Short readings that open up the world?
March 20, 2006 9:27 PM   Subscribe

What have you read that gave you a new outlook on the world—or even changed your life? I teach a Language Arts class to at-risk teenagers at a small high school, and I need to compile a body of short readings for next term, which is six weeks long. I want to give them those "a-ha!" moments that I had as a teenager when I read something that opened up my brain to something new and made my world larger. All genres (fiction, nonfiction, news articles, poetry, essays, etc.) are options. There are, of course, challenges...

Challenge #1: They have to be shorter readings. Even though it's a "group class", our students have wretched attendance, and it's very hard to do a whole novel at a stretch. I did it this term and almost lost it. Need a break.

Challenge #2: Most of our students don't do homework. Extended reading at home is not usually an option; it has to be able to be done in class.

Challenge #3: Most of our students come in at a 6th - 7th grade reading level. If they're in my class, they've brought their score up to at least 9th, but their background knowledge and vocabulary are severely stunted. I get the kids who ask, "World War II was in Germany, right?" They need lots of scaffolding.

Challenge #4: Oh, heck, there are a ton more, but I'll leave it from here. What can we read together that will coax them out of the cave and open their eyes to a larger world? I know it's asking a lot, but I'm asking anyway.
posted by cacahuete to Education (79 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also: audio is good. I have used a couple of episodes of This American Life and Terry Gross interviews with a fair amount of success. TAL listeners, best eps?
posted by cacahuete at 9:31 PM on March 20, 2006

Harrison Bergeron, by Kurt Vonnegut.
It should be mandatory reading for every young person, and a heck of a lot of older ones, too.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:33 PM on March 20, 2006

I don't know your class, so I don't know if they would enjoy this (or excerpts from it), but -you- might; True Notebooks.
posted by Rubber Soul at 9:37 PM on March 20, 2006

When I had a english class with problem students I brought in this poem and had them led them through a line-by-line read through, followed by discussion and interpretation. The language is simple, but the message is something that kids that age can really get. Also some good vocab because even some words like "Foe" are new to them (which is sad for a 7th grader).
posted by hermitosis at 9:38 PM on March 20, 2006

All the Dead Dears by Sylvia Plath. Excerpt:
How they grip us through think and thick,
These barnacle dead!
This lady here's no kin
Of mine, yet kin she is: she'll suck
Blood and whistle my narrow clean
To prove it. As I think now of her hand,

From the mercury-backed glass
Mother, grandmother, greatgrandmother
Reach hag hands to haul me in,
And an image looms under the fishpond surface
Where the daft father went down
With orange duck-feet winnowing this hair ---
posted by orthogonality at 9:46 PM on March 20, 2006

Comic books. Specifically, classic superhero origin stories.


Ultimate Spider-Man is a "reboot" of the classic series. There's nothing wrong with a little "with great power comes great responsibility" to start an eye-opening discussion.

Comic books are wonderful little morality tales. Don't knock 'em till you've tried 'em.
posted by frogan at 9:47 PM on March 20, 2006

Perhaps a few selections from The Martian Chronicles, like "There Will Come Soft Rains" or "--And the Moon Be Still As Bright"? They can be read as individual stories without having to read the whole book in order. Actually, a lot of Ray Bradbury's short stories would probably be great for this, because he uses simple language, but "really makes you think."
posted by Gator at 9:50 PM on March 20, 2006

I wish I could remember the name of the short story I read when I was a freshman in high school. It was almost a sci-fi story about aliens looking down on Earth - they believed that the Earthlings were, in fact, cars, trucks, trains, boats, etc. - and it really gives perspective on life as outsiders perceive it. Maybe someone on here recognizes the plot and can give you the title. It was a terrific story.
posted by MeetMegan at 10:06 PM on March 20, 2006

What does 6th to 7th grade reading material entail for these kids?
Asking "World War II was in Germany, right?" would have been atypical at 4th grade when I was in school, but maybe it was my experience that was atypical.

Would some Borges short stories be appropriate?

I'm thinking of 'garden of forking paths' in particular, but many of his short stories would be good if your students have the chops for it.

Full of knife fights, revenge, all sorts of stuff I thought was cool then (and admittedly still do).

