For decades the short story has been a hallmark of the middle school Language Arts classroom. Short stories are so versatile that they can be taught as a whole unit, used to review a skill, or featured as a complement to a writing unit or novel study.
Below is a run-down of 11 of the best short stories for middle schoolers. For each story below, you will find a short summary and some teaching tips for easily integrating the story into your curriculum.
The Tell-Tale Heart
“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe is a psychological thriller appropriate for middle school students. The story is from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who starts the story as the simple caretaker of an elderly man but ends as the old man’s murderer. The plot of the story describes the narrator’s descent into madness and the steps he takes before, during, and after the vicious crime. The end of the story is often a horrific surprise for readers as Poe outlines how his narrator covers up the murder and subsequently confesses his crime to the police.
This story is one of Poe’s shortest stories, so it is easy to add to an already established unit of study. This text is perfect for helping students understand the concept of an unreliable narrator. The short length and engaging characters also keep students motivated in going back to the text to find evidence.
The Yellow Wallpaper
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a classic short story from the 1860s that describes a young woman who slowly succumbs to mental illness. In the beginning of the story, readers learn that the narrator is going to spend the summer at a country estate with her husband (who is also her doctor) and her sister-in-law in an attempt to help her recover from “nervous depression” after the birth of her baby. While at the country house, the narrator becomes more and more obsessed with the unique yellow wallpaper in her bedroom. She thinks there is a woman trying to escape from the wallpaper. By the end of the story, the narrator has succumbed to her mental illness and believes she can free the woman in the wallpaper.
While this tale can be heavy for middle school students, it is a great story to use to teach theme and symbolism. Gilman was a women’s rights activist from the late 19th century, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” represents some of her beliefs in both women’s rights and social reform. This story could be used as a cross-curricular pairing to a social studies unit on social reform or activism.
Thank You, M’am
“Thank You, M’am” by Langston Hughes is a short story with only two characters: Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones and Roger. At the beginning of the story, Roger tries to steal Mrs. Jones’ purse as she walks down the street one evening, but he is unsuccessful. Surprisingly, Mrs. Jones then invites the boy back to her house where she feeds him and talks to him. During their conversation, Roger tells Mrs. Jones that he was trying to steal her purse so he could buy blue suede shoes. Mrs. Jones gives him the money and then asks him to leave so she can get some rest.
This story is a short, manageable piece for many levels of readers. Students are often surprised by Mrs. Jones’ empathy, making the piece a great conversation starter about character motivation. Hughes’ work could also be used to teach theme or as a comparison to one of his famous poems.
“The Landlady” by Roald Dahl follows the events of young Billy Weaver, a seventeen-year-old budding businessman from London, as he finds a place to stay in Bath, England. Billy decides to stay at a bed and breakfast, and after arriving, he converses with the owner, only known as The Landlady, for much of the evening. The engrossing part of this story is the details that are slowly revealed to the reader about The Landlady’s sinister actions. Over the course of the short story, readers learn about missing boys, stuffed pets, and Billy’s tea that “tasted faintly of bitter almonds.” At the end of the story, the reader has to decide what happens to Billy Weaver.
This text is great for teaching or reviewing inferencing. Since Roald Dahl never tells us exactly what happens to the main character, students have to use their inferencing skills to make decisions about the resolution. Middle school students could get really engaged with an activity where they had to put the Landlady on trial for murder, using evidence from the text to prove that she is either innocent or guilty.
“The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury chronicles the lives of George and Lydia Hadley and their two children, Wendy and Peter. The Hadley’s live in an automated house called the Happylife Home where even the simplest functions of tying your shoes or walking up the stairs are done for you. The nursery, another automated element of the house, can be transformed into any location complete with the sounds, smells, and sensations of the whereabouts. The plot of the story revolves around Mr. and Mrs. Hadley’s concern over the children’s favorite nursery location, the African Veldt which portrays a violent, harsh scene. By the end of the story, Wendy and Peter lock their parents inside the veldt. The last scene of the story leaves readers watching the children enjoy a picnic in the nursery with no sign of their parents anywhere.
This story is a good option to use to study suspense, foreshadowing, and the use of dialogue. The story is long, but from the first lines, Bradbury establishes a sense of foreboding. Students could track how Bradbury develops the suspense and leads his readers to the perverse end of the story. Since Bradbury has several other short stories appropriate for middle school readers such as “All Summer in a Day,” students could also use this work as a part of an author study.
The Monkey’s Paw
“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs is well worth the read. Part 1 of the story introduces the reader to the main characters and the magical monkey’s paw. According to legend, the paw will give three different men three wishes, but the White’s good family friend, Sergeant-Major Morris, claims that the paw is cursed and throws the object into the fire. Mr. White rescues it and–after much debating with his family–decides to wish for 200 pounds to pay off his debts. In Part 2, Mr. and Mrs. White learn that their son has been killed in an accident at work, but his employer will give the family 200 pounds to make up for their loss. During part 3, Mrs. White wishes for her son to return, and a zombie-like figure appears at the kitchen door. Mr. White then makes the final wish, and while readers never really find out what that third wish was, the terrible knocking disappears, and we can make some pretty good guesses.
