Harness the power of teaching students life lessons in secondary ELA with engaging short stories. Get a head start in your planning with this list of 7 short stories and numerous teaching ideas for bringing life lessons into the classroom.
Whether you teach middle or high school students, you have an important role beyond teaching essential reading and writing skills. As secondary ELA teachers, we can enrich students with knowledge, ideas, and lessons that hold far more meaning than any material in the curriculum and transcend the walls of any classroom. We have a unique and powerful opportunity to expose students to stories that highlight new perspectives, foster empathy, and teach them invaluable life lessons.
By the end of this post, you will have what you need to engage students in short stories that stimulate critical thinking and promote social-emotional learning. Furthermore, these stories encourage moral and ethical development and increase students’ awareness of the world around them. By helping students unpack the life lessons in these stories, we prepare them for life beyond the classroom by empowering them to become responsible, empathetic, and reflective individuals.
Let’s get to it, shall we?
7 Engaging Short Stories for Teaching Life Lessons
1. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Jackson’s short story is perfect for teaching the dangers of blind conformity and herd mentality. (Talk about an important lesson for teenagers!) The story takes place in a seemingly ordinary and pastoral small town where the townspeople gather for the annual tradition of the titular lottery. What seems like a quaint celebration quickly takes a dark turn. Students are always shocked when they realize the “lucky” winner faces a cruel death at the hands of their family, friends, and neighbors. Trust me, they’ll be highly engaged as they explore the dark side of societal norms and unquestioned traditions.
Teaching Idea: Encourage critical thinking by asking students to reflect on the power of social norms and tradition in their own lives. Have them list the traditions and social norms that play a role in their lives before digging deeper and discussing the consequences of blindly following norms without questioning their morality and relevance.
2. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin is a thought-provoking story that will challenge students to explore complex moral and ethical questions about sacrificing the well-being of a few for the happiness of many. In the story, the city of Omelas is depicted as a utopian society where everyone is happy and content—or so it seems. Readers eventually discover this happiness relies on the torment and suffering of a single child who, if saved from their tortuous existence, would cause the perfect society to crumble. It’s even more twisted when readers realize the people of Omelas are aware of the child’s suffering and choose to accept it in exchange for their otherwise utopic existence.
Teaching Idea: Before reading, have students work together to define the ideal utopian society. They should consider everything from societal values and policies to societal structures and institutions. After they present their utopia, pose the question asking what they would be willing to give up to make that perfect world possible. Through questions and discussion, lead students to consider the ethical and moral responsibility of a society.
3. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
O. Henry crafts a moving tale of love, sacrifice, and selflessness. The story follows Jim and Della, a young couple facing financial hardship, searching for the perfect Christmas gifts to give one another. Jim and Della both end up sacrificing their most prized possessions to give the other a meaningful gift. The heartwarming irony is that, by giving up their possessions, the presents they receive are no longer useful; Della sells her beautiful hair to buy Jim a chain for his pocket watch, and Jim sells his prized watch to buy Della a set of combs for her hair. Ultimately, their selfless sacrifice means more than any gift they could have gotten each other.
Teaching Idea: Encourage students to participate in a self-reflective writing activity in which they think about the importance of selflessness in their lives. Have them write about sacrifices others have made for their benefit and times they have sacrificed something for someone they cared about. Follow up with a discussion about the value of making sacrifices for those you love.
4. “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs
While “The Monkey’s Paw” is often associated with teaching the lesson of being careful what you wish for, it also serves as a cautionary tale of the consequences of impulsive actions. After the White family comes into possession of a magical monkey’s paw, they are eager to make three wishes—despite warnings of the paw’s dangerous (and deceiving) powers. They are determined to use their wishes to free them of their hardships and give them the life they’ve always wanted. Sure enough, they quickly learn that every wish comes with unintended and often tragic outcomes.
Teaching Idea: Encourage personal reflection by having students contemplate the consequences of their desires, actions, and decisions. Task them with writing about a time when they wanted something or acted without considering the potential outcomes and what they learned from the experience.
