Brighten the gloomy, cold days of the season in your classroom with engaging winter-themed short stories and poems. Whether you’re looking for a quick and relevant read the days before the holiday break or want to kick off the new year with seasonal poetry, this post has it all.
If you’re already feeling the weight of the winter teaching struggle, I feel ya. These winter months can be a challenge for teachers. As if the shorter days and colder temps aren’t enough, it feels like we’re constantly battling something—besides an influx of germs, that is. If we’re not struggling to keep students engaged throughout the pre-winter break chaos, we’re trying to capture their attention amidst the post-winter break blues.
Rock, meet hard place.
Whether you’re looking to transition to or from winter break, this post will help you keep your classroom warm, lively, and full of learning throughout these colder months. Keep reading to learn my recommended list of engaging winter-themed poems and short stories for secondary ELA.
In some cases, winter-themed literature centers around inspiring life lessons, the joys of the holiday season, and the magic of snow-covered landscapes. In others, the focus shifts to emphasis on the dark, cold days, highlighting themes of loneliness, isolation, and even death.
But that dichotomy is exactly what makes teaching texts about winter so fascinating. Use this stark contrast to draw students in, engaging them in an enriching literary experience.
Enhance your students’ engagement and comprehension by encouraging them to actively explore the following aspects as they dive into a winter wonderland of literature.
- Identify Wintery Themes: Have students keep an eye out for the range of themes that resonate with the season’s distinct characteristics, including family and togetherness; holiday and tradition; kindness and giving; love and sacrifice; isolation and solitude; hardship and death; resilience and survival; and nature and beauty.
- Analyze Narrative Tone and Mood: Encourage students to explore the narrative tone and mood established by the winter setting. Is the story gloomy and despairing? Reflective and inspiring? Celebratory and hopeful? Discuss how the author uses the winter backdrop to evoke specific emotions in the reader.
- Search for Seasonal Symbols: Ask students to identify and analyze the symbolic significance of winter elements such as snow, ice, cold temperatures, and gloomy skies. Discuss how these elements contribute to the story’s overall meaning and enhance the reader’s understanding.
- Consider Character Development: Guide students in examining how the winter setting influences a character’s or speaker’s development or perspective. Do the challenges posed by winter lead to isolation and sorrow or introspection and growth? Dig into how authors can use elements of the setting to enhance characterization.
Jack London’s classic “To Build a Fire” invites students into the harsh Yukon wilderness, where an unnamed man faces a relentless battle against the severe winter elements of northern Canada. This story is filled with plenty of suspense as it explores themes of survival, resilience, and the consequences of underestimating nature’s power.
A more lighthearted tale, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” is set against the backdrop of the holiday season. The story follows a young couple facing financial hardship as they search for the perfect Christmas gift for one another. Not only is this story a perfect opportunity for teaching irony, but it also explores the true meaning of love and sacrifice, showcasing the warmth and selflessness that define the season of giving.
While Tan’s “Fish Cheeks” doesn’t feel like an obvious winter tale, it is set against the backdrop of a family’s Christmas Eve tradition. Embarrassed by her Chinese Christmas traditions, the young narrator grapples with cultural differences and self-acceptance. “Fish Cheeks” may be a quick read, but it sure packs a punch, leaving students with plenty to discuss regarding tradition and identity.
TW: This story discusses thoughts of suicide
“The Greatest Gift” is a heartwarming story of George Bailey, a man who, under the weight of life’s struggles, contemplates taking his own life. However, with the help of a mysterious man, George goes on a journey of self-discovery, learning a valuable lesson and restoring his appreciation for life. Sound familiar? It’s the inspiration behind the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life!
In Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams,” the cold, dreary season plays a literal and symbolic role. While the story takes place over several years and seasons, the winter is of utmost significance. It is during the cold Minnesota winters when the protagonist, Dexter Green, first becomes fixated on his “winter dreams,” a representation of his yearning to live a life of luxury, wealth, and social status. Students will have plenty to unpack as they analyze why Fitzgerald chose the winter season to represent Dexter’s aspirations, irony and all.
Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” unfolds against a chilling winter backdrop, as a young, impoverished girl battles the bitter cold while trying to sell matches to make money for her family. Out of desperation, she begins lighting her matches to warm herself until she eventually succumbs to her (surprisingly beautiful) death. The winter serves as both antagonist and metaphor, underscoring the girl’s vulnerability while contrasting the warmth and happiness she longs for.
Looking for holiday-specific winter stories? Check out my list of Christmas-themed short stories.
Winter-Themed Poems for Secondary ELA
“Dust of Snow” by Robert Frost is a short yet powerful 8-line poem that explores how a seemingly small event can lead to a significant change. In this case, a crow shaking off snow onto a man inspires a positive change in his outlook and perspective. The poem is simple yet powerful, making it an excellent choice for discussions on the transformative power of nature in poetry.
In true Billy Collins fashion, he uses this poem to turn something as ordinary as snow in the winter into a revolutionary experience filled with fun and glee. More specifically, the poem is a playful exploration of the joy associated with a snow day from school. This poem offers a lighthearted perspective on winter and encourages students to reflect on the simple pleasures they find in the season.
Susan Cooper celebrates the winter solstice with her acclaimed poem “The Shortest Day.” While many people dread the shortest day of the year, Cooper captures the beauty and magic in the contrasting light and darkness. The poem depicts a sense of hope and celebration as people come together to commemorate one year’s ending and another’s beginning. It’s an excellent choice for students to contrast against more grim literary depictions of winter.
Linda Pastan’s free verse poem “Blizzard” paints a vivid picture of a snowstorm that has seemingly “forgotten how to stop.” The speaker continues creatively describing how the snow shifts the landscape below, from the trees to the patio chairs, helping the reader visualize the blizzard’s impact. The poem gives students plenty of examples of metaphors and personification to unpack, serving as an opportunity to discuss and explore descriptive language and sensory imagery.
Same title, different poem. However, William Carlos Williams’ poem “Blizzard” also captures the intensity and transformative nature of a snowstorm. With vivid imagery and concise language, the poem uses the blizzard as a symbol of new opportunities, the passing of time, and the possibilities of what is before us. Therefore, as much as the poem is about the beauty in the wake of a storm, it also stirs up more philosophical thoughts.
In true Transcendentalist fashion, Emerson crafts a poem in which nature, specifically a snowstorm, is a beautiful yet powerful force of art and creation. Throughout the poem, the snow falls to create true art, forming architecture that profoundly impacts the world it falls upon. To emphasize nature’s power, Emerson highlights how the storm causes day-to-day human activity to cease, underscoring the immense power of the natural forces that shape our existence. This poem is the perfect springboard for teaching transcendentalism.
Sara Teasdale’s “A Winter Blue Jay” is a perfect winter poem for teaching figurative language and sensory details. Full of joyous imagery and a cheerful tone, “A Winter Blue Jay” follows a couple as they happily walk through a beautiful winter scene. The speaker points out various sights they see and experiences they share, all seemingly more wondrous than the last, creating a tone of optimism, love, and happiness.
Just because the weather is a little dreary this time of year doesn’t mean your classroom has to be! By diving into the themes and nuances of winter literature, students can gain a deeper understanding of the human experience and, perhaps, find a new appreciation for the wonders of the season.
Whether students are navigating the Yukon wilderness with Jack London or celebrating the beauty of nature and the simple pleasures of the season with Billy Collins, there is plenty of literature to keep students engaged all winter long.