teaching idea: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

When I used Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” with my adult Advanced Level English students (about Gr. 11 equivalent), it was hands-down the most effective short story teaching experience I’ve ever had, with any group of students. There is something about it that still, all these years later, has the power to shock and provoke.

While I was thinking about how I’d approach it with my students–I had taught it before, but with a first-year university group, and while the students admitted it was disturbing and we had a reasonably good discussion, the response wasn’t overwhelmingly more meaningful than other stories we had done–I found this page of teaching ideas. I based what I did loosely on the teaching suggestion by Linda Mizrahi on that page. I think part of the reason it works so well is because guiding the reading process by listening to it in class allows students to really pay attention to the story’s structure and to notice the ways Jackson builds suspense.

First, I put the word “lottery” on the board and asked students to do some word association–write down words they associated, positive or negative, with “lottery.” They did a think-pair-share.

Next, I asked if any of the students had read “The Lottery.” One student had read it a few years back, so I asked her not to reveal the story details to her classmates before we finished reading.

Then I distributed copies of the story and asked students to read along as we listened to this reading by A.M. Homes from the New Yorker website.

I stopped the recording halfway through–after the sentence

Mrs. Hutchison said, grinning, ‘Wouldn’t have me leave m’dishes in the sink, now, would you, Joe?,’ and soft laughter ran through the crowd as the people stirred back into position after Mrs. Hutchinson’s arrival.

–and asked the students to write down 1) their impressions of the story’s setting and atmosphere, and 2) their prediction for what would happen in the 2nd half of the story.

Then we resumed listening to/reading the story until it was finished. After the story was done (the students all looked fairly stunned at the ending) I asked them to write down how they felt now that the story was finished, and to see if their prediction had matched the story’s ending.

After a few minutes I had students volunteer to share their impressions of the story and we had a discussion about it. I asked them to speculate on the theme of the story–what did they think the author was trying to say about human nature and society? Was the story effective? Why?

We ended up talking about the story’s historical time period (just after WWII and the Nazis), about going along with the crowd, about tradition and how sometimes we do things but we’ve forgotten why, about cruelty. It was an excellent discussion and the students were very eager to talk about the story, more eager than they had been for the stories we had discussed in class previously. I am pretty sure this was partly due to the way we read it–reading half of it, stopping to reflect and predict, then continuing.

I think if I were to do this again I would include some information from this article about the letters The New Yorker and Shirley Jackson received in response to the story, and ask them to think about why people might have responded the way they did.

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