Short stories definitely have their place in the middle school English classroom. These short works of literature can grab a reader's attention right from the start, making them great for reluctant readers, whose patience and attention spans can often run short; while they can be enjoyed by all students, they are perfect for the kids who are unable (or unwilling) to tackle an entire novel.
Great short stories can be used to teach literary elements and critical thinking skills, and lay the groundwork for engaging classroom discussions and writing assignments. Many of my favorite short stories have twist endings, and are great for teaching careful reading; while the endings often jolt the reader, the author usually gives enough hints along the way to give the reader the chance to figure out what is going to happen. It is hard to beat a good twist ending when it comes to engagement.
Too often I find that teachers limit the stories they use in their classrooms to those they can find in their classroom literature anthology. There are so many amazing stories out there, just waiting to be taught! As a true lover of the short story, I have dedicated my teaching career to collecting some of the very best, and have created my own personal classroom anthology. As many full text versions of short stories can be found for free online, I simply googled the title of each of the short stories I wanted, made copies, and put them all together in a duotang. I now have a classroom set of my favorites that I can use when the mood strikes, and can add (and subtract) new short stories as I discover them.
I have included some of my very favorite short stories below. These are stories that I have used with my middle schoolers for many years - all are guaranteed to be highly engaging, and promise to raise questions and instigate great discussions in your classroom. Included are links to online versions of the stories, so you can check them out yourself. I have only included a quick blurb about each, as I don't want to spoil the stories for those of you who are yet to discover them.
The Necklace - Guy De Maupassant
In this engaging short story, a woman borrows an expensive necklace from a wealthy friend, only to lose it. She then spends the rest of the story trying to repay her debt. With a surprising twist ending, this short work of classic literature is sure to engage your students. The characters in this story are very well developed, and make for great lessons on characterization. As the main character comes off quite spoiled and unlikable, it makes for an excellent class debate or writing assignment on whether or not she deserved her fate.
Full text of the short story can be found here.
Lamb to the Slaughter - Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl is easily one of my favorite writers of all time. While his novels are amazing, his lesser known shown stories are equally as great. "Lamb to the Slaughter" focuses on a scorn woman, who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb. The rest of the story revolves around her trying to hide her guilt and conceal the evidence. This is certainly a creepy story, but I think that is exactly what makes it so appealing to students of this age group. I often use the story to teach persuasive essay writing, while having the kids debate about whether or not they think the main character should get away with the crimes. After reading, I always make sure to show the kids the Alfred Hitchcock version of the story on youtube - Mary's giggle at the end is haunting!
The Sniper - Liam O'Flaherty
If you are looking for a way to draw in your reluctant male readers, this short story is it. With guns, war, and a little bit of violence, I found that it really appeals to a lot of the adolescent boys in my classes. The story revolves around a sniper sitting on a rooftop during the Irish Revolution; he gives away his place while lighting a cigarette, and knows he has to escape. The twist ending will leave your students open-mouthed, and always makes for great classroom discussion. The unexpected ending is a great opportunity to teach irony. I often integrate this story into my Social Studies curriculum, as use it as an introduction to our civil war unit.
Interlopers - Saki
I only recently discovered this haunting short story, but it has quickly become one of my all time favorites. The story begins with the heads of two feuding families, hunting each other through the forest at night. Just as they are about to shoot each other, a large tree falls in the snowy forest, trapping both of them beneath it. The story has a great twist at the end that will leave your students gasping, making it a great story for teaching about irony and for reviewing plot. I also love to use it for teaching character motivation; the story begins with the characters being motivated by hatred, which quickly changes to the opposite. The misfortune of the events that unfold mature the men quickly, making a great teaching example of how empathy and understanding are the keys to conflict resolution.
The Chaser - John Collier
In this very short story a young man purchases a love potion, and is pleased to discover that it only costs a very small amount. The merchant, however, has something more costly to offer him, should he need it in the future. This is one of my favorite stories to teach in February, as the whole love potion idea pairs well with Valentine's Day festivities. The story itself is only a page or two long, making it highly accessible to even your most struggling middle school readers. After reading the story, students soon discover that the title is a great play on words, which makes for engaging class discussion.
For a full text version of the story, click here.
The Story of an Hour - Kate Chopin
This story begins when a woman is given news that her husband has died in a railroad accident. In the hour that follows, she contemplates her life while experiencing a wide range of emotions. Another story with a twist (can you tell I love twist endings?), students are always caught off guard by the ending, leading to great class discussions. The story easily lends itself to activities relating to symbolism, irony, and plot structure.
The Gift of the Magi - O. Henry
In this story, a young couple low on funds try to find a way to get each other a special Christmas gift. This is one of my favorite stories to read around the holidays, as it has a beautiful message about giving, and the things we should value most. It is a great story to pair with a reading of A Christmas Carol, and is also great for reviewing plot, character motivation, and irony.
