English Teaching Online - Teachit's half-termly e-newsletter

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Autumn (2) 2009 / Term 2

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A Writer's View | Jackie Kay Podcasting with reluctant writers | Andrew Buckton
Teaching reading skills using short stories | Geoff Barton Using short stories in the teaching of writing | Phil Beadle
Critical analysis and takeaway learning parcels | Moyra Beverton, NATE Webwatch | Rhiannon Glover
Respond with a short story of your own | Harry Dodds  

What's your favourite short story?

Our writers discuss favourite short stories with particular passion, namely:

Guy de Maupassant – 'The Necklace'
Jack London – 'To Build A Fire'
Flannery O'Connor – 'A Good Man is Hard to Find'
James Joyce – 'The Dead'
Roald Dahl – 'Twist in the Tale'
Ray Bradbury – 'The Veld' and 'The Playground'
William Sansom – ‘The Vertical Ladder’
Doris Lessing – 'Through the Tunnel'
Arthur Porges – ‘The Ruum’
Graham Greene – ‘The Destructors’
Any story in Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Speaking with the Angel, featuring a story by Nick Hornby called ‘Nipple Jesus’

If you'd like to add your own small parcel of perfection or simply read the recommendations of colleagues, see the short stories thread in the staffroom!

The short story is neat, compact, focused. In short, perfect for the classroom. This issue's writers remind us that whether you want to hone critical analysis skills or the more mechanical aspects of reading, use a short story (or 'takeaway learning parcel') as stimulus for your own writing, or read one as a palate cleanser for your young writers, there's a story and task to suit.   

In fact, I was so inspired by the articles in this ETO that yesterday I went straight out and bought two short story collections for my very own. I'm already several stories in and really enjoying rediscovering the joys of this genre.

This issue is timely too, as the the shortlist for the BBC's National Short Story competition was launched last week, and (great news for all English teachers in search of a free nugget of inspiration) the finalists are available as podcasts for a week. So there's really no excuse for not exploring the very many delights of the short story in your classroom right now!

Siobhain Archer

A Writer's View | Jackie Kay

The short story allows us in a short space of time to understand huge things, huge dilemmas. Short stories pull us into their world and shake us up.

I am writing short stories again and they make me happier to write than anything. There is a great swirling freedom in the short story. You have to hold your breath as you write one. You never know if you are going to pull it off. Writing one story does not help you to write another. Each time, the form demands you find something new, something you have not found before.

It is a risky business, scary and thrilling, like climbing a mountain. It feels dangerous; it feels pioneering. The short story is a glorious form that is evolving and changing before our very eyes; anything seems possible. It is a difficult and challenging form. Short stories are not easy to write; they can't simply be written as a preparation for writing a novel, or as a break from writing a novel. Some good novelists are poor story writers.

What is a good short story exactly? It shares something with the novel in its use of the camera lens and use of narrative voice. It shares something with poetry in its love of language, its economy, its use of metaphor and voice. It is a lovely hybrid form, a cross between a poem and a novel. It catches people at crucial moments of their lives and snaps them. The short story allows us in a short space of time to understand huge things, huge dilemmas. Short stories pull us into their world and shake us up . They don't hang about. They don't waste any time. They swoop down and get you like a sea gull diving down to take the bread from your hand. They stay with you, the ones you love, forever.

I've never forgotten the shock of Guy de Maupassant's 'The Necklace' or Jack London's 'To Build A Fire', or Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man is Hard to Find'. The way you just sit and stare at the pages, glaikit and dumbstruck at the end of a good story. The way you want to begin it all over again. The empathy that Joyce can make you feel in his masterpiece, 'The Dead'. That moment when The Lass of Aughrim is sung, the moment that makes you feel you know the song. The lovely lyrical economy of a Carver story or a Chekhov story. The short story never wastes a single word. A whole life can be transformed by witnessing one kiss. ‘In short stories, it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because I don't know why!' Chekhov in 1888 said. 'A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.' Flannery O'Connor said.

