short stories

Can Sci-Fi and Horror Save High School English?

toserveman

“IT’S A COOKBOOK!!!” An image from the Twilight Zone adaptation of “To Serve Man.”

A flying saucer lands on Earth and the alien race the Kanamit bring world peace and turn Earth into a paradise.  But they have a hidden agenda and it’s all contained in a book entitled, “To Serve Man.”

Little Anthony Freemont has psychic powers and uses them to make everyone who crosses him go away … or even worse.  People just have to constantly believe that “It’s a Good Life!”

Our narrator gets a call to get his snowplow truck out and along the way picks up a hitchhiker who initiates a conversation about a serial killer on the loose who has been killing hitchhikers.  He does this “Time and Again.”

A mysterious man who has been living alone in a castle for as long as he can remember decides to break free in search of human contact and light.  He is “The Outsider.”

George Hadley and his wife live in the perfect customized, automated home of the future.  Their children spend their time in a virtual reality room called “the nursery” and are very attached to it.  George thinks that they might be too attached to “The Veldt.”

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea that what I just listed are short summaries of science fiction and horror short stories, each with a plot that has its fair share of twists and turns, sometimes even waiting until the end to reveal that twist.  They’re also stories I have either used or considered using in my English classes.

A couple of months ago, as part of the work I’m doing for my adolescent literacy class, I gave two of my classes an interest survey that asked them about when they read, how often they read, and what they read, as well as what types of movies and television shows they like to watch.  You’d think that by January I would have known this by now, but aside from talking about superhero movies and the occasional blockbuster that most of us have seen or heard of, my students seem to talk more about what they’ve seen from friends on Snapchat lately than anything they happen to be watching or what video game they were playing.

When we did get a conversation going about television or movies, the subject would often turn to science fiction or horror, especially horror.  A number of them watched Stranger Things last fall (as did I) and a few had started watching it.  Many of them had seen the Purge films, and lately have been recommending Get Out (which I think my wife and I plan on seeing once we have a child-free night).  The survey results reflected that–teenagers like horror.

And everyone who was a teenager between 1979 and now just went “Uh … DUH.”

Now, I’ll confess that I’m not a horror aficionado, but I do like a good scary movie from time to time and I’ve seen all of the classics of my youth:  Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th as well as straight-up classics like Night of the Living Dead.  I think I’d also put Psycho in that box, although I can’t tell if that’s a suspense flick or horror.  Anyway, there’s something that’s been universal about being a teenager and plunking down your hard-earned lawn-mowing money to see whatever splatter-fest is in the theater.  To a lesser extent the same can be said for science fiction, as in some cases you’ve got your blockbuster sci-fic/fantasy/action movie (Star Wars, for instance) that a large number of students will go see, but not all of them will sit down and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity, or some other “hard” science fiction.

Anyway, that led me to ask why there isn’t more sci-fi and horror on my curriculum.

There’s definitely some dystopian sci-fi; specifically, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which I personally think is even more relevant in 2017 than it was in 1951 and not just because of the politics contained within (seriously, go reread it and tell me that it’s not a tech nightmare).  But beyond that, I didn’t have much, and when I took a course in YA lit last semester, we read a little sci-fi but completely skipped over horror, to the point where I wondered aloud why we weren’t really touching on the genre.  Oh wait … there’s Poe.  But Poe is well-covered territory in English classes other than mine, so with the exception of the poem “To Helen,” I don’t really touch the guy.  Frankenstein is taught in the twelfth grade course (in fact, when I taught twelfth grade, we read it), and Dracula is another text that is more AP-level.  And Stephen King I’d reserve for options on independent reading because of the pearl clutching that tends to go on during the more dirty parts of The Catcher in the Rye.

As a way to find whole-class reads in the science fiction/horror stable, I started looking for short stories, novels, or stand-alone excerpts from novels.  I tried to find things that were contemporary and found some great stuff (“Patient Zero” by Tanarive Due is freaking amazing), but as I kept looking, the stuff I found was either too sexually explicit or was way too above their level.  So I went to a place where I, as a teenager, found some great science fiction stories:  The Twilight Zone.

