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Teaching Short Stories

Alexandra_LoweAlexandra Lowe
ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College

The following blog post was written by Alexandra Lowe and originally published by TESOL International Association on June 3, 2015. It can also be accessed through the TESOL website.

At the recent TESOL International convention in Toronto, I was privileged to attend an outstanding workshop entitled “10 Tips for Teaching Short Stories” by Sybil Marcus, an inspiring teacher from the University of California, Berkeley. Presenting excerpts from two short stories, she showed us how she uses stories to teach critical thinking skills, style, grammar, and vocabulary, and to lay the groundwork for classroom debates and writing assignments. Sybil’s approach to teaching ESL skills through short stories sounded so compelling to me that I dashed back to my own classroom as soon as the conference was over to try it out.

One of the short stories she showcased in her workshop was Daniel Lyons’ “The Birthday Cake” (.doc). The story features two immigrants—an old, embittered woman from Italy and a young single mother from the Caribbean—who find themselves locked in an unexpected conflict. The story subtly raises challenging issues of attitudes toward immigrants, single parenthood, aging, isolation, and death.

The story was an immediate hit with my high-intermediate, low-advanced students. When we discussed an issue central to the story—whether the old woman was justified in her contemptuous response to the young woman’s plea for a special favor—my students were as bitterly divided as the two protagonists themselves. Even students who were normally shy and reluctant to speak in front of the whole class launched into a passionate debate over the merits of the old woman’s behavior. And what was particularly fascinating was the discovery that the battle lines among my students were drawn in unpredictable ways—students whom I would have expected to sympathize with the plight of the young mother were surprisingly hostile to her.

One bonus of this particular short story is that it is written almost entirely in dialogue, as if it were the script for a short play for three characters (the two women, and a man who finds himself entangled in their conflict).  So, naturally, I put my students into small groups of three and asked them to practice acting out the dialogue. After giving them the opportunity to practice their lines with three different sets of partners, I asked for volunteers to act out the story in front of the whole class. It was one of the highlights of the semester, as some of my shyest students threw themselves into their roles, displaying acting skills and abilities no one would have suspected, while some of the more outspoken students were able to “ad lib” additional theatrical lines for their character. Continue reading

The Central Role of Literature in the ESL/EFL Classroom

page43_SybilMarcus Sybil Marcus

Earlier this year, my colleague Jamie Reinstein and I were corresponding about the value and joy of using literature in ESL education. We found that our experiences were closely aligned, and he invited me to run a workshop on literature and ESL at the Community College of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, U.S. Since he was using my anthology A World of Fiction 2 as the text for his advanced class, he also suggested that I take over for the morning and teach a story from the book.

I decided that I would ask Jamie’s students to read Peter Meinke’s short story “The Cranes,” which is about an elderly couple on an outing to the Gulf of Mexico. Although the story seems innocuous at first, the events lead to an enigmatic ending that prompts reconsideration of what’s been happening all along.

Like many ESL classes, Jamie’s class was made up of a mix of nationalities with students from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. They quickly made me feel very welcome and we settled down to business. I had requested that students read the story for homework and then come to class with a written explanation of what the ending meant to them and why. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

10 Tips for Teaching Short Stories: Part 1

page43_SybilMarcus Sybil Marcus
Author of A World of Fiction series

Teachers often hesitate to use literature in the classroom. That’s a pity since short stories are perfect for teaching language and critical thinking skills. Good stories engage both teachers and students. Best of all, they can be used to enrich all language skills in imaginative and unexpected ways. The ten tips below are designed to help teachers create and implement an exciting, relevant short-story course.

1.  Enthusiasm is contagious.
When you believe in literature as a meaningful and fun way to build language skills, you can persuade even skeptical students to take it seriously. I’ve had students begin the semester thinking literature might be an inefficient use of their time, but in 40 years of teaching I’ve almost never seen one who felt that way after a few weeks of class. Continue reading