On the poetry front, Bukowski might appeal to them although I don't know if they would take the wrong message away from it.
posted by juv3nal at 10:09 PM on March 20, 2006

I Thought My Father Was God edited by Paul Auster. It's a book of short anecdotes NPR listeners sent in. I'm pretty sure you'll find something in there that you're looking for.
posted by spork at 10:10 PM on March 20, 2006

Maybe the John Donne poem For Whom The Bell Tolls . I still find that poem to be really moving.
A friend of mine says that the Lance Armstrong book It's Not About The Bike changed his life.
posted by gt2 at 10:11 PM on March 20, 2006

Oh, I meant to add, early Isaac Asimov stories are thought-provoking but fairly easy reading, too. Stuff like the stories in I, Robot (though your students may be disappointed that there's nothing remotely Will Smith-y in any of them), "The Last Question," "The Bicentennial Man," "Nightfall" (really great), stuff from the "Black Widower" series.
posted by Gator at 10:12 PM on March 20, 2006

I recommend highly, no matter what race the kids you're teaching are, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It's morally complex, and deals with some "adult" subject matter, but no other book I read in high school made me think as much (and I'm about as WASP-y as you can get).

Emily Dickinson's poems are constructed quite simply but are about as deep as anything written in any language--you can choose to go as far as you want with them.
posted by maxreax at 10:13 PM on March 20, 2006

Study war some more. Of course these poems, work best when declaimed aloud -- so maybe you can get one student to study up and perform each one.

The "Saint Crispin's Day Speech" from Henry V. Excerpt:
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
In counterpoint, Southey's "After Blenheim". Excerpt:
"My father lived at Blenheim then,
Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
And he was forced to fly:
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.

"With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then
And newborn baby died:
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

"They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won,
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.

"Great praise the Duke of Marlbro' won,
And our good Prince Eugene";
"Why 'twas a very wicked thing!"
Said little Welhelmine;
"Nay, nay, my little girl," quoth he,
"It was a famous victory.

"And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win";
"But what good came of it at last?"
Quoth little Peterkin.
"Why that I cannot tell," said he,
"But 'twas a famous victory."
And rounding it out with Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum est", of course translating Horace's Latin: Sweet and fitting it is/To die for your country. Entire text:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
posted by orthogonality at 10:15 PM on March 20, 2006

Short stories, short stories, and more short stories. What's worse than being forced to read a whole stinking book? Being forced to read a book that not only isn't even good, but also serves the purpose of making you feel ignorant for not understanding why "foreshadowing," "tragic heroes," etc are so damn important.

You can kill off a character in a short story, as you haven't invested tons of time in watching the character develop (which will piss you off to see him die, though its less real). To Build a Fire.

You can give them a great example of a story that will stay with you forever, even if for such a simple reason of having something catchy. Pocketa-Pocketa-Pocketa. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

You can give them the chills, and a great introduction to subtlety. The Lottery.

Great battles that don't take a great amount of time. Leningen vs the Ants.

Then there's one that can develop just the right amounts of a character to touch you by the end. Flowers for Algernon.

Certain students were assigned a part, and the teacher read all the non-dialogue parts. It turned into each person trying to one-up the other by over dramatizing their part. Was a wonderful class. I can't say that any of those stories changed a separate aspect of my life, but I can assure you they've stuck with me a lot better for the time invested in them, and they definitely gave me an optimistic outlook and initiative to pick up the next unknown piece of literature.
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 10:19 PM on March 20, 2006

In grade 7 and 8 Vonnegut blew my mind wide open. More recently, Alan Alda's autobiography Never Have Your Dog Stuffed has changed me quite significantly.
posted by Evstar at 10:21 PM on March 20, 2006

In the vein of some of the other sci-fi suggestions, you can't go wrong with the mind-bending, through-provoking, discussion-starting short fiction of Philip K. Dick.
posted by maxreax at 10:22 PM on March 20, 2006

Try haiku. For some reason this one has stuck with me for 35 years.

this piercing cold -
in the bedroom, I have stepped
on my dead wife's comb
Makoto Ueda

Also Gift of the Maji by O. Henry
posted by BoscosMom at 10:22 PM on March 20, 2006

I second Harrison Bergeron.

Short stories:
Jack London, To Build A Fire.
Shirley Jackson, The Lottery.
Octavio Paz, My Life With The Wave.
Ursula LeGuin, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.
Raymond Carver, A Small Good Thing.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.
Anything Borges, if they're up to it.
Anibal Monteiro Machado, The Piano.

Short book:
Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams.

Erika Meitner, Inventory At The All-Night Drugstore.
posted by duende at 10:23 PM on March 20, 2006

James Joyce's "Araby" had a profound affect on my as a hormone crazed adolescent--it introduced my to word epiphany.

