10 Tips for Teaching Short Stories: Part 2

page43_SybilMarcusSybil Marcus, Author of A World of Fiction series

Last month, I gave you 10 tips for using short stories in an ESL/EFL class.  This month, we’ll examine brief excerpts from both levels of A World of Fiction, looking closely at how short stories may be used to teach critical thinking and language.

Although each of these excerpts could be used as a discrete classroom activity, you’ll have many more teaching possibilities when using the complete stories – and your students will have the extra satisfaction of knowing what happens next.  What we’d like to show here is that even a few paragraphs of a fine story can afford numerous possibilities for learning and discussion.

EXCERPT 1:  High-Intermediate to Low-Advanced Level
Below is the opening of “The Birthday Cake” by Daniel Lyons.  The complete story is printed in A World of Fiction 1, which will be published in June 2014.  The book contains 16 thematically-rich stories calibrated for length and accessibility, along with many questions and exercises.

The air was cold and the daylight was draining from the sky. The street smelled of rotten fruit left in the carts and although this was a sour smell it was not altogether unpleasant. Lucia was accustomed to this odor, and because it reminded her of the feast days when she was a girl she enjoyed it, the way she imagined people on farms enjoyed the smell of manure.

It was past six and the shops on Newbury Street were closed, but she knew that Lorenzo would stay open for her. She did not hurry: she was an old woman, and age had spoiled her legs. They were thick now, and water heavy, and when she walked her hips grew sore from the effort of moving them.

She stopped by a bench, wanting to sit but knowing that to stoop and then to rise would be more difficult than simply to lean against the backrest. She waited for her breathing to slow, then walked the last block to the bakery. Lorenzo would be there. He would wait. Hadn’t she come to the bakery every Saturday since the war? And hadn’t she bought the same white cake with chocolate frosting, Nico’s favorite?

Critical Thinking
The opening paragraphs not only establish a strong sense of atmosphere, they also begin to paint a picture of Lucia, the central character.  We see that she is an elderly woman in failing health.  She is a creature of habit, who in spite of the difficulty makes a trip each week to the bakery on Newbury Street where she buys a special cake favored by someone called Nico.  We can infer that Lorenzo is the owner of the bakery and that despite the late hour, he is expecting Lucia since she comes every week. Questions are raised in this opening segment that are only answered as the story progresses.  For example, we don’t know who Nico is, but he is obviously important to Lucia.  And why does Lucia insist on making this weekly journey?

Analyzing style is a great way to help students think critically and learn the nuances of English.  By paying attention to literary elements like atmosphere, symbolism, and imagery, your students will start to understand the choices authors make to construct an effective story.  Daniel Lyons creates a dark atmosphere in the opening line with the image of light draining from the sky.  This feeling is echoed in the description of Lucia, whose legs are thick and water heavy.  The neighborhood has an odor of rotting fruit, and the metaphor of decay is taken up again in a crucial scene later in the story.

From this short reading, you might ask students to predict whether the story will end positively or negatively, and to give the reasons for their answer.

At the high-intermediate/low-advanced level, students do a good job of debating the pros and cons of a subject.  This is an excellent way to improve fluency as well as critical thinking.  A debate topic arising from this excerpt might be:  People benefit from fixed routines.

Cross-cultural Discussion
From the title the of the story, we can guess that a birthday cake will play an important part. We can segue into a discussion of how birthdays are celebrated in various cultures.  This can include foods, presents, rituals, and anything else.  Almost every story offers the chance for students to discuss cultural perspectives while practicing their oral skills.

Students enjoy seeing grammar in action.  Since these opening paragraphs are narrated in the past tense, you might examine the correct use of different tenses.  For example, you can discuss why in the first paragraph the author chose the past progressive for was draining, as opposed to the simple past for was, smelled, enjoyed, and imagined.  The excerpt also contains past tenses of irregular verbs such as grew and bought.

Prepositional phrases of place:  These can be tricky to learn:  from the sky, in the carts, on farms, on Newbury Street, by a bench, against the backrest, and to the bakery.