A short story is a small moment of belief. Hard, uncompromising, often bleak, the story does not make things easy for the reader. It is a tough form for tough times. If the novel sometimes spoon feeds the reader, the short story asks her to feed herself. A story asks the reader to continue it after it has finished or to begin it before it began. There is space for the reader to come in and imagine and create. There is space for the reader to think for ages, to mull the impact of a story over, to try and recover from it! The short story is such a perfect form, you should really be able to lift it up and carry it into a huge cornfield, and it should still glow.

A reader can contain an entire story in her head and read a story in a single sitting. The story often makes a reader aware of what she is not being told. What doesn't happen in a short story is as important as what does. Like pauses in music; it is impossible to think about the short story without also thinking of its mysterious silences.

Perhaps the thing I love about stories most is that they give the appearance of space of length, so that when you return to them you are amazed at how the writer has created that effect. A whole life in a few pages. Grace Paley has her character meet her ex husband on the library steps and the whole life unfolds in just three pages. Annie Proulx takes us through an entire breathtaking and heartbreaking life love in Broke back Mountain. Raymond Carver lets the objects of a failed marriage speak for themselves in 'Why Don't You Dance'.

The short story is brilliant at taking the single emblematic moment that captures the whole, the dinner party in 'Bliss' by Katharine Mansfield. The voice of the story catches the reader and claims her. A story should stay with you long after you have put it down. A good story should change the way you see things, the way you think. It should help you know yourself better. Every contemporary story writer I admire, pushes the form still further, just when you thought there was nothing else to do: Ali Smith, James Kelman, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, T. Coraghessan Boyle … . It is an exciting time for the short story. It is the perfect form for our times.

This article was originally written for the BBC National Short Story competition. This year’s shortlist was announced on Friday:

Naomi Alderman – Other People’s Gods
Kate Clanchy – The Not-Dead and The Saved
Sara Maitland – Moss Witch
Jane Rogers - Hitting Trees with Sticks
Lionel Shriver – Exchange Rates

This year, for the first time, each story will be available as a free podcast available for download for two weeks from Monday 30 November.

Teaching reading skills using short stories | Geoff Barton

Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.

Jane Austen

Geoff Barton

The penny is beginning to drop that in secondary schools we too often 'do' reading rather than 'teach' it. We can too easily assume that the mechanical bits – the actual teaching of reading skills – have been completed at primary school and therefore are off our agenda. As Ofsted’s 2009 subject report (English at the Crossroads) showed us, reading is something of a concern in secondary schools. All teachers and the librarian have responsibility for improving pupils’ reading ability, such as how they skim and scan texts, analyse themes and language, and how they undertake independent research. These are the important mechanics of reading. But as English teachers our responsibilities run deeper. Many of us became English teachers because reading dominates our lives. We are often obsessive readers. Our job isn’t just about the skills – it’s about the absolute necessity of reading of reading for pleasure. We love books. We are text maniacs. Thus in teaching a short story we’re not only educating youngsters a bout a particular place in a particular time, giving them insights into characters and language, but we’re also teaching them how to read. And we owe it to our pupils to make sure they are familiar with short stories because it’s a form of literature that is often ignored or misunderstood.

So here are my five hints for teaching short stories:

1. The brevity of short stories makes them convenient for classroom use: a group can consume a whole story in one sitting and have time for discussion. But brevity is a small part of the short story’s appeal. The best short stories in their understated sketching of character and place can pack an extraordinary emotional punch, illuminating human nature with deft restraint. Get pupils exploring this.
2. Do all those things that make reading active: get pupils thinking about the story’s themes in advance and writing their own opening paragraph, or looking at a “not very good” opening that you provide. Get them, in other words, to approach the story as a writer themselves. They will engage more with the story if they have themselves already dabbled in its themes and issues.
3. Don’t underestimate the power of reading aloud. The bleakest Wednesday afternoon can be transformed by the magic woven by a good short story read by you. In doing so we nourish children’s imagination, teach them about how effective readers read, and strengthen their sense of the rhythms of English.
4.Get pupils exploring stories in groups, focusing on what happened, what we learn about the characters, what we notice about language. Then explore how things might have developed differently: what if…? Use hot-seating, interviews, drama before pupils write their own response or a story continuation.
5.We understand short stories better when we read lots of them. This familiarises us with the form. So don’t use a single story as a one-off. Teach it as part of an introduction to the history of short stories, or develop a departmental anthology, contrasting those that go for structural impact (the Roald Dahl “twist in the Tale”) with those that use character to illuminate human dilemmas (eg Leslie Norris). Aim to deepen and broaden pupils’ knowledge of an important literary tradition.