Next, in my young adulthood, was Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
posted by sockpup at 10:30 PM on March 20, 2006

Thirton Wilder's Our Town is pretty good too -- lots of loss and death and acceptance. The Stage Manager's closing words always makes me feel better when I'm unhappy:
Most everybody's asleep in Grover's Corners. There are a few lights on: Shorty Hawkins, down on the depot, has just watched the Albany train go by. And at the livery stable somebody's setting up late and talking. (pause) Yes, it's clearing up. There are the stars--doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven't settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk...or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain's so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest. (makes a winding motion at her wrist) Hmm...eleven o'clock in Grover's Corners. (nods at the audience) You get a good rest too. Good night.
posted by orthogonality at 10:30 PM on March 20, 2006

Argh, duende beat me to it.
posted by invisible ink at 10:38 PM on March 20, 2006

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin is excellent and very thought provoking. It also doesn't quite meet your criteria, being a novel. It's not very long though. Maybe read some choice bits together in class and then some students will get hooked?
posted by ODiV at 10:50 PM on March 20, 2006

I read Godel Escher Bach when I was that age. Good stuff.

I heartily recommend Bertrand Russell's Problems of philosophy. It's out of copyright (written in 1912) but it reads like it was written today. It's absolutely wonderful.
posted by delmoi at 10:51 PM on March 20, 2006

I second (third) The Lottery, Gift of the Magi and To Build a Fire. Sherlock Holmes stories are pretty cool too.

How about some really short books?
Animal Farm- we read this in 6th grade in a really rough school and everyone went nuts over it. I don't think any book had quite such an impact on a class I was in again.
Farenheit 451
Romeo and Juliet.
The Old Man and The Sea.
All Quiet on the Western Front.
Where the Red Fern Grows.
The Outsiders.

For poets, I adored Yeats at that age.

The books that really got me into reading were the small library that was available in my 5th grade English classroom. It had Nancy Drew and Judy Blume and that kind of stuff as well as slightly more high brow books like The Call of the Wild. You could take the books for a few days just by asking the teacher and I think I read everything there at least twice.
posted by fshgrl at 10:57 PM on March 20, 2006

Short stories:

A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O'Connor.
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, Joyce Carol Oates.

Maybe some of Tim O'Brien's short stories and essays about Vietnam. Mary Roach's essays are also fascinating.

Achebe's Things Fall Apart, or an excerpt therein?
posted by anjamu at 10:59 PM on March 20, 2006

Oh! And have them read the Declaration of Indepedence aloud. As poetry. Like the Lord's Prayer or the Nicene Creed. Great cadences.

You probbaly can't get away with the Lord's Prayer or the Nicene Creed in a public school, but those too are stirring declamatory poetry.
posted by orthogonality at 11:08 PM on March 20, 2006

James Joyce's "The Dead". It was the first time I read a book where words on a page made me weep, because I understood the feelings. It's in his short story collection "The Dubliners." As a companion to that is the movie, "The Dead" directed by John Houston. Very faithful to the story and only 80 minutes long.
posted by generic230 at 11:19 PM on March 20, 2006

I'm seconding Bradbury. In addition to The Martian Chronicles, there are two short story collections of his that I can think of off the top of my head: Dandelion Wine and I Sing The Body Electric! I'd especially recommend The Kilimanjaro Device from the latter.

Also, Vonnegut. And maybe some passages or articles from Hunter S. Thompson? Perhaps couple this with the film version of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas?

As for poetry, Allen Ginsberg's America really struck me the first time I read it, and it has a lot of content without being Shakespeare. The best way to turn kids off is to present them with something they've already decided they hate.
posted by anarcation at 11:20 PM on March 20, 2006

I was going to suggest Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" from The Martian Chronicles too, but someone beat me to it... so I'm thirding the Bradbury suggestion.
posted by litlnemo at 11:25 PM on March 20, 2006

anarcation writes "Allen Ginsberg's America"

You weren't responding to my suggestion of the Lord's Prayer with Ginsberg's line "I won't say the Lord's Prayer" were you?
posted by orthogonality at 11:25 PM on March 20, 2006

Victor H. Bausch, "G.I. Party"
For D.M., Vietnam veteran--committed suicide--1984

Today you reached retirement
with a disturbed and primal conscience.
Two 12 gauge Remington shotgun shells
saturated the field of ice that separated
body count from catatonic commitment.
Drunk and stoned, down in your worst
moment, you subpoenaed yourself
into believing the mission
was more important than the man.
posted by orthogonality at 11:32 PM on March 20, 2006