I asked “What Zone episodes were adaptations of short stories?”  After all, it seemed to work for “Lamb to the Slaughter” and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. That’s where I found, at a first glance, “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby and “To Serve Man” by Damon Knight.  And I know that what I did was a classic “read the story”/”watch the movie” bit, but it worked pretty well–the class found those stories to be “creepy” or “weird” and liked the twist at the end of “To Serve Man.”  They were able to handle the black and white of those old TV episodes and we even watched the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes of The Simpsons  (the one based on “It’s a Good Life” also features adaptations of “The Monkey’s Paw” and Frankenstein and has one of the best lines of the show–“Dammit, Smithers, this isn’t rocket science; it’s brain surgery!”).  And I have been slowly compiling stories that I may or may not use, plus looking into a couple of novels that might be worth it, including The War of the Worlds (which I have to reread anyway).

But, after 1000 words already, I don’t think I’ve really addressed my topic or thesis or whatever I’m supposed to be calling it (people stopped reading long ago anyway), which is why science fiction and horror are good genres besides their being in my students’ wheelhouse.  Well, if you look at even the laziest-written sci-fi/horror, you’ll see a host of literary devices: allegory, symbolism, metaphor, and universal themes about humanity and human nature.  You can even use them as mentor texts for descriptive writing, like I did with the first chapter of Peter Benchley’s Jaws (h/t to my father, who used to read it aloud to his marine biology class while playing the John Williams music).

None of these strategies, by the way, are anything new, but I think that when English teachers think like English teachers, we have a tendency to think that any short story used in class has to have “literary merit.”  Many of us have been moving away from this mentality in recent years, but I think that it lingers in the back of our minds, especially because so many of us love literature.  But science fiction and horror, with some few exceptions, has been marginalized for decades and never been raised to the level of “literary,” just as sci-fi/horror films rarely, if ever, win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  Yet some of the best discussions I’ve ever had, especially ones that border on philosophical, have come when talking about the consequences of actions in the context of a sci-fi/horror plot.

So as you’re planning for the next semester or year, dive into the realm of scary or weird.  Try out some short stories.  Find some old episodes of The Twilight Zone (which is streaming in various places), The Outer Limits, or even Star Trek (I kinda want to show “The City on the Edge of Forever” but need to build a lesson plan first).  Grab some old pre-code sci-fi/horror comics (you’d be surprised how many tackle important issues, such as prejudice), or simply start a conversation about horror movies in class and see what happens.  You might find it to be more engaging than A Doll’s House.

Oh, btw, there is a twist ending to this post.  High school English doesn’t need saving.  I just put that title there so people would read it.

This has been bad twist ending theater.  Good night.

Advertisements

Killing Trees and Pulling Teeth

The other day, as I was making yet another stack of copies of another short story that my sophomores will be reading in a couple of weeks, I had a thought:  why don’t we have copies of a really good anthology of short works geared toward high school students?  Oh sure, there are English textbooks, but those are bulky, bloated, and are geared toward test prep more than toward teaching literature.  What I mean is a “normal-sized” paperback filld with short stories or essays, something similar to the copies of The Best American ____ I used to be issued for various writing classes in college.

Now, I know that’s probably a dumb thing for me to say because there probably is an anthology out there somewhere and I just have to find it; however, that’s easier said than done.  Where I am, time to do anything is virtually non-existent and so is money for the most part.  So even if I did carve out an hour to search for a collection of stories, I probably would wind up buying one copy and then would find myself once again standing in front of a photocopier making a class set of a short story.  In other words, I’d be right where I was a paragraph ago.