Word Connotations:  Many words not only have a dictionary meaning, but may also have positive or negative connotations or associations.  The excerpt contains many words with negative connotations such as draining, rotten, sour, unpleasant, odor, spoiled, sore, and difficult.

Short stories lend themselves to both expository and creative assignments.  One topic based on this excerpt might be:  Write a paragraph that creates either an optimistic or a pessimistic atmosphere.  Use adjectives or other imagery to heighten your description.

EXCERPT 2:  Advanced Level
The following are the first two paragraphs of “Powder” by Tobias Wolff.  The story is printed in full in A World of Fiction 2, 3ed.

Just before Christmas my father took me skiing at Mount Baker. He’d had to fight for the privilege of my company, because my mother was still angry with him for sneaking me into a nightclub during our last visit, to see Thelonious Monk.

He wouldn’t give up. He promised, hand on heart, to take good care of me and have me home for dinner on Christmas Eve, and she relented. But as we were checking out of the lodge that morning it began to snow, and in this snow he observed some quality that made it necessary for us to get in one last run. We got in several last runs. He was indifferent to my fretting. Snow whirled around us in bitter, blinding squalls, hissing like sand, and still we skied. As the lift bore us to the peak yet again, my father looked at his watch and said, “Criminey. This’ll have to be a fast one.”

Critical Thinking
Even without knowing what the rest of the story is about, it is possible to infer the family dynamics from these paragraphs.  We can tell that the relationship between husband and wife is not good.  The couple are apparently separated or divorced as the father “had to fight for the privilege of [his son’s] company.”  Also, the wife doesn’t trust her husband to behave responsibly with their son.  She is still angry with him for “sneaking [him] into a nightclub.

We learn that the husband is prone to acting irresponsibly and that he’s in danger of not keeping his word to his wife.  He swore to bring the boy home on time, but he is the one who insists on getting in several last runs when the conditions outside become increasingly dangerous.  The son is “fretting” about both the snowstorm and the lateness of the hour, but he can’t stand up to his father’s determination to ski on. Even at this early stage in the story, it is apparent that the traditional roles of father and son are being reversed.  The father is more reckless, the son more judicious.

It is always useful to discuss the perspective or point of view through which a story unfolds.  In this story we deal with first-person narration in which we see events through the perspective of a young boy.

Wolff chooses to describe the snowy conditions through the use of alliteration (the repetition of consonant sounds).   Snow whirled around us in bitter, blinding squalls, hissing like sand, and still we skied.  The repeated hissing s reinforces the danger of being caught in a blizzard.   Similarly, the two blunt b sounds contribute to the general lack of harmony.

Debating gets advanced students to marshall their thoughts and argue fluently and cogently.  One possible debate topic that could elicit strong arguments on both sides might be:  Divorce should be avoided for the sake of the children.

Cross-cultural Discussion
“Powder” offers the possibility of discussing popular winter sports around the world.  We can also discuss whether there are tradiational role models of fatherhood in different countries or cultures.

Once again, students can look at grammar in action.  For example, in these paragraphs we are given the opportunity to examine different -ing forms used organically.  The writer moves from  the gerunds, skiing and sneaking, to the verb in the progressive were checking out, to the descriptive present participles blinding and hissing.  Seeing these forms arise naturally from the demands of the story helps to make grammar meaningful to students.

The idiom hand on heart offers an opportunity to come up with more idioms with “hand” as well as idioms using other body parts.
Similarly, the phrasal verb checking out offers the opportunity to explore other phrasal verbs with check such as check in, check into, check off, and check on.

Although we only have a few paragraphs to work with, there are several possible approaches.  One assignment might be to describe a memorable family trip, using rhetorical devices such as metaphor, simile, and alliteration to paint a picture of the experience.

At the other end of the writing spectrum, students could write an expository essay in which they examine the qualities it takes to be a good parent.
My co-author and I welcome discussion about any thoughts/ideas generated by these excerpts.  We can be reached at swmarcus@inreach.com