I'll fourth the Bradbury, and add that the story "All Summer in a Day" had a profound effect on me when I first read it. In fact, this is probably the only thing I remember reading from 6th grade. Maybe too simple for a 8-9th grade level, but maybe not.
I also think the Borges is a good suggestion, if they're up to it (as duende mentioned). I really wish I'd had a teacher bold enough to give us Borges.
posted by Hadroed at 2:00 AM on March 21, 2006

Upon further research, here are two past threads that specifically discuss "All Summer in a Day": the short story, the film adaptation. (Found the link to the story in the second thread.) It seems to have left quite an impression on a lot of people.
posted by Hadroed at 2:12 AM on March 21, 2006

If they can get past the Scottish accent, perhaps the late Ivor Cutler (you can find examples of his stuff dotted around the net if you look) - lugubrious, very short, sometimes very silly, sometimes just strange.

This Be the Verse could be quite eye-opening, and it's very straight-forward language. And then you'd have all the excitement of looking for a new career.

Orson Scott Card's early short stories - I used to read them in Omni when I was young - remember Omni? - have all the qualities you're looking for, too. That's how Ender's Game was originally published, although in Analog.

Woody Allen's short stories.

If you can get away with Borges (and you could try - Funes the Memorious or Death and the Compass perhaps) you could also try Stanslav Lem - The Star Diaries and Return From the Stars for example.

Alice's Restaurant

P.G. Wodehouse

Bleeding chunks from really good novels, possibly, too.
posted by Grangousier at 2:21 AM on March 21, 2006

"Politics and the English Language," essay by George Orwell. Some of the best advice on writing (and thinking) you can find. Dense, but short.

"I, Pencil," by Leonard E. Read. An ode to capitalism, marveling at the distributed complexity of the "system" used to build a pencil - unorganized but not disorganized.

"The Pleasure of Finding Things Out," essay by physicist Richard Feynman. Among other things argues against the idea that beauty is the exclusive province of artists.

The "love sonnet" from Romeo and Juliet - 14 lines in sonnet form but shared between two characters. It's poetry, but poetry intended to be staged and filled with physical implications. Stand alone or as part of the scene. Act 1, Scene 5, begins with Romeo's line "If I profane with my unworthiest hand ..." ends with Romeo's line "... then move not while my prayer's effect I take."
posted by zanni at 2:29 AM on March 21, 2006

Try "short short" stories. For example, find "Sudden Fiction" at Amazon, then also look at the books bought by people who also bought that one. These are good stories that are short enough to read in class. From the Amazon page:
The short fiction (each piece is one to five pages long) in this collection represents the richness and variety of American writers. A few are no longer contemporary (Hemingway, Malamud, Cheever), many are well established (Paley, Oates, Updike, Donald Barthelme, Ray Bradbury, Peter Taylor, Raymond Carver) and many are newer presences on the fiction scene. With a tiny "frontisstory" by Robert Coover, a lighthearted introduction by Shapard and afterwords about the short-short-story form by 40 outstanding American writers, the definition of what lies between as "sudden fiction" is well attended to. The 70 pieces themselveshighly compressed, often tantalizingdisplay a multiplicity of modes and derive from a variety of traditions. The collection presents a group of writers whose miniature stories do, indeed, as the editors suggest, "confer form on small corners of chaos."
posted by pracowity at 2:34 AM on March 21, 2006

As a teenager, Allen Ginsberg's Howl blew me away (those opening lines are killer). There's a recording of Ginsberg reading it here (from about 40 minutes in).
posted by featherboa at 2:49 AM on March 21, 2006

Any chapter from these books by Hal Urban
posted by webtom at 3:30 AM on March 21, 2006

"If" by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 4:53 AM on March 21, 2006

"The Little Country", by Charles de Lint, was exactly what I needed when I read it.

It remains my favorite book of all time.

I didn't catch it until my 20s, and I'm not sure it would have spoken quite so loudly to me as a teenager, but it could be worth a try.
posted by Malor at 5:02 AM on March 21, 2006

Oops, I didn't fully read the question... The Little Country is a novel. Sorry!
posted by Malor at 5:03 AM on March 21, 2006

harold pinters speech.
posted by specialk420 at 5:33 AM on March 21, 2006

Frank Stockton's short story "The Lady or the Tiger" blew me away as a kid because of its inconclusive ending. Might make for good class discussion.

