How to Choose Short Stories to Teach First-Year College Students

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First-year college students tend to hate reading literature. As an instructor of freshman English classes, it is your job to choose short stories that students will not only enjoy, but also hopefully appreciate. There are several things to consider when choosing the short stories that you will require your students to read.

1 Consider the class s

Consider the class’s reading level. This may be difficult to do before you actually meet your class. The more teaching experience you have, the easier this will get.

2 Think

Think about what you wouldn’t mind reading if you hated to read. Your students most likely are not going to be English majors, so they probably aren’t going to want to read. Stay away from overly complex stories that first-year college students won’t easily understand.

3 But

But, don’t just pick simple ones. You want to challenge your students to think a little bit. Instead of choosing a story like “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter that is written in stream of consciousness, which can be very confusing for students, choose one like “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka, which has an easily understood plot, but very complex themes and symbols. It is difficult for students to understand theme, symbol, narrator or other literary elements if they don’t easily understand the story’s plot.

4 Try to expand your students

Try to expand your students’ horizons. That’s what college is all about anyway, right? Choose stories and authors that students may not have heard of or stories that are set in far-off places, like “The Lady with the Pet Dog” by Anton Chekhov or “Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield.

5 Look for stories with themes

Look for stories with themes that all students can identify with. Stories about family conflicts and generation gaps, like Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” or socio-economic differences, like Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson,” are good choices.

6 Choose ones with bizarre

Choose ones with bizarre, twisty or soap-opera-like plots. The more scandalous the story, the more likely students are to like it. “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor both have surprising endings, and students tend to like them.

7 Choose a variety of stories

Choose a variety of stories. Include stories by a variety of authors, written in different time periods, set in different places, written in different styles and so on.

8 Make that all

Make sure that all of the stories that you choose are included in the required textbook for the class, if there is one. Do not make students look for stories outside of the textbook or give them photocopies of stories not in the book. Textbooks are expensive and if you are requiring students to buy them, it is disrespectful to not fully use them. Also, students tend to lose handouts.

  • Beware of what students think that they like. For example, many students think that they like Edgar Allan Poe stories, most likely because they have heard of him. But, when students actually read one of his stories, like “The Masque of the Red Death” or “The Cask of Amontillado,” they tend not to understand it or like it as much as they think that they will.
  • If you assign “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor and your students tell you it is about a woman looking for a husband, that’s a big clue that they didn’t read the story. Essays have been turned in about the dating themes in the story. If you’ve read it, you know that there is no “dating” in the story!
  • The stories referenced above appear in most English course anthology textbooks.
  • For extra credit, allow students to choose a short story not on your reading list to present to the class. It is interesting to see what they choose when they get to decide what to read for themselves.

Erica Sweeney is a freelance writer and editor based in Little Rock, Ark. She has a master's in journalism from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Her work has been published at, Arkansas Times, Aging Arkansas and Arkansas Business.