Short Stories for Middle School

Short stories should make the syllabus when it comes to middle school. So says noted editor, author, and professor Dr. Donald R. Gallo. In his essay Short stories—Long Overdue, Dr. Gallo says short stories can offer readers a most enjoyable literary experience, while providing teachers with a flexible and varied teaching tool. And, he adds, the value of short stories increases when the students are less able or reluctant readers. Short stories put less pressure on these students simply because they are short. That in itself makes them more accessible and doable.

So why do some teachers bypass using this teaching tool in the classroom? Maybe because they believe the shortness inherent in the form doesn’t allow enough time for plot complexity and substantial character development.

Yet those two literary elements do exist in the best short stories for young readers. Granted, the abbreviated development of plot and character in short fiction can make these elements harder to discover and define. But I think the benefits Dr. Gallo describes far outweigh these minor difficulties. And by the way, teachers do not have to put middle school students through a series of short story sprints to adequately challenge them. A slowly paced jog through the best short stories can glean many truths about plot structure and characterization.

“Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”

Take, for example, a story in our Adapted Classics collection. Dig into and carefully sort through the information and clues in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe, and you will be equipped to draw conclusions about the main character’s development. And all your conclusions will be valid if you can defend them using the information and clues the story provides. Here, for example, are my personal conclusions on how Dominicus Pike, the story’s main character, develops as the story unfolds.

Just coincidently, as the story goes, Dominicus himself is all about deducing truths from clues and facts. But not in the beginning. He doesn’t become truly interested in discerning truth until after he is overwhelmed by mystery. At the beginning of the story he is trusting to the point of foolishness. A traveling salesman by trade and storyteller at heart, Dominicus will take news from any source at face value if he can use what he hears to entertain audiences when he passes the news along.

Making Stories with Alternative Facts

Entertainment value trumps sober facts for Dominicus. He is more than willing to embellish the news because doing that helps him tell a better story. Nathaniel Hawthorne didn’t coin or use the term ‘fake news’ – that phrase didn’t come into common usage until just recently. But his character, Dominicus Pike, was perfectly willing, even eager, to employ fake news, which always suited his purpose as an entertainer.

All of this was working quite well for Dominicus as the story begins. He enjoyed telling embellished news stories, and people enjoyed hearing his entertaining renditions of the news. One easily presumes the news he habitually passed along was minor gossip. That’s because the story centers on the mistake he made when he passed along important news. The important news he relayed was both unreliably sourced and hyped. Dominicus had failed to realize that important news demands accuracy and abhors embellishment. He got caught, almost tarred and feathered, when trustworthy news conflicted with his fake news. Nevertheless, stubborn Dominicus persisted in believing his own news report (minus embellishment) despite having to admit to himself the main source of the conflicting news was as reliable and unimpeachable as an angel.

Gleaning for Meaning

I will not divulge the complete ending of this funny, charming mystery story. But Dominicus does unite with the person whose reliable news report had conflicted with his own. This causes me to conclude that Dominicus learned to fully appreciate reliable sources of information. Likely, he also learned entertainment is one thing and important news another. To my way of thinking, his character developed with changes that improved him.

As Dr. Gallo tells it, the short story belongs in the middle school curriculum. Short stories are very accessible for youth, yet important teaching devices. I agree with him completely. In a small way I hope I demonstrated that literary conclusions can be gleaned from short literature.

But for middle school students, and all readers, the very process of gleaning for meaning matters most. I did not consult an authority on how the development of character should be interpreted in Mr. Hawthorne’s wonderful story. Does one exist? I carefully exercised my thinking faculties in gleaning my own interpretation. It’s all mine, so neither right nor wrong. That’s the beauty of literature. Short or long, it lets everyone glean their own interpretations—if they’re allowed to. And don’t you know, it feels sweet when, after carefully thinking things through, you arrive at a conclusion that’s neither right nor wrong.

 

Unnamed character in one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories, Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe

Pondering the news from Dominicus Pike

Portrait of Dominicus Pike, a character in one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories

Dominicus Pike

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