I also remember a sixth grade teacher reading some of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories aloud and thinking they were really cool.
posted by gnomeloaf at 5:43 AM on March 21, 2006

Alan Watts -- The Book (on the taboo against knowing who you are). Although it might get you in trouble with parents.
posted by Laugh_track at 5:51 AM on March 21, 2006

Have them read things with strong visual elements like good graphic novels and graffiti. Have them read old propaganda posters from WWII and teach them how to decode them. Have them read old cigarette advertisements from the 40s that proclaim the health benefits of smoking. Etc.
posted by mrmojoflying at 5:54 AM on March 21, 2006

"A True Story, Just As I Heard It" by Mark Twain
and, at least, Huck Finn's letter from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
It was a close place. I took up [the letter], and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll go to hell" — and tore it up. (Puffin Books, 283)
"My Favorite Murder" by Ambrose Bierce
"Spoon River Anthology" by Edward Lee Masters (good for readers with short attention spans)
"Casey at the Bat" by Edward Lawerence Taylor (doggerel, sure, but a fun intro to poetry, and a natural tie to spring and baseball for kids)
"John Henry - The Steel Drivin' Man"
The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln (287 words, but what words!)
"Simple Gifts" by Elder Joesph Brackett, Jr.
"The Ballad of Casey Jones"
The Declaration of Independence (There are any number of dramatic readings of this text, but the one linked from this page is pretty good)
"John Barleycorn" by Robert Burns (which was also done pretty successfully as a folk song by Stevie Winwood and Traffic back in the '70's)
posted by paulsc at 5:57 AM on March 21, 2006

Again with the Bradbury and All Summer in a Day. That affected me when I read it in 6th grade in the way that being splashed with a bucket of ice water would.

For engaging, you might pick and choose stories from The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem. Most of them stand on their own and all of them are pretty quirky.

In 6th grade there was a newsprint booklet printed and delivered to our classroom. Each one had an excerpt from a larger book or a short story. I wish I could remember the title of the publication.

The school I used to teach at did a good unit about mythology covering some of the Greek myths culminating with students writing their own. The students found that very engaging.
posted by plinth at 5:57 AM on March 21, 2006

Stick with the absolute classics. By this I mean pieces that when they read they will share a communal experience with those who have also read it before.
I define classics differently than most. Classics are seminal works, immensely compelling and as immediate as when they were written.

The Sandkings by George RR Martin
The Whimper of Whipped Dogs by Harlan Ellison
The Moment of Decision by Stanley Ellin (btw - use this instead of the Lady or the Tiger. Same premise but with ethical decisions)
The Nine Mile Walk by Harry Kellerman
A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:15 AM on March 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I heartily concur with the above stories including the lottery and stuff by bradbury. Here's a shortish and easy reading poem that has stuck with me a long time.

The Hangman (Maurice Ogden)

Here's the first few lines:

Into our town the Hangman came.
Smelling of gold and blood and flame
and he paced our bricks with a diffident air
and built his frame on the courthouse square

The scaffold stood by the courthouse side,
Only as wide as the door was wide;
A frame as tall, or little more,
Than the capping sill of the courthouse door

And we wondered, whenever we had the time.
Who the criminal, what the crime.
That Hangman judged with the yellow twist
of knotted hemp in his busy fist.


It may be the only aabb rhyming poem I have ever liked.
posted by zpousman at 6:17 AM on March 21, 2006

Your 2nd post - That's just outstanding orthogonality, thank you.
posted by Pressed Rat at 6:22 AM on March 21, 2006

Sorry to ramble on, but my definition of classic is when the students ask to read more like that, you'll have to say "There are no more like that."
I'm thinking of the moment in Ghost World when Enid asks Seymour for more records like "Devil Got My Woman."
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:26 AM on March 21, 2006

I have to second the 'I thought my father was god' idea. Thanks Paul Auster for such a killer idea (even if I think it was his wife Siri Husdvest (guardian link) who came up with the idea)...

It's fantastic because it is written by 'real people' like you and me... and not 'artists' or 'writers' which might seem oddly out of reach for students.

Also, it's not abstract but is every day life dealings. Some of what people wrote about might have happened to your students.

