I tend to get a bit reflective toward the end of the school year. Somehow, even with the fast pace of trying to fit everything in, my mind starts to think about what I wish I would have made time to do with my students. This year, the answer is that I wish we had read more short stories together.
They read a ton of novels for independent reading, read classics and books in verse for book clubs, and we read a lot of poetry together as a class. They read several nonfiction essays, magazine articles, and books, but we did not have a big focus on short stories.
I decided to fill this gap and use CommonLit – a website with a great selection of texts with all different themes, grade levels, and genres.
I assigned a classic ninth grade short story: The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell. I printed and made copies for my ninth grade students, told them to annotate as they read, and gave them a week to read it outside of class, bring it back, and be ready for discussion.
One of my students came in a few days later holding her annotated story and said, “Miss! This is amazing! I need more of these!”
I couldn’t have paid her to say something more timely and appropriate. I was already thinking about assigning more short stories, and she convinced me.
However, the problem with assigning more short stories was that I had found myself teaching the story rather than the reading skills and habits. I wanted to tell my students about Zaroff’s ideas about what it means to be civilized, and that they should pay attention when Whitney and Rainsford are talking about hunting when they are on the yacht. But upon reflection, I knew that it wasn’t the right way to go. I wanted my students to realized those things because they had the skills to read any story, not because I had told them what to ask or what to think.
I asked myself how I could assign classic short stories and resist teaching those stories at the same time.
One of my students answered by asking me a question. She said she liked The Most Dangerous Game, but was hoping she would have more choice in the next short story assignment. That was the breakthrough question for me. I realized I could offer choice and expect that my students would read and analyze classic short stories.
Because they had already found success with book clubs, this was a pretty natural thing to do, and CommonLit makes it easy.
Texts are organized by genre, grade level, lexile, and theme.
CommonLit will connect to Google Classroom, which means students can log in with their school gmail accounts. It also means that I can choose which grade level texts I want specific students to read – for a couple of my students, I went one text level band below, and assigned them a selection of stories that would be a bit more accessible to them, but still be challenging and that would provide ample opportunities for thoughtful conversation.
Their assignment was the same except for the short story options. I gave them the following options:
Thank You, Ma’am
The Monkey’s Paw
All Summer in a Day
The Treasure of Lemon Brown
Lamb to the Slaughter
Hearts and Hands
The Gift of the Magi
My students were told to choose four of nine texts. This meant that many of them read all of the stories before they decided to “really read” the four chosen ones (oh my happy heart!) and their choices were thoughtful and deliberate.
They were more excited to read the ones they had chosen with their partners and have returned to class talking to each other about the stories with a greater level of enthusiasm, than when I have simply assigned the same story to every student to read on the same day.
I also gave a large chunk of time for the assignment so they could budget their class time and homework time over a couple of weeks, plan to meet with their partners, and make the assignment authentic and thoughtful rather than rushed.
I think about how I used to teach any of these stories. The Most Dangerous Game, or The Necklace for example could take up to a week as I would guide them through each word, each sentence, and explain the meaning as we went along. Because my students have been given a wide range of choice over the last year or so, they have become independent readers, and can not only access these classic short stories, but appreciate and enjoy them while they are at it.
I’ve loved watching their independence blossom this spring as they tackle harder and harder texts. These are texts they often have very little background information on, but they are learning to find it themselves, use context clues, and talk to each other in their reading communities.
CommonLit has been a helpful tool as I have watched their progression.
It functions in many ways as an online textbook, but doesn’t feel cumbersome like a textbook can. There is a brief bio/intro with most texts, the lines are marked, and there are footnotes for difficult vocabulary. There are questions to answer as students read, and more thoughtful questions at the end of each selection.
What I really like about the questions on CommonLit is the discussion questions at the end of each selection. Students don’t need to write an essay or a formal short answer; instead they prepare for discourse, for literary discussion.
We’ve had great success with book clubs (and now story clubs) this year. I’ve loved the conversations I’ve overheard, the more “official” discussions the groups have had, and the individual conferences I’ve had with students. The classroom “talk” has been steadily increasing in quality and stamina, and our summative video discussions should be knock-out.
I’ve been so impressed with what giving students choice and voice can do. It feels intuitive after a few months of teaching like this, and not only have students developed strong independent reading lives, but now they are also able to tackle difficult, classic, canonized texts with confidence.
Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family will be moving across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.
Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie