Forming Connections and Awakening Visions:
Using Short Story Collections in the Classroom
The short story, an American art form, has long been a required component of the secondary English curriculum. Like most art, it requires an appreciative and trained audience for its complete enjoyment. As Donelson and Nilsen (1989) observe, short stories "fit into today's penchant for hurry-up ideas, condensations, and instant gratification" (p. 301). However, Donelson and Nilsen also point out that the traditional section on the short story, which is de rigeur in literary anthologies, does not generate enthusiasm among young adult readers because many were written for an adult audience and/or selected by adults for inclusion in contemporary anthologies. Several recent story collections, on the other hand, offer teachers new opportunities to extend students' experiences with a short story. These collections are published specifically for the young adult market. The following are several ways students can make new connections and teachers can awaken new vision using the short story.
1. Use the short story to introduce readers to different cultures and their customs. Several recent short story collections feature stories in which the main characters are recent immigrants; these characters sometimes find themselves in difficult situations because of the clash between their traditional customs and values and those of their new country. Abrahamson and Beers (1988) point to a story in Donald Gallo's Visions entitled "The All-American Slurp." In this story, author Lensey Namioka writes about the difficulties and embarrassments involved in adjusting to a different culture. Based upon an incident from her own past, Namioka recounts the story of a newly emigrated Chinese family dealing with American table manners foreign to them, such as how to eat properly raw celery or soup served on a plate. Aspects of Chinese culture mentioned in the story include cooking and clothing. After reading this story, students could be directed to longer works of fiction and nonfiction about Chinese as well as other Asian cultures. Linda Crew's Children of the River is one possibility. Perhaps Sherry Garland's Shadow of the Dragon might lead to another cultural study, that of Vietnamese Americans. Jean Fritz' Homesick: My Own Story could be used for one of the nonfiction selections. Choi's Year of Impossible Goodbyes provides insight into the turmoil in Korea during and after World War II and would complement these other works along with Carolyn Meyer's Voices of Japan.
Another collection that includes some insight into a different culture, albeit not as foreign, is Martha Brooks' Paradise Cafe and Other Stories. The stories in this collection are set in Canada and feature a veritable United Nations of characters including Jamaican, Native American, and Japanese American. Additionally, many of these stories are set in the 1950s. Thus, the collection could serve easily as an introduction to a study of the 1950s in a history or sociology class. Martha Quayley's Revolutions of the Heart is a full-length work of fiction set in Canada which might be used in conjunction with these other texts. The novel deals with the conflicts between Native Americans and the locals who are battling over fishing rights. In this scenario, then, students might progress from a short story with a focus on some historical or cultural aspect to a longer work that highlights contemporary concerns. Both have their place in a classroom which leads to yet another use of the short story.
2. Use short stories to provide natural lead-ins to historical studies. Two collections of stories by Paul Fleischman, for example, provide extensive opportunities for students to begin an exploration of early American history. Graven Images, a Newbery Honor Book, contains three stories centered on a carved sailor, a marble statue, and a weather vane. The four stories in Coming and Going Men chronicle the lives of several traveling men, each of whom passes through New Canaan, Vermont, in the year 1800. These men and their customers are all changed by their stay in this town. After students have read one or more of these stories, they might be asked to list the customs, beliefs, superstitions, modes of transportation, types of food and clothing, and housing and shelters mentioned by Fleischman. These items could then become the basis of an extended study of early American life in New England.
Again, students could be directed toward longer works of fiction and non-fiction about this historical period. Such works might include The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? by Jean Fritz, while intended for a younger audience, could also be used in a study of this historical period and tied to a reading of Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes.
In Gallo's first story collection, Sixteen, Harry Mazer's"Furlough-1944" relates the story of a young man as he prepares to be shipped overseas during World War II. The main character of this story, Jack Raab, appears in Mazer's autobiographical novel, The Last Mission, as a pilot shot down over Czechoslovakia. Students who have enjoyed reading Mazer's short story, could then go on to read the novel as well as other works about World War II. Such stories and novels could serve to breathe life into the history textbook's accounting of colonial America or World War II or other historical periods.