I think I cried a bunch of times reading this book, and god knows I'm hard to impress. It's truly mind blind blowing because so honest and true.
posted by Sijeka at 7:15 AM on March 21, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone. I smiled to see Vonnegut show up so early in the post—the book I read with them last term was Slaughterhouse-Five. Recommendations for comics and graphic novels will not go unheeded; we already have started bringing them in as writing exercises and it's pretty exciting to do. I will be taking this wonderful list to the library & Powell's immediately. Cheers!
posted by cacahuete at 7:16 AM on March 21, 2006

The playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer published a book around ten years ago called Notes from the Holocaust that collected a bunch of screeds he wrote in the 1980s during the early, terrifying years of the AIDS epidemic. Most of the essays were very short, designed to be published in gay newspapers. When I first read those essays, I had never realized it was possible to fit that much furious anger onto a written page. Say what you will about the efficacy of Kramer's activism, but the man could write.
posted by profwhat at 7:20 AM on March 21, 2006

I loved short fiction in school and I think it really stuck with me. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is a good suggestion, as are the Ray Bradbury stories. Asimov was important to me. Some of Steinbeck's short fiction (was it Steinbeck?) I still remember clearly - except for the author part. :-) The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry is a must read. Even though I hated it, Edgar Allen Poe's short stories I still remember hating. They were just so freaky! Other students in the class loved Poe and I guess it says something that I still remember hating it rather than not remembering it at all. I'm surprised he hasn't been mentioned before now.
posted by riverjack at 7:23 AM on March 21, 2006

cacahuete, I used to teach the very same kinds of kids. After a while,we were reading Macbeth in the original (as opposed to my suburban friends who taught the "modernized" versions with the "easier" language). Email in profile if you want more.

An Irish Airman Forsees His Death

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

William Butler Yeats

Richard Cory
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich - yes, richer than a king -
And admirably schooled in every grace;
In fine we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Mr. Flood's Party

Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
Over the hill between the town below
And the forsaken upland hermitage
That held as much as he should ever know
On earth again of home, paused warily.
The road was his with not a native near;
And Eben, having leisure, said aloud,
For no man else in Tilbury Town to hear:

"Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
Again, and we may not have many more;
The bird is on the wing, the poet says,
And you and I have said it here before.
Drink to the bird." He raised up to the light
The jug that he had gone so far to fill,
And answered huskily: "Well, Mr. Flood,
Since you propose it, I believe I will."

Alone, as if enduring to the end
A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,
He stood there in the middle of the road
Like Roland's ghost winding a silent horn.
Below him, in the town among the trees,
Where friends of other days had honored him,
A phantom salutation of the dead
Rang thinly till old Eben's eyes were dim.

Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
He set the jug down slowly at his feet
With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
And only when assured that on firm earth
It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
Assuredly did not, he paced away,
And with his hand extended paused again:

"Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
In a long time; and many a change has come
To both of us, I fear, since last it was
We had a drop together. Welcome home!"
Convivially returning with himself,
Again he raised the jug up to the light;
And with an acquiescent quaver said:
"Well, Mr. Flood, if you insist, I might.

"Only a very little, Mr. Flood--
For auld lang syne. No more, sir; that will do."
So, for the time, apparently it did,
And Eben evidently thought so too;
For soon amid the silver loneliness
Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
Secure, with only two moons listening,
Until the whole harmonious landscape rang--

"For auld lang syne." The weary throat gave out,
The last word wavered; and the song being done,
He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again alone.
There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below--
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.
posted by oflinkey at 7:50 AM on March 21, 2006

I second the audio suggestions, I loved listening to a book being read to me. It's very soothing and completely passive, yet hard to ignore.

As far as selections go: Ender's Game (the orginal short story maybe, instead of the book) by Orson Scott Card blew me away....still does. It's enough sci-fi to be interesting, but enough mystery and dialogue to be thought provoking.
posted by Smarson at 7:51 AM on March 21, 2006

I also recommend Bradbury, although my favorite is "A Sound of Thunder." It is so cool! So thought-provoking. I also remember very little from literature readings in grade school except "All Summer in a Day."

The other two best short stories for me, that stand out from a lot of reading, are "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" by Stephen King (not sure how educational it is, but it's a great example of a short story and lovely writing, and "A Rose for Emily," Faulkner, which isn't too original a suggestion.

These stories both made me want to become a writer and made me feel like all the best stories had already been written!
posted by theredpen at 7:57 AM on March 21, 2006

I second the votes for Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," Blake (any of the "Songs of Innocence and of Experience"), and Langston Hughes.