I could always ask my students what they would be interested in reading, but I am not sure that they would know very many short works of literature aside from, perhaps, the occasional poem or the works of Edgar Allan Poe.  Furthermore, when I have such conversations about literature with students, the works they bring up are either inappropriate for the class (i.e., too much sex or foul language, even for me) or are below grade level (i.e., the honors student who tried to submit Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as an independent reading novel).  So I wind up searching things out myself and that leads to the same photocopier, which I am sure is tired of me staring at it while begging it not to jam.

I hear and read a lot about getting reluctant readers to read and a lot of the solutions seem to be geared toward younger students or are extrinsically based (you read books?  Here’s pizza!) and I’m skeptical that they would work for high school sophomores who have had several years of not reading.  Furthermore, these students often focus so much on the length of the work of literature and that can add to the reading battle–I’ve actually heard vocal complaining that a five-page short story is “too long.”  Five. Pages.  How do you even respond to that?

Well, with a photocopier.  And a class set.  And the hope that maybe this will be the story that everyone likes and connects to so that for once a discussion about literature isn’t like pulling teeth.

From the Bookshelf: Teenage Wasteland

 

whos_next-mca11

The cover to “Who’s Next,” the album that contains “Baba O’Reily,” a song that is often mistitled as “Teenage Wasteland” and therefore gives the story its name.

Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections.

 

As I sat down to type this post, I took a glance at the italicized intro that I’ve got at the top of the screen there and realized that this entry is a bit of a cheat because it does come from an English textbook.  However, it doesn’t come from the English textbook that my school district purchased for the 10th grade, so it counts as “outside” the textbook.

Anyway, “Teenage Wasteland” is a story written by Anne Tyler in the 1970s that takes place in what I guess you could have referred to as a “normal” suburban community and features what for the time would have been considered an “average, normal family” of two parents and two kids:  Daisy and Matt and their two children, Donny and Amanda, who both attend private school.  Donny is currently in high school and has been getting into trouble as of late, which is the source of an enormous amount of consternation for Daisy, who can’t understand why her son’s grades are slipping and constantly blames herself.  Eventually, in an effort to solve the problem, Daisy hires a tutor named Cal, who doesn’t seem to tutor and instead allows a group of kids to hang out around his house and tries to dictate what the school and Donny’s parents should do and doesn’t seem to be concerned that Donny’s grades slip even further.  Eventually, Donny gets expelled because beer is found in his locker and while Cal tries to get him to fight the system, Daisy decides she’s had enough and puts him in public school.  Soon after, Donny runs away and the story ends with the feeling that the family is broken in some wayer is known for having a realistic approach to the portrayal of a family (I recently read her novel A Spool of Blue Thread, which was very good) and because the plot is easy to follow and the characters are vivid, this story is a good example of how stories can seem simple yet be much more complex or nuanced.  My students find each of the characters easy to identify because they are not an extraordinary family in any way; furthermore, by making them be a middle/upper-middle class suburban family, Tyler avoids any conflict that the parents may have regarding money and allows for the plot detail that Donny has been through more than one private school (which I am sure is a subtle nod to another troubled teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield).

It’s all “ordinary” in the same way that the Judith Guest’s Jarrett Family are the titular Ordinary People, and that was important at the time because there was a sense (and still is) that “these problems” “don’t happen here,” meaning that bad things don’t happen to people in “nice” neighborhoods.  Crime and the crime brought about by certain drugs is the problem for places you’d see on the news and drinking, smoking and pot … well, that’s not a problem, it’s just kids being kids.

So Donny runs away and in order to figure out how and why this happens, my students and I do two things.  First, we do a character analysis of all five of the characters featured in the story–although to be honest, Donny’s sister, Amanda, is mentioned in passing a few times and rarely, if ever, actually appears, but the fact that she’s constantly ignored is important.  I like the idea of a character-driven story and how you can look at the same events through the eyes of four or five different people, and that allows us to gather the information we need to do the second thing, which is figuring out who’s responsible.