Most important of all, of course: enjoy!

Critical analysis and takeaway learning parcels | Moyra Beverton, NATE

Moyra BevertonI have a confession to make. I don’t actually like short stories that much. I know, I should, they are very worthy literary works and very difficult to write well and so on but I find them very frustrating. No sooner have you started reading than they finish; they’re unsatisfying in that way and frankly, I’d rather read a full length novel.

We want a story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax.

Samuel Goldwyn

There are though, some exceptions, particularly when I want to share a wide variety of genres or styles of writing with my students. In that respect I love short stories. They’re so compact. You can read them effectively in less than a lesson and share the quality of the writing through discussion or pastiche; divide them up, write prequels and sequels and have no end of fun with them. They’re like takeaway learning parcels.

For example, I’ve just been working with a couple of stories from The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. I had some staffing problems last year (who doesn’t these days?), which meant that my current top set year nines did not have the best experience. To counteract this, we have been working doubly hard to develop their critical analysis. We first read ‘The Veld’ from this collection and discussed how the writer must have imagined his automatic house was pure fiction; which it was when he wrote it. The students picked up on how context, social and historical is so important to the reader’s interpretation, particularly within the science fiction genre.

Later, we alighted on a particular section of the story where we noticed the writer using a plethora of ‘l’ sounds in a soothing way, to lull the reader whilst juxtaposing the threatening behaviour of the lions. We experimented with replacing the ‘l’ words with alternative, harsher sounds, exploring whether this altered the tone or not. (Very close reading there.) J

Another thing I really like about short stories is the way you have a complete structure to play with which can be deconstructed quite simply and effectively. I tend to start with a simple, problem/conflict/resolution deconstruction and then use this to build students’ analysis of the text. This helps to teach structuring of their own efforts, by fostering their awareness of the writer at work.

When we then read a second story, ‘The Playground’ from the same collection, the students were able to repeat the deconstruction themselves, noticing the similarities of the structure employed by the same writer. They were able to see in a short space of time how a writer has a way of using language, structure and form to suit their style, returning to their personal reading to apply their learning.

Their subsequent comparative essays were a delight to read and assess. They felt that they had learnt a lot in a short space of time which was motivating for them and encouraging for me!

So ... although I may not personally turn to short stories for my own reading pleasure, I have to concede that in my teaching I find them extremely useful in sharing the craft of writing. I can broaden the experience of my students in a compact way which suits the sporadic nature of the secondary timetable and meets the need for students to see a feasible outcome within a single lesson of sixty minutes.

Respond with a short story of your own | Harry Dodds

Harry DoddsI find increasingly that, when I recall my childhood, the memories cast themselves into near-perfect short stories. (I’d write them, but John Griffin has already done the job, in an uncanny replication of my experience, in his collection Skulker Wheat). Anyway, the point is that every one of my unfledged stories has a very precise, single focus – it might be a character, a voice, an experience that gave insight or understanding – or even complete bewilderment.

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.

Orson Welles

These qualities are what make short stories such good classroom resources – simple, focused and essentially catching just one thing; direct in expression, though sometimes very subtle. They offer excellent opportunities for taking time out of the grind of APP and analysis, and focusing on the pure enjoyment of narrative that writers intend us to experience.

