9th Grade Lit: American Short Stories and Essays

Dear Reader,

As I work my way through my children, I am slowly editing the original plan I used for 9th grade literature for my eldest. My second is just finishing up her freshman year. She had already had some exposure to the authors he studied so I ended up shortening some sections and adding new ones. The topic I have chosen for their 9th grade year is “American poetry, short stories and essays.” I prefer to go through them all chronologically, interspersing the poetry with the longer works, but for the purposes of this post, I am going to give you the short stories and essays. Look for a post on poetry soon and for 10th grade lit which is when we do American novels.  Before getting into the meat of it, I should add that I combine this material with Life of Fred grammar and Spelling Wisdom  for dictation to make a 9th grade English course.


9th Grade Literature: American Short Stories and Essays

Washington Irving

Irving is really the beginning of American literature. That is, he is the first to consciously make American literature. His stories are fun to read and are probably familiar so they make a great introduction to our course as well. I used a couple of different books for the text of the tales themselves. It doesn’t really matter what edition you use for most of these authors. Just make sure it is the original, unabridged text.

I stumbled upon Sterling’s edition [The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories by Washington Irving; illus. by Scott McKowen (Sterling Unabridged Classics, 2013)] at our local library. It has discussion questions in the back for all the tales in the book. While I was selective in which ones I chose, I found these an excellent resource so I highly recommend trying to find this specific edition, if not for the texts, at least for the questions. Because these stories are so accessible, they can be studied with younger children as well (I initially did “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Specter Bridegroom” with all my children). Find this info in a Google document here.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

  • Read the story and write an essay answering the following questions: Compare Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones. How are they similar? How are they different? Which man do you think Katrina should have chosen? Is Ichabod a hero? Why or why not?

“The Devil and Tom Walker”

  • Read the story and write and essay addressing the following: Discuss Tom Walker’s fate and his wife’s. How were they alike? How were they different? What do you think happened to the wife?

“Rip Van Winkle”

  • Read the work. Discuss what changes from before Rip’s long nap and after. What has changed in Rip’s life? What has changed in the country? How have the townspeople changed? What do you think this is saying about the new post-Revolution America? What might Rip’s wife represent? (spoiler: bossy mother England) Are things better or worse post-Revolution (or for Rip post-nap)?

“The Specter Bridegroom”

  • Read the story. This is a lesser known work but we really enjoyed it. There is a lot of humor here. We loved the accomplished young lady who could write her name so well even her own aunts could read it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

We’re getting into a lot tougher stuff after Irving. Emerson is hard; many of his contemporaries didn’t understand him. Yet he is pretty big in the history of American writing. My solution is to be pretty selective and to read excerpts.


I used Mr. Gunnar’s notes for this work. The portion on “Self-Reliance” can be found here. I divided the assignment up into four sessions. The numbers refer to Mr. Gunnar’s discussion questions (see this document).

  • Read through the essay (that is, the portion Gunnar uses). Go through paragraph by paragraph and write briefly what you think the major points are.
  • Reread the first paragraph and answer questions 3 and 4.
  • Answer questions 8, 9, and 10.
  • Write and essay summing up Emerson’s ideas and giving your own reaction to them.

“Nature” chapter 1

I used the text from Emerson Central and discussion questions that I originally got from Mrs. Mammana’s website at Darien Public Schools. Unfortunately the latter appears to no longer be available online. So instead, you can find my version here.

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau follows close on the heels of Emerson, chronologically and idealistically. The two were friends and Emerson encouraged Thoreau. I highly recommend the series of picture books on Thoreau by D.B. Johnson. Even older children can read these to get a brief intro to Thoreau’s life. He is one author whose life is highly relevant to his works. Another fun intro to his life which I recommend is Porcellino’s Thoreau at Walden which presents key events in a cartoon like format. While we discussed the events of Thoreau’s life and have in the past visited Walden Pond and the reconstruction of his cabin there, we didn’t actually read any of Walden beyond the bits in the books I have mentioned.

“Resistance to Civil Government”

I relied on Mr. Gunnar again for this one. His page is here. The relevant discussion questions are in a document here.

  • Read the first two paragraphs and answer questions 3, 4, and 5.
  • Read the third through 5th paragraphs. Answer questions 7 and 10.
  • Read the rest of the essay. Answer questions 11, 12 and 13.
  • Answer questions 16 and 17.