5. “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes
“Thank You, Ma’am” is a widely accessible short story with a powerful life lesson about compassion, second chances, and believing the best in others. If that’s not a lesson anyone could benefit from, I don’t know what is! The story revolves around a teenage boy named Roger and a woman named Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. The two initially “meet” when Roger (unsuccessfully) attempts to steal Mrs. Jones’ purse. Instead of turning Roger in, Mrs. Jones takes in his disheveled appearance and responds with a little tough love and a lot of compassion. While initially confused by her response, Roger ultimately learns right from wrong and the value of honesty, respect, and gratitude.
Teaching idea: Have students (literally) illustrate the moral lesson that small acts of kindness and compassion can significantly impact others. Students can work in small groups to create their own comic strips or storyboards that detail a conflict in which compassion and empathy positively change the situation’s trajectory.
6. “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambara
“Raymond’s Run” revolves around a young girl named Squeaky who spends her time doing two things: training for races and caring for (and protecting) her mentally disabled brother, Raymond. The story follows Squeaky’s interactions with others as she trains for the town’s upcoming May Day race. Despite coming off as overly competitive and abrasive, readers begin to realize it is more of a defense mechanism as Squeaky tries to remain true to herself while fighting off identities others try to project onto her. In the end, the story is about the power of treating others with respect, recognizing their strengths, and accepting them for who they are. After all, while Squeaky ultimately wins her town’s celebratory May Day race, the true victory is in her personal growth and her new views of those around her.
Teaching idea: Since there are a lot of assumptions made in this story, challenge students to think of a time when they projected an identity onto others or when others projected an identity onto them. Then, have them dig deeper by unpacking the impact of making such assumptions and exploring the power of respecting others for who they are rather than who we assume them to be.
7. “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Is the grass always greener on the other side? Fitzgerald would argue no. “Winter Dreams” follows the life of Dexter Green, who is first introduced as a young and ambitious golf caddy. He quickly becomes infatuated with Judy Jones, a wealthy young girl who represents everything he desires: success, wealth, and status. Over the years, Dexter chases his dreams (and Judy) only to eventually realize the objects of his desires are not all he cracked them up to be. Ultimately, the story encourages readers to reflect on the implications of societal expectations and superficial ideals on individual happiness.
Teaching idea: Before reading, have students write their own extended definitions of happiness and success. Then, hold a discussion where students compare their definitions. To make it more relevant and relatable, challenge students to consider how modern-day technology, namely social media, has muddled the meanings of happiness, success, and staying true to oneself.
How to Use Literature to Teach Life Lessons
Now that you have a list of short stories you can turn to when wanting to teach students important life lessons, you may be looking for some ways to get students engaged in the (life) lessons at hand. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Select Relatable Texts: Choose texts featuring relatable characters or challenges to allow students to see themselves in the characters’ shoes, fostering empathy and a deeper understanding of the life lessons woven throughout the story.
- Facilitate Discussions: Guide students in exploring the moral, ethical, and social implications of the characters’ actions and decisions to encourage critical thinking, perspective-taking, and the development of personal values.
- Prompt Character Analysis: Ask students to analyze and evaluate the thoughts, motivations and actions of a story’s characters to provide insights into character development and inspire reflection of students’ experiences and personal growth.
- Assign Reflective Writing: Engage students in reflective writing assignments where they explore how the themes, conflicts, and characters connect to their own lives, encouraging students to internalize the life lessons.
- Connect to Current Events: Apply a story’s life lessons to current events to showcase how the morals of the story play out in the world around us to make the lessons more tangible and relatable.
- Encourage Real-World Application: Take time to help students unpack and explore how the lessons in literature can apply to them and society as a whole, encouraging them to identify opportunities to incorporate these lessons into their daily lives.
Bringing Life Lessons into Your Secondary Classroom
Incorporating short stories into secondary ELA is much more than teaching literary analysis skills. It’s about equipping students with the tools they need to navigate the complexities of life today and tomorrow. It’s about fostering empathy, critical thinking, self-awareness, and ethical decision-making, ultimately preparing students to become informed, compassionate, and responsible individuals.
So, let’s rise together to teach the future generation of kind, caring, moral, and empathetic citizens. That said, if you have any other short story titles or teaching tips for teaching life lessons in secondary ELA, share them in the comments below. For the ultimate list of short stories to teach your students, check out my posts about the best short stories for middle schoolers and the best super short stories your high schoolers will love.