Huges is great because the language and message are simple and, in many of his poems, uplifting and optimistic. Most of his stuff is about race relations and personal strength in the face of troubles. So his work seems a good fit for your class. I'd do "I, Too" and "Harlem," and maybe "Mother to Son," but there are dozens that would work.
posted by wheat at 9:29 AM on March 21, 2006

Oflinkey - I second your mention of Richard Cory - it had a profound effect on me in 8th grade (I discovered it via the Simon & Garfunkel song).

Cacahuete - here are two science fiction short pieces that are accessible and really made me think: Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God" and Connie Willis' "Even the Queen".

And for an offbeat idea - what about some of the works of Ashleigh Brilliant? The pieces are super short (like haiku) but thought-provoking and funny. They come on postcrads as well, if you wanted to hand them out for a writing assignment. I think they say a lot about the power of words and have given me many an "a-ha !" moment.
posted by AuntLisa at 9:59 AM on March 21, 2006

This be the verse by Philip Larkin made a lasting impression on a group of teenagers with physical impairments / learning difficulties / emotional difficulties for whom I was a project assistant. Several could still quote a least the first stanza many months on.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
posted by boudicca at 10:13 AM on March 21, 2006

The Perks of Being a Wallflower or A Separate Peace. Both very short books where each chapter could be treated as a vignette. In fact, that's how I was taught the latter in high school. Wallflower is set in the early 90s and is very coming of age.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:22 AM on March 21, 2006

PS--Richard Cory is a great idea too. Have them read the poem and then play the S&G song for them. Intertextuality, showing how things transcend genres, etc. That was another lesson I had in middle school (or maybe high school).
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:23 AM on March 21, 2006

I read tons of short stories in middle and high school, and though I was a bit of a precocious twit I found plenty in there to nurse my brain. I subscribed to a short story magazine called Cicada, which I would just devour. Several stories in there have stayed with me--

Talking Tomatoes (I'll have to look up the author when I can find the magazine)-- Especially if you read Romeo and Juliet. Sincere and full of quiet pain, plus plenty of laughs. Set in a high school as well, complete with a laughable science fair project.

Watery Graves by Shane Connaughton-- Lyrical and gorgeous-- includes the line "All I wanted to do was see the stars in daylight." Does include some sex, though, so I don't know if that is a problem. You can read part of it here.

Saskia, by Charles de Lint-- My favorite of the bunch. Focuses on a girl who sprung up out of a literary database, but has some stellar writing. Very much about how to feel love through music and writing. Some samples:

"It starts with a heartbeat, rhythm laid down, one-two, one-two, deep in your chest. It's not the pulse of everyday life but something that runs more profound, a dreaming cadence, a secret drumming that you can't share at first, not with anyone and especially not with her. The melody and chordal patterns might come later, when you've first made contact, when you discover that you haven't made an utter fool of yourself and she might actually reciprocate what you feel, adding her own harmonies to the score tattoed across your heart. .... (plot section that won't make sense out of context) ... The music thunders in your chest. Nothing with structure. Nothing that can be transcribed or scored. But it leaves you helpless before its tumultuous presence, desperate to breathe."

"I couldn't meet her now if I wanted to because I've become too desperate, and there's nothing quite so pathetic or off-putting as the scent of desperation. It clings to you like a second skin, a nimbus of melancholy and pathos that, contrary to the Romantics with their marble skin and pining eyes, adds nothing to your attractiveness. You might as well have "Avoid me, I'm so hopeless" stenciled on your brow."

I also wholeheartedly support the Ray Bradbury short stories-- especially The Veldt.
posted by cynthia_rose at 10:26 AM on March 21, 2006

Bet you could get some serious mileage out of selections from Stud Terkel’s Working.
posted by dpcoffin at 10:39 AM on March 21, 2006

The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell.
posted by initapplette at 11:15 AM on March 21, 2006

Emily Dickinson.

My 12-year-old daughter (admittedly a precocious reader) just spontanteously asked for a collection of her poetry.

I do think her poems are powerful and captivating, even when they're a bit cryptic. They're a good way to get kids to appreciate that language can be enthralling. And they're very easy to read -- strong rhyme and meter, fairly straightforward vocabulary.

It'll give the kids an interesting exercise in interpretation.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 11:32 AM on March 21, 2006

Intended for younger kids, but Love That Dog appeals even to me as an adult. Quick read b/c it's in poetic verse.

Similiarly Out of the Dust, which is about the dust bowl and is at a slightly higher level.

I loved Invisible Cities when I was in high school, if you take your time with one of the stories it could be great.