3. Use short stories to begin exploring new genres in the study of literature. Before beginning an in-depth examination of fantasy or science fiction, for example, short stories representative of those genres can be read and discussed. In a recent survey (Lesesne, 1992), middle school students selected fantasy as one of their favorite topics or genres for books. Nearly one-third of the boys and one-fourth of the girls in the survey chose fantasy. Nearly one-half of the boys surveyed also selected science fiction as one of their favorite topics or genres. Both science fiction and fantasy are well represented in story collections.
British fantasy author Brian Jacques chills readers with Seven Strange and Ghostly Tales. Ghosts, vampires, and demons lead readers down eerie road sin each of these seven stories. Spaceships and Spells, a collection of science fiction and fantasy stories, features works by Patricia Wrede, Bruce Coville, Jane Yolen, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Lawson, among others. Again, once students have read and enjoyed one of these stories, they can be lead to reading longer works by each of these authors.
Aidan Chamber's Out of Time brings together futuristic stories by notable British authors such as Joan Aiken, Louise Lawrence, and Jill Paton Walsh. The stories in Jane Yolen's latest collection, 2041, are all visions of the future as well. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh have collaborated on several story collections over the years, each collection focusing on slightly different themes. For example, Young Monsters is a collection of stories about zombies, vampires, and other creatures of the dark, whereas Young Space Travelers focuses on encounters between astronauts and aliens.
Four of Don Gallo's short story collections feature a work of either science fiction or fantasy or both. "Future Tense" by Robert Lipsyte is reminiscent of the wonderfully ironic endings of O Henry. Here the main character, Gary, begins to suspect that his new English teacher is an alien out to collect some interesting specimens from the student body of the local high school. M.E. Kerr's "The Sweet Perfume of Goodbye" in Gallo's Visions tells of a teenager's scientific research on another planet. The only odor on this planet is an exotic fragrance released as one approaches death. The story was first alluded to in Kerr's novel Night Kites, a sensitive book that deals with the topic of AIDS. Students may wish to explore this interesting connection to a longer work. Finally, in Gallo's collection, Connections, T. Ernesto Bethancourt's "User Friendly" brings a newer, more sinister meaning to this phrase. Kevin's PC seems to have a mind of its own, and that menacing mind is set on revenge! One of the most recent Gallo collections, Within Reach, is no exception. Steven Otfinoski's "A Foolproof Plan" is a wonderful read-aloud and a classic time-travel story. Here the main characters are two Chinese American students, one of whom devises a sure-fire way to get the approval of her teacher and parents by winning a story-writing contest. The ironic ending is sure to please readers. Robert Lipsyte returns in this collection with another science fiction story entitled "Future's File," a glimpse of media and mayhem in the 22nd century. Any or all of these stories could serve as an introduction to a new genre in literature, as a prelude to a study of L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, Well's The Invisible Man, Huxley's Brave New World, or Lowry's The Giver.
4. Use short stories to develop critical and evaluative responses to literature. As Donald Gallo was preparing his first story collection, Sixteen, he took the stories that he had received -- more than the final sixteen included in the book -- to several classrooms. He asked for student evaluation of the stories, and he used these evaluations in selecting those stories that he ultimately included in the collection. Students can and should be encouraged to evaluate this and other collections as well. Once they have read the stories in Sixteen, for instance, ask each student to make a chart listing stories as "Best," "Worst," and "Okay." Later, students can compare their lists with others in the class. The heated discussion sure to follow requires students to defend their categorizations.
Students can also sharpen their critical and evaluative skills by comparing one story collection to another. Which of Gallo's collections is the best? Is it Sixteen? Visions? Connections? Students might be instructed to survey classmates and, utilizing these data, rank-order the three collections. Or perhaps students might compare two different collections that cover one particular theme. For example, both Norma Fox Mazer's Dear Bill, Remember Me? and Barbara Girion's A Very Brief Season offer readers a collection of stories about adolescent love. Students can list the similarities and differences between these two collections. Are there similar characters in the two collections? Similar plots? How are the themes that are explored similar? How are they different? As students investigate the different visions that Mazer and Girion present of adolescent love, they must utilize their critical and evaluative responses to the stories in each collection. Sutherland and Arbuthnot (1991) assert that "responses to books is an essential part of any . . . program" (p. 565). Moreover, this response may take a variety of forms. Responses that reflect literary judgment free students from the teacher and help them make their own meaning of the story (Donelson, 1990). As students are encouraged to make these responses, they are learning to make connections among the texts they are reading.