While this story is longer than others, it is a great piece to use to study plot development and tone. In addition to just identifying the basic plot elements of the story, you could use it to teach the idea of a “catalyst” for plot events. W.W. Jacobs also uses a great variety of rich vocabulary to develop the mood and plot. There are stark contrasts between the tone at the end of Part 1 and the beginning of Part 2, so just that short excerpt could be used for a deeper dive into tone.
Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a classic short story that middle school teachers have been teaching for years. This story takes place in a fictitious small town on a beautiful summer day. This town has a long-standing tradition of an annual lottery, and the story outlines what happens during this twisted, ironic, and futile ceremony. Readers eventually learn that Tessie Hutchinson “wins” the lottery, but her prize is actually to be stoned to death by all of the town’s residents. Jackson uses many details and extensive dialogue to draw out the event and build suspense for the reader.
There are so many great ways to use this short story in a middle school classroom. It would be a great introduction to a study of dystopian literature (think The Hunger Games), a discussion starter on herd-mentality, or a mentor text for using close reading to identify how author’s build suspense.
“Desiree’s Baby” by Kate Chopin is a short story from the late 1800s that explores the impact of race in Creole Louisiana. Desiree Valmode, the main character of the story, was abandoned as a baby and adopted by her loving parents who struggled to have their own children. Most of the story chronicles Desiree as an adult as she falls in love with the handsome and wealthy Armand Aubigny, a local plantation owner. When Desiree and Armand have their first child, everything is wonderful at first. However, when the baby is several months old, Armand realizes his son has darker skin and it must be because his wife has black heritage. He refuses to acknowledge his wife or son because of his racism. Desiree, completely distraught, leaves her husband with her son and disappears into the Louisiana bayou, never to be seen again. In the final lines of the story, Armand reads a letter from his deceased mother, revealing that it was he and not his wife who had black lineage.
This story is a challenging text due to its sensitive topics, but its relevance in today’s society is sure to engage middle school students. This story is one that should be used in class (not as homework) and could spark great conversation on race, the history of race relations in the US, and themes of racism and sexism in society.
The Story of An Hour
“The Story of an Hour” is another classic short story by Kate Chopin. The setting literally revolves around one hour of time. Set in the late 19th century, Chopin highlights the lack of rights women had during the time period. The main character, Mrs. Louise Mallard, learns from her sister and a friend that her husband, Mr. Brently Mallard, was killed in a railroad accident. For much of the rest of the story, Mrs. Mallard locks herself in her bedroom and struggles with her emotions regarding her husband’s death. While her sister fears that she is making herself ill with grief, Mrs. Mallard is in fact feeling “free” that she is no longer under the control of a man. However, when Mr. Mallard suddenly walks in the front door, Mrs. Mallard does suddenly die, perhaps from grief about the loss of her newfound freedom.
Since “The Story of an Hour” is a very short text of only about 1,000 words, it is a good text to use for students to practice their annotation skills. This story could also be used as a study in perspective. What would the story look like written from a different character’s point of view?
The Treasure of Lemon Brown
“The Treasure of Lemon Brown” by Walter Dean Myers is a short story about Greg Ridley, his problems with school, and a mysterious old man named Lemon Brown. At the beginning of the story, Greg leaves his Harlem home upset over his grades and how he won’t get to join the basketball team. He wanders to an abandoned tenement where he meets Mr. Lemon Brown, a homeless man who used to be a famous blues musician. While he talks with the man, three other men enter the building carrying a pipe, wanting to steal Lemon Brown’s “treasure” that he always talks about. Greg and Lemon work together to outsmart the thieves. Lemon then shows Greg his treasure: a harmonica and newspaper clippings his deceased son carried with him to war. Eventually, Greg leaves the tenement with a new mindset and appreciation for the strict nature of his father.
This story is full of rich vocabulary, character details, and conflict. The multiple types of internal and external conflict would make this a great story for analyzing the impact of conflict on a character’s decisions.
The Open Window
“The Open Window” by Saki is one of his shortest stories, but it still has some of his classic elements. The story begins with Mr. Framton Nuttel arriving at the home of Mrs. Sappleton and her 15-year-old niece, Vera, for a doctor-ordered retreat to the country. Vera greets Mr. Nuttel and tells him the tragic story of the open window. Three years earlier, Mrs. Sappleton’s husband and two brothers went out hunting and never returned. The widow keeps the window open each day in hopes that they will have a way to enter the house if they need to. Mrs. Sappleton eventually comes downstairs and starts a conversation with Mr Nuttel, telling him that she is waiting for her husband and brothers to arrive. Mr. Nuttel thinks she has lost touch with reality until he sees three figures walking across the lawn. In a frightened panic, Mr. Nuttel flees the house, thinking he just saw three ghosts.
This story is such a fun option for middle school students because they often miss Vera’s deception at first and think they are really reading a ghost story. Once students figure out Saki’s true intentions, this story is perfect for analyzing details and the author’s craft. It is also great for discussing the history of the Edwardian Era and the impact of strict social laws during the time period.