SF Short stories for returnee program?
September 1, 2019 7:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for suggestions for short stories for a returnee English course in a Japanese junior/senior high school. My own personal preference is science fiction, but I'm open to anything.

I've been teaching EFL in Japan for about 15 years, and just came back to it after a four year break. In a twist, my classes are made entirely of students who've either lived overseas, or who attended "international" elementary schools. In a different twist, and something I really didn't know before I took the job, my students are almost exclusively the group that was too advanced for standard EFL oral communication, but not considered advanced enough for the "real" returnee courses that tend to follow a British college prep literature/critical thinking path.

In essence, I'm teaching a four year program, J1-H1 where I'll be retaining the same students every year. The teacher before me did what can charitably called "as little as possible" and had built a class using vocabulary memorization and, I shit you not, Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. After asking what I would be able to change, the unspoken, but sort of blatant response is that these kids are essentially warehoused, and no one really expects much of them, or the program in general.

I'm trying to slowly build up a basic skills course for low level returnees, so that, while they might not be super fluent kids who can get into Oxford or wherever, they'll be able to write well and be able to read, comprehend, and discuss texts. For a lot of reasons, novels are pretty much out, but I really think they'd benefit from reading decent, short fiction. I'd like to come up with a decent reading list to spread across the four years (and the varying levels), and so far, I've got old standbys like Ray Bradbury (A Sound of Thunder, The Veldt, AskMe favorite All Summer in a Day), and LeGuin's The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (for the higher level classes).

Are there other stories out there I should be looking at? Are there versions available online, or are there short story collections that fit the theme that I could order for the next school year? While I've been teaching EFL for 15 years, this is my first exclusively returnee class load, and I'd like to try to build this class up into something more than "Just teach them whatever" which seems to be the current expectation.
posted by Ghidorah to Education (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I really enjoyed Spider Robinson's "Callahan's" books. They are a series of short stories - he wrote them for magazines, and then collected them together in books.
Only thing I can think of for your situation is he makes extensive use of puns.
Ferinstance, one of the titles is "Lady slings the booze" (Callahan's is a bar in the stories)
Some of the stories do have "mature content".
posted by rudd135 at 7:15 PM on September 1, 2019

Here's some recent SF/F short fiction available for free online that I think might work for this audience:
posted by Wobbuffet at 7:35 PM on September 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Arthur C Clarke's Tales from the White Hart are mostly quite short, good natured, clever and funny, and I think the language is simple enough without being too dull to hold your students' attention.
posted by jamjam at 9:15 PM on September 1, 2019

Are graphic novels a possibility? I learned Korean (again) as an adult despite it having been my first language at home, and while I was in a different situation and a decade older than a high school student, I did have what I imagine is a similar frustration of knowing that I used to be better at the language. I had decent pronunciation but really uneven vocabulary and grammar. My Korean language intensive classmates were mainly Chinese and Japanese students who could read Chinese characters and thus had an easy time learning the Chinese-origin vocab necessary for academic writing, while I floundered.

So graphic novels. The first time I went to a regular bookstore in Seoul I ended up in the graphic novel / comics section of Kyobo and gravitated toward the indie titles (not manga). I had a much less hair-tearing experience reading graphic novels than regular Korean novels or the newspaper for obv reasons -- more dialogue, lots of visual cues to help me guess word meanings instead of stopping every sentence to look up three vocab words I promptly forgot. Graphic novels (and even childrens books to be honest) gave me back the pleasure of reading, in a language that I was still far from fluent in.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:08 PM on September 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I love Spider Robinson's stuff especially when I was younger, but he's a little counterculture. “Shared pain is lessened. Shared joy is increased. Thus we refute entropy.”

There's a bunch of sex stuff, a spinoff series is about a progressive (run by time travellers) brothel. The later stuff isn't so good, but the early stuff is gritty, raw, and human. He got (financially) not-so-downtrodden, then had an illness in his family. But yes, his punning is top notch and an interesting avenue to explore in teaching English.

He wrote from the mid-70's through to the 00's+.


I'm listening to the audiobook version of Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse Five,' read by Ethan Hawke during my daily commute (I acknowledge, not short fiction, but it's not overly long).

Its a really incredible reading. hippybear linked to a free teaching version of it (here) - you can read the text as Ethan Hawke reads it and one can even choose the speed of the audio playback.

It's kind of pricey to buy, not sure of the legal/ copyrght status of the link. Verified just now that it still works.

Excellent resource to help learn how to speak/ pronounce neutral/ professional/ upper-middle class non-localized American English - basically "International English" - to the ears of this HK born West coast Canadian.


Ted Chiang is very very very good and contemporary/ recent. Writing starting in 90's through to present day.

A lot of his work can be found online for free, not sure of the copyright/ legal status, though.
posted by porpoise at 10:51 PM on September 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Harrison Bergeron, Vonnegut short. One nice thing is that there is a pretty good film version called 2081 with an amazing cast, and it is only 25 minutes long so can be used in class. (Can lend you the DVD if you like.)

At 21,000 words, Binti is not short fiction, but has the structure of a novel at an accessible length. Maybe for H1 with your group? Added plus of running away from home to go to school. Some gore, though?

Some of the SF themed CYOA books might be possible in the sense that one path is short story length.

Ken Liu has two anthologies of Chinese SF shorts including some by Liu Cixin that are worth a look: Invisible Planets and Broken Stars if you want to give them something non-US. It's been a while but maybe "Year of the Rat" from one of those?

Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction is a free download for the globally conscious kids.
posted by Gotanda at 11:39 PM on September 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Here's an anthology of steampunk stories based in South East Asia.

It'd be worth getting material from Japanese or other Asian writers who write in English, and/or material set locally, so that your students may be able to make closer connections to home. Also, the way writers (and people in general) from the Global South use English is different than those in the Western world, so that could be a good method of comparison.
posted by divabat at 12:56 AM on September 2, 2019

I just read “Diving Into the Wreck” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (full text search) and really liked it. A pretty straightforward premise, analogizing the exploration of starship wrecks in the distant future to present-day divers exploring sunken shipwrecks, but deftly and suspensefully told.
posted by XMLicious at 2:57 AM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also: an original Ken Liu short story is “Mono No Aware”, a classic tragic hero narrative, in which the main character was born in Japan and Japanese identity is a prominent element.
posted by XMLicious at 3:11 AM on September 2, 2019

Sarah Pinsker's And Then There Were (N-One) was fun.
posted by backwards guitar at 3:22 AM on September 2, 2019

I’m fond of the short stories collection, Sudden Fiction. They’re very short, condensed snippet stories. And they might pose a nice challenge to advanced learners because the writers therein use a lot of inferential and allusion to keep everything short but meaningful.

William Faulkner has some short vignettes, if you’d like to give them a challenge. Also, Orwell has some short nonfiction pieces that might suit. Irvin Yalom’s Lying on the Couch is another set of shorts that could be a good starter. There is definitely mature content, but it might be refreshingly new to them.

I’d also say that stuff that’s been translated to English can also be rich fodder. Russian shorts like a Hero of Our Time or Nose translate well. Or Italo Calvino.
posted by executive_dysfuncti0n at 7:39 AM on September 2, 2019

Probably something by H H Munro would work; there are a number of classics.

Check out Flash Fiction Online, one example story.

Also, The Sea Was a Dark Master is a collection of very short stories that you might consider (you would need to read/vet, but they are very short.)
posted by gudrun at 9:22 AM on September 2, 2019

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