The House on Mango Street can be read chapter by chapter seperately, so it could work. Especially the chapter called "My Name."

A Perfect Day for Bananafish is sophisticated (and has some heavy themes), but is not technically a difficult read.

"Because you asked about the line between prose and poetry."

"We Real Cool," and if you do this, please please have them listen to a recording of Gwendolyn Brooks herself reading it.

Also song lyrics, both new and old.
posted by mai at 2:06 PM on March 21, 2006

I have to question how you call them "challenges" but then simply hold up the white flag to those challenges. Most of our students don't do homework. Extended reading at home is not usually an option; it has to be able to be done in class.

I disagree with playing down to their level. Your heart is in the right place, but I think you need to watch some of those inspirational movies about teachers to gave students expectations to live up to - not dumbing things down to their level. Go rent "To Sir, With Love", "Stand and Deliver" or "Dead Poets Society" or something! Then begin by showing your students that you know they can be more than what others are telling them.
posted by spock at 10:36 PM on March 21, 2006

My kid brother is currently attending an inner-city high school in the lower level reading classes. He hates Emily Dickinson and thinks that no one could possibly be more boring than Shakespeare. Most of the time he won't even look at a poem. Nothing impresses him.

Except "The Things they carried." He called me the night after he read it in class to talk about it. He's sixteen but does not read at his age level, and was totally blown away by the story.
posted by honeydew at 1:47 AM on March 22, 2006

I guess if Slaughterhouse-Five is too long, Flowers for Algernon would be, too? I still remember reading it for a class when I was in grade 7, and really being drawn into it. And how about plays? Comedies are accessible (eg The Importance of Being Earnest/Wilde), and kids who don't read aren't likely to just pick them off the shelf on their own. Actually, I'd always been a voracious reader from childhood, but reading plays never occurred to me before being forced to do it in class.

Some of these suggestions are bringing back memories... I'd forgotten about The Lady or the Tiger until I read this thread, but yes, I too can still remember it from when I read it as a kid. Faulkner's A Rose for Emily gave me goosebumps on my first read, because the shocking ending is so tactile and profoundly sad.
Someone mentioned The Dead by Joyce and although I agree with him/her that it's a fabulous story, it's not exactly short (or accessible for that matter for a class of kids who won't read), is it? But yes, I remember reading it in class and our teacher telling us to read the final paragraph out loud to fully appreciate Joyce's choice of words.

posted by misozaki at 3:54 AM on March 22, 2006

"I guess if Slaughterhouse-Five is too long, Flowers for Algernon would be, too?"

There are two versions of Flowers for Algernon -- the original short story and the book-length version. Maybe the short story would work.
posted by litlnemo at 4:36 AM on March 22, 2006

Esther Friesner intended that readers of her short story about a futuristic public policy compromise on abortion, "A Birthday" (scroll down to 10th paragraph for synopsis), wouldn't be able to tell from reading it what her personal beliefs on the subject are. I'm pro choice and I loved the story.

Though in retrospect and now that I'm older, perhaps I should track down a copy to reread and see if I still find its moral complexity perfectly executed. Still, its language is accessible, its topic particularly important for horny teens to read about, there are tons of points for discussion, and while it didn't make me waiver from my beliefs it made me think about them much more deeply.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 8:28 AM on March 22, 2006

For some reason, Edgar Allan Poe's stories have stuck with me. Who could forget "The Tell-Tale Heart," or "The Fall of the House of Usher," or "The Pit and the Pendulum"? My personal favorite is "The Cask of Amontillado," and don't forget "Nevermore," his poetry!

For foreign literature, I like Anton Chekov's stories.
posted by cass at 9:00 AM on March 22, 2006

Graham Greene.... The Destructors. It's about the Wormsley Common Gang and they take apart some guy's house. From the inside. Read it on my own in High School. Loved it then, love it still.
posted by bilabial at 11:11 AM on March 22, 2006

In the Penal Colony by Kafka is very attention grabbing.

As is Leiningen vs the Ants

And there is an Arthur C Clarke one called something like the Nine Billion Names of God.

Those are three interesting, slightly creepy stories that I remember as a rebellious, quasi-juvie, but smart adolescent.

I second the "To start a fire" by Jack London, above.
posted by Rumple at 11:17 PM on March 26, 2006

I keep coming back, time and again, to Paladin of the Lost Hour, by Harlan Ellison. Bonus: You can hear the author read it. (.rm file)
posted by eritain at 8:53 PM on March 4, 2007

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