Various Quotes

I printed out a page of Thoreau quotes and chose a few for my son to comment on. You could also let the student choose or pick others of course.

  • Read the quotes that begin “I know of no more encouraging fact . . .” and “The finest qualities of our nature . . .” Discuss what each of these means.
  • Read the quote that begins “No way of thinking or doing . . . ” Copy it. Tell what it means. Tell if you agree.

Edgar Allan Poe

Because this post needed a picture . . .

Whew. If you’ve had enough of transcendentalists, it’s time for something completely different. Poe is fun. Poe is scary. Poe is just plain weird. Kids like him.

“The Black Cat”

  • This story and discussion questions were on Mr. Gunnar so I used it. The relevant portion is here. I didn’t have my son write out answers for this story. Instead I had him read the story in one sitting and then asked him the questions and we discussed.

For the other Poe stories I used the edition illustrated by McKowen [The Stories of Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe; illus. by Scott McKowen (Sterling Pub., 2010)] and relied upon his discussion questions. If the stories were longer, we took a few sittings to read them and then discussed at the end.

“The Tell-Tale Heart”

  • Read the story. Is the narrator a madman? Why did he kill the old man? How is he caught? Was there really anything to be heard to give him away?

“The Masque of the Red Death”

  • Read the story and answer questions #4 and 8 from McKowen’s edition.

“The Purloined Letter”

  • Read the story. This is a longer story and will likely take more than one sitting. As you go along then, ask what the student(s) think the answer will be: Where is the letter?

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

  • Read the story and answer questions #5 , 7 and 13 from McKowen’s edition.

“The Cask of Amontillado”

  • Read the story and answer questions #6, 12 and 14 from McKowen’s edition. What was the fued between the two men?

“The Pit and the Pendulum”

  • Read the story and answer questions #9 and 15 from McKowen’s edition.

At this point we had reached the end of what my son did but I wanted to add more for my daughter. I had her read one story by each of the following authors just to give her a taste of their work. I found a wonderful book at my library, The Greatest American Short Stories, ed. Arthur Grove Day (New York: McGraw Hill, 1953). The book has questions on each story in the back which I used or modified some of them though many others I rejected.

James Thurber

I knew this story only from the Looney Tunes version. I found the original much more depressing but enjoyed it. Let me know what you think happens at the end. I have my own idea on that as well as on what the pocketa pocketa is.

Read “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

  • Think about the names in the story. Do people’s names fit them?
  • What do you think is the significance of the pocketa pocketa sound?
  • What do you think happens at the end of the story?
  • List the qualities of the real life and fantasy Mitty‘s.
  • What is Mitty in his fantasies that he is not in real life?
  • Look at how the dream and real life sequences are written. Are there stylistic differences?
  • What is the effect of this?
  • What is this story saying about masculinity? How would the author define being masculine?

John Steinbeck

Of course Steinbeck was a prolific author and has many longer works as well, one of which is included in my 10th grade literature curriculum. For now we are just getting an introduction. “Leader of the People” features Jody, a boy known from some of Steinbeck’s other works, the best known of which is The Red Pony.
Read Steinbeck’s “Leader of the People”
  • Who changes most is this story?
  • What do the dad and grandfather represent?
  • Why does Jody give up on the mouse hunting?
  • What do you think the theme of message of the story is?

William Faulkner

I remember reading and liking (though not always understanding) Faulkner when I was in high school. I don’t think I’ve read anything of his since.

Read “The Bear

  • Why does the boy get rid of his gun, watch, compass and stick?
  • What do you know about Sam Fathers? What significance does his heritage have?
  • They say that stories can have 3 kinds of conflicts: man vs man, man vs self or man vs nature. Which kind is this? Are you sure?

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] and poetry” which is in fact what we do in 9th grade. You can read about how we do that here and here (link coming soon). My son has been doing Great American Bestsellers in 10th grade (link […]


  2. […] do for 9th grade literature. You can find part 1, which covers American short stories and essays, here. In truth, I interweave the two and go chronologically, but it seemed easier to blog about them one […]


  3. […] for the second. There is a lot of depth to these stories so they can be read again by teens (see this post on high school literature). Elementary […]


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