A Sound of Thunder - Ray Bradbury
Set in the future, time travelers on a hunting expedition visit prehistoric times to shoot and kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The story explores the concept of the "Butterfly Effect", where one small action in the past can have massive consequences in the future. Students who have seen Groundhog Day will be familiar with the concept, but I find this story to be much darker. I usually have students complete a plot diagram to go along with this story, and make notes on the actions of the characters that make an impact on future events. This story is a bit longer than some of the ones I mentioned above, but I have found that the kids get hooked into the story right from the start, making them not mind the length as much. This story is a great way to hook some of your reluctant adolescent boys. This story pairs well with "Of Missing Persons" by Jack Finney, as both stories discuss the effects of time travel - although Finney's story is quite long, it is really one of my very favorites.
Full text of "A Sound of Thunder" can be found here.
Rain, Rain, Go Away - Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov is one of my favorite science fiction writers. His stories often have twist endings, and just the right amount of strange creepiness to make them extra appealing to this age group. When it comes to creepy and strange, "Rain, Rain, Go Away" does not disappoint. In the story, the main characters are curious about their new neighbors, who seem to be acting strangely. In an effort to get to know them better, they invite them on an outing to a local fair; after consuming massive amounts of cotton candy, panic ensues when an unforeseen rain storm catches the new neighbors off guard. This is an excellent story for teaching cause and effect and character changes over time. The story is also great for visualization, as the final scene really paints a picture in the minds of young students. Because of this, I often have my students illustrate before and after pictures of the neighbors.
The Most Dangerous Game - Richard Connell
This is one of my favorite stories to teach about mood and suspense. In this engaging and tense story, a well known hunter crashes his boat into an almost deserted island, only to discover that the inhabitant likes to hunt humans. The beginning of the story is a great opportunity to teach students about how setting can help to create mood. The descriptions in the story are very visual, and I often have my students draw maps of the island, and show where key plot events in the story take place. This story is a definite favorite among middle school students.
Examination Day - Henry Seslar
Don't let the fact that this story was originally published in Playboy (!??!) stop you from using it in your classroom! Its distopic version of the future makes it a hit with students interested in this genre. In the story, bright young Dickie is sent to write an exam that all children of the future must take. The story ends with a jolting twist, and lends itself to some interesting classroom discussion and writing activities about the nature of intelligence.
Harrison Bergeron - Kurt Vonnegut
I love pairing this story with Seslar's "Examination Day", as both stories are set in the future and discuss similar themes about intelligence. In this story, the people of the future have been given "handicaps" to make sure that everyone is equal. The story picks up when young Harrison Bergeron takes over a television program, revolting against the handicaps he has been given. This story lends itself to a great discussion about political propaganda; I usually end the unit by having the kids create their own propaganda posters for the main character in the story.
A full text version of "Harrison Bergeron" can be found here.
All Summer in a Day - Ray Bradbury
When Margot moves from Earth to the rainy planet of Venus, she is bullied by the other children who are jealous of her for seeing the sun. As the first sunny day the planet has seen in many years approaches, the bullying intensifies, leading up to a heartbreaking finale. This is a great story to use when discussing bullying, as students tend to feel quite strongly for Margot, and can often make connections to their own lives. As it is set on a distant planet, it is also a great story to use when discussing setting. When we are done reading, I often show my students the movie version of the story, which can easily be found on youtube.
The full text version of the story can be found here.
The Birds - Daphne Du Maurier
As this is the classic short story that Alfred Hitchcock's famous movie was based on, it makes for a great spooky story to use around Halloween. In the story, the main character notices that the town's birds have been acting strangely. Soon, he is forced to barricade himself inside his house, and fight to protect his family from the swarming birds. The spooky nature of this story makes it a great one to teach mood and suspense. As it is a longer story, I like to have my students practice their close reading strategies while reading, and annotate the text as they go along. When the unit is complete, it is fun to show the students the classic Hitchcock movie, and compare and contrast the similarities and differences between the movie and story. While it was considered to be quite a scary movie when it was first released, it is quite tame by today's standards, and I have no problem showing it in my classroom. My students are so accustomed to the special effects of today's movies, that they usually find this movie quite hilarious to watch.
A full text version of the story can be found here.
The Elevator - William Sleator
This story revolves a young boy named Martin, and his overwhelming fear of an overweight lady who climbs into his apartment elevator every time Martin boards. This is a great story to review plot, as the climax happens at the very end. I have found that my students often struggle to locate the climax of the story when it happens so late in the text, and this is a great way to help them practice with this. This story is definitely creepy, making it a hit with this age group.
A full text version of the story can be found here.
Hopefully you can make use of some of these fantastic short stories in your classroom! I will continue to add to this list as I discover more favorites.
Looking for some resources to use along with these stories? This giant 88 page resource bundle is available in my Teachers Pay Teacher store, and contains 11 of my best selling short story resources, bundled together for a heavily discounted price. Resources to use with a variety of short stories are included, as well as detailed activities and notes to go along with the elements of literature. Perfect for your upcoming short story unit, this package has enough resources to keep kids engaged while learning about the literary elements.
This 88 page package includes:
-Short Story notes on the Elements of Literature
-Literary Elements Flip Book Project
-Short Story Poster Projects to go along with 10 different short stories
-Additional worksheets to use with any of the included stories
-Links to online versions of all stories
-Detailed answer keys for all assignments.
What are some of your favorite short stories to teach with middle school students?