Friday, March 13, 2015

Getting Students to Teach: Short Story Group Presentations {Teaching High School}

All good educators know that Seneca's adage "When we teach, we learn" is spot on. This year in my 11th and 12th grade literature class, I wanted the students to really delve into teaching. A whole novel seemed too complex, and I love discussing short stories but often neglect them because of time constraints—so having students teach short stories seemed perfect.

First, a little background. I teach at our homeschooling program, which meets weekly. My class is 1 hour, 20 minutes long. I have 21 students in my class (half of whom have been with me for all 4 years of high school), which is dubbed "Classic Lit." The class is designed to cover some of the classics that I didn't get to teach in British Lit, American Lit, or World Lit.

But this format would work for any literature class. I split the class into 5 groups on the first day of class. These became their in-class working groups as well as their short story presentation groups. I had already chosen 5 short stories, and I randomly assigned the stories to the groups.

When deciding upon stories, I had various considerations, including that the stories needed to be the right length (not too short, not too long); that we wouldn't be reading a novel by this author; that we hadn't discussed the story in a previous year; and that the stories would provide plenty of discussion fodder. I wanted a variety of genres and subjects, too. I ended up with a fairly eclectic mix of stories:
  • "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor
  • "The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury
  • "The Man in the Black Suit" by Stephen King
  • "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore
  • "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

From there, I assigned presentation dates, fairly evenly sprinkled throughout the year with two groups in the first semester and three in the second. I was hoping, of course, that the students would spend several weeks or even months preparing for their presentations! The reality, however, is that the groups so far all started meeting a couple of weeks before their presentation was actually due.

I use ClassJump to post assignments and other information for my classes. On our site I posted the  Short Story Project Instructions (you can download them using the link) as well as the stories. All of the stories were available online, but I put them in PDFs to make them more easily accessible.

The instructions are too long to post here, but basically the students had four required elements to their presentation:

1. Author biographical information. Who is your author? Give us a biographical sketch of him or her. What else did he or she write? Are there any interesting facts we should know about him or her?

2. Explanation of genre or other pertinent literary information. Is your story science fiction, dystopian, etc. Are there any key terms associated with this type of writing? What was the reaction of the public when this story was published? (This will be a very short section.)

3. Choose one literary lens to look through your story with. Summarize what you think it means to apply your particular lens of choice to this text. How could looking through this particular lens change or illuminate the reading of this story?

4. Discussion. This is really the key component of the class. You will need to read the story carefully to come up with thoughtful, engaging questions and then you’ll facilitate the class discussion.

Each of these points is discussed in detail on the instruction handout. In addition, the groups are encouraged to come up with other activities to explore the story. I gave a list of suggestions, and I've loved what the three groups so far have come up with, from crafts to youtube videos to having their classmates write (and perform) rap songs to acting out alternate endings for the story.

Hat craft  for "Everything That Rises Must Converge" and yellow snacks for "The Yellow Wallpaper"— just a couple examples of how creative kids can be as teachers!

This was a grand experiment, and I have to say that it is an absolute success. Again, you can read all the details on the instruction sheet, but one of the requirements is that the students submit individual evaluations after their presentation.  Their responses convinced me that this is a project I will do every year and in every class. They learned so much and gained tremendous confidence as they stepped into the role of teacher. Here are a few excerpts:

"We quickly figured out that sometimes time constraints will force changes in plans." (Yes! They learned something about flexibility and thinking on your feet!)

"For the most part, we were able to keep the class on topic."(An echo of one of my mantras: "Let's get back on topic. Focus!")

"I think the most fun of the assignment was dissecting the story and figure stuff out about it, even when people dismissed your thoughts about the story. Even though we do this in class often, I like doing it in a less constructed manner. This gives you the freedom to explore your ideas and feelings, not matter how ludicrous, dark, or brilliant these ideas may be."

"I learned a lot from being on the other side of the classroom. I mainly noticed the communication between teachers and students. We teenagers can be disruptive and lack respect, and it was, at times, difficult to calm them so we could teach." (I mean, he just summed up being a high school teacher.)

"Teaching definitely pushed me outside my comfort zone, and I enjoyed getting feedback from my classmates and learning from the experience." (Yes! Stepping out of the zone!)

"I loved being able to put my own spin on [the story] and work with a group to make our vision happen." (And that joy of analyzing literature!)

The biggest problems encountered were, predictably, with group dynamics. Half of the groups worked together beautifully, and half of them wanted to clobber each other. But that was all behind-the-scenes.

"Though our group may not have worked together fantastically, I think we pulled through in the end and got our act together."

"We should have been more cooperative with each other and less dismissive of each other's ideas."

"If I were to do this project again, I'd try to be more persistent in getting everyone in the group to be more involved."

"I learned that your group might not be 'one big happy family.' It was a struggle for me to communicate peacefully with my group, but through the struggle I feel like I learned something that will stay with me throughout my life." 

In the classroom from my perspective, all the groups presented a unified front. The biggest problem the groups had was finding a meeting time outside of the classroom. Perhaps in the future, I will set aside one whole class period as a work day.

The benefits of this project are astounding. As a teacher, I've loved watching the kids take the project seriously and put their own wonderful, unique spins on the assignment. As for the students, not only have the presenters learned more than they can fathom, but the rest of the class has had fun. I've been really impressed with the complete respect that the students show their fellow teacher-students. My role during a presentation, by the way, has been to just sit and listen and really not participate at all. I resist participating in the discussion, and the students seem to naturally rise to calling of a teacher: teach, manage, calm, focus, redirect, teach.

I love this excerpt from one of the evaluations, and I think it really sums up why we even teach:

"The satisfaction of successfully teaching the class outweighs the stresses that were involved in putting it together."

Find the Short Story Project Instructions by clicking on the link. Adjust it to your own classroom, or gather a group of students together if you don't have a classroom, and sit back and watch what amazing teachers our students can be!

 Linked up on The Weekly Wrap-Up


  1. I'm just stopping by from Weekly Wrap up. It sounds like a wonderful learning experience.

  2. The link doesn't seem to work anymore. Is there another way I can get your short story project instructions?

    1. Absolutely! Send me an email (link on sidebar) and I'll send it to you.

  3. I just discovered this via Pinterest and, oh my stars!! This assignment is exactly what I have been looking for to use in my 12th grade class! Thank you so much! :)

    1. I'm so glad! I'd love to hear how it turns out for you!

  4. I am thoroughly enjoying your blog. I would love more information on your Short Story Project for students.


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