his family pets through the years. His parents had a great dane and the story is full of description that shows the dog's size without using the same adjectives (big, gigantic, etc.) over and over. It would be cool for the students to ready the story with that in mind.

*minus the description of what sounds like a really racist tv show from the 1960s
posted by easy_being_green at 8:40 AM on April 5, 2009

A couple more I thought of this morning:

My previous comment about being up to the eyeballs in Symbolism notwithstanding, both "Araby" and "A Painful Case" from Joyce's Dubliners totally knocked my socks off when we read them in 12th grade English. I don't think I would have had a lot of trouble grokking them as a freshman.

"The Dead Past" by Isaac Asimov may be finest science fiction story ever written. If you only do one science fiction piece all year, make it this one.
posted by Commander Rachek at 8:57 AM on April 5, 2009

hills like white elephants
there will come soft rains (this had the added benefit of making me research and becoming interested in sara teasdale)
a good man is hard to find
good country people

definitely do some poe. cask of amontillado was good, but maybe do something that isn't "standard" high school english poe.

the occurence at owl creek bridge

young goodman brown
the minister's black veil
dr. heidegger's experiment
rappacini's daughter
but then again, i really liked hawthorne. i don't know that others do.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:24 PM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

My faves were The Lottery (of course), The Sniper by O'Flaherty, and Razor by Nabokov. Oh, and The Destroyers by Graham Green. These were some of the best gifts of high school English.
posted by ms.v. at 4:14 PM on April 5, 2009

"The Chase," by Annie Dillard
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:22 PM on April 5, 2009

"Why I Live at the P.O." by Eudora Welty is well-crafted and very, very funny.

ALL of Dubliners, especially "The Dead."

Nthing Hemingway. And I think your students are probably at the perfect age for Fitzgerald, especially "Berenice Bobs her Hair."

Thomas Mann's "Little Herr Friedemann."

Lawrence's "The Rocking Horse Winner."
posted by Morrigan at 6:28 PM on April 5, 2009

"Paul's Case," Willa Cather.
posted by Morrigan at 6:29 PM on April 5, 2009

"My Oedipus Complex'" Frank O'Connor, also very funny.
posted by Morrigan at 6:31 PM on April 5, 2009

Nine Stories? Ugh.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 8:40 PM on April 5, 2009

Vonnegut's "Long Walk to Forever"
posted by candyland at 9:18 AM on April 6, 2009

"Burning Chrome" by William Gibson, in the short story collection Burning Chrome. He first coined the term cyberspace in this book, which I suppose is a somewhat dated term now, but I still think it's a great story.
posted by sharkfu at 9:18 PM on April 6, 2009

Sorry for the echo, but the stories I remembered enjoying the most in high school lit were (not in order):
"The Most Dangerous Game"
"A Good Man is Hard to Find"
"The Lottery"
annnd I don't think I saw this one on on the list,
"A Rose for Emily" (Faulkner, I believe) -- so excellent and very chilling
posted by fantine at 12:08 AM on April 9, 2009

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