Take, for example, William Sansom’s ‘The Vertical Ladder’. This is a complete winner, for almost any age. It deals with a very simple situation, set in a network of relationships that any adolescent, male or female, will recognise immediately, and its final impact rests on a betrayal of trust. It has a huge impact, every time, and the moments of silence after you’ve read the last word offer all the assessment information you need to justify having read it. To go from the reading into analysis would be both to diminish the story and to disrespect it. It does its own job without help from anyone else, by showing rather than by telling. A good short story is an opportunity to support reflection on experience, before it’s an object for study.

There are a handful of stories in the same league as ‘The Vertical Ladder’ – Doris Lessing’s ‘Through the Tunnel’; Arthur Porges’ ‘The Ruum’; Graham Greene’s ‘The Destructors’ (and any number of others.)

How, though, can the responsible English teacher justify doing something purely for enjoyment, as if that weren’t justification enough? I’d take Phyllis Webb’s advice: she said, ‘the proper response to a poem is another poem’. One very proper response to a short story is another short story. I don’t think it matters how derivative the results might be, so long as your pupil-writers have engaged themselves, at whatever level, in real authorial decisions, and found out for themselves what the Assessment Foci are getting at.

Things to do:

Andrew BucktonPodcasting with reluctant writers | Andrew Buckton

How do you get reluctant writers to engage with crafting a short story? One way is to have a go at podcasting. Radio 4 are big on broadcasting short stories, and the BBC National Short Story Award is a pretty well known writing competition that receives plenty of media attention. Pupils can listen to short stories on BBC iPlayer or live on the radio to get a good idea how one should sound. A good short story lends itself well to being broadcast, and that’s all a podcast is really – recorded audio ready to broadcast.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

Maya Angelou

For seriously reluctant writers, who would not dream of putting pen to paper or type anything on a keyboard at all, a podcast can be developed in the way that a piece of writing can be. They can make a rough draft orally, add ideas as they go along, edit and replace sections and individual words and swap the order around of sections they have recorded. It can be a highly engaging way of getting pupils to get involved with the short story form.
Pupils not only record a voice reading the short story aloud, but they also get to ‘play’ with some simple but fun technology that puts a modern twist to any recording. If using Apple’s Garageband software, for example, pupils can add sound effects and music to add to the impact of the story. If your ICT set up allows, pupils could put music tracks from their ipods or ‘phones onto the podcast as well as music and sound effects from a library of resources built in to the software. For non Apple users, recording directly to computer is easy with a free download called Audacity, and pupils can easily do the same thing – adding additional tracks of music or sound effects from different sources.

The editing tools tend to be straightforward, and a section of recorded audio can be presented visually like a graph. It is then easy to cut even single words or sounds out as pupils refine what they have written. The software on Garageband works by dragging highlighted sections around and is very intuitive. When finished, a podcast can be dragged in to iTunes where it will be automatically converted to a stereo track or MP3 file. The visual way of working on sound graphs could even be adapted to working with pupils on actual text. They could highlight words and cut and paste them in the same way that they have manipulated audio sound waves as graphs. Unlikely that they’ll want their mates to listen to them from their ‘phones sharing an earpiece but you never know.

Using short stories in the teaching of writing | Phil Beadle

No, it's not a very good story - its author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside.

Stephen King

Phil BeadleLife anywhere near the bottom of the education system often involves dealing with the unwanted and unimagined consequences of the vote-winning Whitehall policy feint. Judging schools on the number of kids getting five A*–Cs including English and maths is a decent enough sop to the voter to have some of them believe that literacy and numeracy have assumed the significance they deserve; not enough, though, to have protected schools from the never-ending imbecile rapacity of the CBI. (And so functional skills are coming to get ya, as a further soppier sop to Mr Businessman’s unquestioned expertise in all things educational.)

The unintended consequence of five A*–C’s including English and maths is that literature dies (certainly for those who are C/D borderlines in English). As all hands must be to the pump in getting the barely literate the qualification that ensures their schools existence come 2011, literature is routinely dropped for anyone who is below being a certain C in English. An unintended consequence too far?