5. Use short stories as models for student writing. In the past, teachers asked students to model or pattern their writing after masters of the genre such as Poe, London, and O Henry. This assignment often seemed impossible; after all, these stories, having withstood the test of time, were decades (if not centuries) old. Students encountered great difficulty with these stories as their models. Several more-recent collections of short stories, however, may provide students with models more accessible and certainly more relevant to them.
Peter Sieruta's Heartbeats and Other Stories opens with a marvelous model that students could easily mimic. "25 Good Reasons for Hating My Brother Todd" gives an actual list of reasons as part of its narrative thread. Interspersed throughout the story, then, are the reasons why the main character Emery hates his older brother Todd, beginning with "#1: My brother thinks most of the things I do are dumb" to "#25: My mother always did like him best."Students could readily adapt this stylistic device to an original story, perhaps "Ten Ways to Survive Mrs. ______'s English Class."
A Couple of Kooks and Other Stories about Love by Cynthia Rylant features a story entitled "Do You Know That Feeling?" The entire plot of this story evolves in a single letter written by the main character, Crystal, to her mother in which she relates the trials and joys of new love. Again, students might attempt to utilize this device in their original stories.
Stories about other cultures, in the form of folk tales, can also provide writing models for students. Laurence Yep's Tongues of Jade presents the magic, mysterious, sometimes whimsical tales of the Chinese culture as they were told in centuries past. These stories are rich in the archetypes and motifs that typify traditional literature; they are appropriate, therefore, not simply for literary study but also as models for students' compositions. As students read these tales and write their own original ones, they gain further insight into another culture.
Alvin Schwartz has collected many examples of American folklore in three collections: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3. Students will remember many of the stories as slumber party or summer campfire favorites. "The Hook"relates the tale of the couple who are parked overlooking the city when they hear on a radio announcement about a prison break. One of the escaped convicts is headed in their direction. In place of one hand, he wears a hook. The girl, frightened by the prospect of encountering a fugitive, insists on being taken home immediately. As the car drives away, she hears a scratching at her door, but her boyfriend tells her it is only her overactive imagination. When they reach the girl's home, the boy goes around to open her car door, and, hanging from the door handle is "the hook!" Stories like these have been told for decades in gatherings of friends. They are part of American folklore. Often very brief -- the story of "the hook" is only two pages long -- these stories can easily provide models for student writing.
Short stories present readers and writers with a wide array of subject matter, characters, themes, and styles. They are especially suited to young adults because of their brevity (Donelson & Nilsen, 1989). These contemporary collections of short stories reach adolescents of the hurry-up, quick-fix, short-attention-span world created by modern media. Perhaps Elizabeth Segel best explains the attraction of short stories in the preface to her collection entitled Short Takes as she compares the short story to her favorite childhood toy, the kaleidoscope. The short story captures and focuses on a special moment, "making it stand out as clearly and vividly as that pattern in which the kaleidoscope's tumbling patterns come to rest. When this happens,"she continues, readers are able to see "something about life" that they never saw before, perhaps something they will not soon forget (p. viii).
Donelson, K. "Fifty Years of Literature for Young Adults," in E. J. Farrell andJ. R. Squire, eds., Transactions with Literature: A Fifty Year Perspective. National Council of Teachers of English, 1990.
Probst, R. "Literature as Exploration in the Classroom," in E. J. Farrell andJ. R. Squire (Eds.), Transactions with Literature: A Fifty Year Perspective. National Council of Teachers of English, 1990.
Teri S. Lesesne is an assistant professor of literature for children and young adults in the Department of Library Science at Sam Houston State University and a former member of ALAN's Board of Directors.