Granted, assigning blame isn’t a hard thing for anyone to do in our culture–I think that half of the content on the internet is devoted to blaming someone for something–but there’s assigning blame and there’s determining responsibility and the latter is a much more informed decision.  After the class has described and discussed each of the characters, working through their strengths and weaknesses, I then ask the question: “Who is responsible for Donny’s running away?” Over the course of our discussion see how Donny, both of his parents, Cal, and “the system” are all responsible for what happens to the kid.  Donny never takes responsibility for his own actions, Daisy is wildly inconsistent when it comes to disciplining her son, Matt really does nothing and basically figures his wife is going to take care of it, Cal is manipulative and seems more concerned with himself, and the system itself can be more punitive than it has to be.

This has, in the past, led to conversations about what makes a good parent, what makes a good teacher or principal, and whether or not kids who get in trouble should be punished for what they do.  And to their credit, my students have very often presented a balanced view and are able to discuss when I push back on some of their points.  There’s a lot to glean from Tyler’s story about how characters can be complex as well as how certain problems can be nuanced and have no easy solution.

Tyler’s stories have never been collected in a single volume and like I said, I got this out of a random English textbook in our book room, but I did find a .pdf copy online.  It’s not exactly “legal” but if you’re interested in reading it you, can read it here:  “Teenage Wasteland”

From the Bookshelf: “Lamb to the Slaughter”

Lamb to the Slaughter

Mary Maloney (Barbara Bel Geddes) prepares to whack her husband over the head with a frozen leg of lamb in the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” version of Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter.”

Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections.

 

“Well,” I said after they’d finished reading the story, “I guess if you wanted me to get into the literary value here, we could talk about pacing in plot and character development and irony. But in all honesty, I just wanted you to read it because it’s fun.” I think that my advanced English class appreciated me saying that after we had finished reading Roald Dahl’s short story “Lamb to the Slaughter,” probably because with two days to go before spring break, they didn’t feel like having a lengthy discussion about figurative language.

And to be honest, I think the story was a little “below their grade level.” But I’ve used the story in 10th grade English for four years now and it always seems to be the one students remember the most and to me that’s because it’s the most fun. If you are familiar with it, “Lamb to the Slaughter” is the story of Mary Maloney, a housewife married to a police detective whose husband comes home from work one day and tells her that he wants a divorce and is leaving her. We don’t know why, just that he told her and that it’s enough for her to grab a frozen leg of lamb from the freezer in the garage and hit him over the head with it. What she does with the leg of lamb afterwards is a master plot twist: Mary cooks it and then later winds up serving it to the police (the best line is one of the last, a police officer saying that the murder weapon is probably right there under their very noses).

The story itself is not in my English textbook. In fact, the stories in the textbook don’t seem to be too particularly entertaining. I have found myself over the last few years taking short stories from other sources–sample textbooks from other publishers, collections I have at home, literary journals and magazine–because a dearth of material provided by our school’s chosen publisher. And I think one of the reasons I’ve been able to use it so well as a teaching tool for literary devices to a “general-level” English class is because it’s an easy read. If you’re not getting stuck on the material, you’ll be able to grasp some of higher-order stuff.

After reading, one thing my students have had fun with is writing the missing scene from the story. Like I mentioned, in Dahl’s story, Mary’s husband telling her that he is leaving her is accompanied by the phrase, “And he told her” and that’s it. There’s no reason given as to why, just that he’s leaving. So having students write a dialogue where he tells her allows them to stretch creatively and also helps teach how to write dialogue properly. I’ve had the obvious (he’s leaving her for another woman) to the crazy (he’s actually a spy or he’s wanted or the mob is after him).

And of course there is a movie. “Lamb to the Slaughter” was adapted into an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” back in the 1960s starring Barbara Bel Geddes. The show fills in that missing portion, but is quite entertaining and really pulls off the irony at the end. And … it’s available on DVD as well as on Hulu (provided the internet in your building is working properly; mine wasn’t last week). I’ve done a classic compare/contrast between the two where we talk about why some aspects of the story were changed. And I suppose if you wanted to go the full nine, you could use this as a way to teach writing plot twists. But it’s also a good story just for the heck of it.