As a result of this, it is now several years since I have been allowed to teach the short stories in the AQA anthology, and I recall little (aside from offering up Robert Quick in Joyce Carey’s ‘Growing Up’ as a genuine literary hero) that is of any use to the initiate.

Where I am still using short stories is in the teaching of writing. Much of what we do as teachers of writing is to help our young adults write more like children. We advise them to plaster their prose with adjectives and adverbs so that it becomes vivid. Yet those adjectives after a certain age begin to cloy, become repulsively florid; a sign of our kids lack of development into the realms of being adult writers and, by year 11, both class and teacher are in darned good of a palate cleanser.

Any story in Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is perfect for the job. If you are an English teacher and you haven’t read them, you are in for a treat. If you have read them, then you’ll be richly aware that they will give you the opportunity to teach kids the difference between the style of writing we have been teaching them for years, and the type of writing that deserves the epithet, ‘stylish’.

In spending a lesson or two comparing our own work to Carver’s, we get to see how sparseness can be combined with detail to produce something that does not rely on a blanket sprinkling of clichéd adjectives to create colour. We also get to bathe in the work of one of the twentieth centuries more interesting writers. It’s worth a good couple of lessons. You may even get to use the key word, “Spartan.”

Oh yeh, and buy Speaking with the Angel. The best set of short stories I’ve read, featuring a story by Nick Hornby called ‘Nipple Jesus’, which always goes down fantastically well with older kids.        

Webwatch | Rhiannon Glover

Rhiannon GloverSometimes I get students who complain that because they’ve studied English or Media Studies they can no longer just read or just watch. Instead they’re thinking about what sort of narrative voice a writer has used or why a director has chosen a high angled shot at this point in the film. I know this feeling but for teachers it’s worse (or better, depending on your point of view). Of course, you do think about how a text has been constructed rather than just enjoying it for what it is, but you’re also thinking how would this go down with Year 9 or wouldn’t this picture/newspaper article/poem/ documentary make a good starting point for a lesson?

I read this article on cutting a long story short in The Guardian in 2007 evidently (thank you Google!), and filed it away in the part of my English teacher’s mind labelled ‘Could come in useful’. And now it has. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s six word short story - 'For sale: baby shoes, never worn.' - The Guardian asked contemporary authors to write their own super short stories. You could use these as an introduction to a lesson on what makes a great short story because you’ve got it all here: enigma, irony, different genres, the twist in the tale, humour and, above all, the beauty of brevity. You could also have a lot of fun getting students to write their own six word short story or asking them to use one of the six word stories commissioned by The Guardian as the opening or ending to a longer piece of original writing.

If you like your short stories just a little bit, well, less short, there are lots of websites packed with short stories of all shapes and sizes. At the short story section on East of the Web you can find featured stories of the month and browse the library by genre, title, author or keyword. There is also a section for kids’ short stories. Over 2000 short stories can be found at American Literature including the site’s choice of twenty great American short stories and the short story of the day.

You can browse many more stories at Classic Shorts and Bibliomania while Story campaigns to celebrate the short story, providing information about competitions, events, workshops and projects and advice about writing short stories, as well as offering its own story collection. On this site you can also read a ‘Think Piece’ from Di Speirs, Readings Editor at BBC Radio Drama. She reminds us that BBC Radio 4 is the world’s biggest single commissioner of short stories and ‘Three days a week, fifty two weeks a year, at 3.30, the BBC broadcasts a short story on Radio 4; there are more to be found on weekend evenings, some are dramatized for play slots such as the Afternoon Play, others appear in the concert intervals on Radio 3.’

Also on Radio 4 (or available through iPlayer), although not exactly a short story, you can listen to Our Mutual Friend serialised as it was first published. While my copy is a mere 746 pages long, the Radio 4 version is broken up into lovely, short story sized, 15 minute chunks so you can savour it in pieces like a delicious bar of chocolate.