Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reading Aloud in the Classroom: Suspenseful Short Stories

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Today was the kind of day English teachers daydream about. The short stories we read in class over the course of the last two days literally made my kids exclaim in delight (and horror). Both stories were pieces with building suspense, plot twists, and surprise endings. My kids absolutely loved them. "How do you know?" as the Differentiated Instruction video on YouTube asks. "Because they told me. They said, 'This is fun,'" I say, like the teacherbot in the video.

No, really. They did. So what kind of short stories make kids say they like them? That reading them was fun? Actually, two titles I found in a surprising place -- our textbooks. My seventh graders read "Duffy's Jacket" by Bruce Coville, while eighth grade read "The Landlady" by Roald Dahl. Both are slightly scary and somewhat dark, and guess what? Middle schoolers love them.

Coville's "Duffy's Jacket" is told from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Andrew. His family goes camping one weekend, but ends up sleeping in an old, abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. His (somewhat clueless) mother and aunt make a run into town for supplies (like light bulbs, which the house is largely missing), and chaos ensues. Andrews is convinced someone is following him and his cousins through the woods; the kids find writing on a wall inside the house; and then, the scratching starts.

Kind of like in the old scary story where the "voice" creeps in the door, up the stairs, and into your room, the thing in "Duffy's Jacket" scratches at the door to the house. Then it breaks down the door, comes up the stairs, and. . . returns Duffy's jacket. Needless to say, my seventh graders were entirely on the edge of their seats, then laughing their heads off (with a little bit of relief) at the end.

The eighth graders weren't quite so lucky (or relieved), as Dahl's "The Landlady" has a much creepier ending. Set in mid-century Great Britain, seventeen-year-old Billy Weaver is strangely drawn to a particular boarding house. He has intentions to move on to a public house that's been recommended by a train porter, but something about the boardinghouse compels him to ring the doorbell.

Billy meets "the landlady" and is perfectly charmed -- despite the fact that anyone with even mediocre observation skills would immediately notice something in the house has gone awry. For one thing, there are no other guests -- and there haven't been for almost two years. Additionally, the landlady seems bent on serving tea to a guest who protests that he isn't thirsty. Compounded with these oddities are the remarks the landlady continuously makes about how she was "waiting for him" to come and how "everything is ready" for him.

As things become more and more strange, Billy continues to be blissfully unaware of his mistake in staying there. Rather, he seems to believe that he hit upon a streak of good luck in finding the place. Although I don't want to spoil the ending for you, let's just say things get a little bit "A Rose for Emily" in the final paragraphs of the story. One student in the back of the classroom pulled at his hair and screamed, "Nooo!!" at the end. But he was smiling -- and the rest of the class loved it.

Now, let's hope that neither they (nor I) suffer bad dreams tonight as a result of reading it. Dahl is exactly the right amount of strange for the middle school crowd -- still a bit childish, but delightfully creepy, too.

With both stories, we worked on the students' prediction skills. Using a chart to list questions ("What will happen next?"), predictions ("I think ___ will happen because _____."), and, finally, checks ("Yes, I was right," or "No, I was wrong."), we wound our way through the twists and turns of each of these stories. As we stopped -- at particularly telling or exciting parts -- the students begged to go on. I believe they sharpened their predicting skills, however, and also enjoyed a good read at the same time.


  1. I'm trying to find a story called "The House" where I believe that the woman doesn't know that she is dead and that she is stuck in between the life and death. I also think that the house is the passage way to release her from the in between world, once she is able to enter. One reason that i believe this is the very first sentence of the story which states, ""Two years ago," she said "when I was so sick, I realized that I was dreaming the same dream night after night."" Also at the end of the story when the man says that a phantom haunts the house, the last thing he said was ""A story, madame," the old man said, with an air of reproach, "that you least of all should laugh at, since the phantom was you.""

    Can't seem to find it!

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