CommonLit Secondary Classrooms Explore 7 Engaging Secondary Texts by Famous Authors

Looking for compelling new lessons to add to your ELA curriculum? CommonLit’s digital library has hundreds of short stories by famous authors. Our guiding questions will help prepare students for reading assessments and foster engaging discussions about important themes such as identity, morality, free will, friendship, and family.

The Jacket” by Gary Soto (6th grade)

Author, poet, and memorist, Gary Soto, is well known for stories that reflect his own experiences growing up. In this short story, Soto recounts the time he received a green vinyl jacket from his mom. Embarrassed by the jacket, he blames it for a series of unfortunate experiences, but over time, he recognizes the jacket was a constant companion when others had let him down.

As students read, have them take note of how Soto’s feelings towards the jacket change over time. Have students respond to Discussion Question 3, “In ‘The Jacket,’ the narrator blames the jacket for his ‘bad years.’ Do you think that the ugly jacket was actually responsible for the speaker's ‘bad years’? What could the speaker have done differently to improve those years?

Thank you, M’am” by Langston Hughes (7th grade)

In this short story for middle school students by Langston Hughes, a well known poet, social activist, and novelist, Roger tries to steal  Mrs. Jones’ purse to buy himself a pair of shoes.Mrs. Jones realizes Roger needs help so she takes him back to her apartment and tells him about her experiences doing bad things too. Before he leaves, she gives him $10 and warns him not to steal again.

After reading, have students respond to Discussion Question 2, “In your experience, what kind of people and experiences change us for the better? Is punishment or kindness more effective at helping people change? Encourage students to cite evidence from this text, their own experience, and other literature, art, or history in their answers.”

The Landlady” by Roald Dahl (8th grade)

In this short story by novelist and poet, Roald Dahl, Billy Weaver checks into a bed and breakfast while traveling for work. Despite feeling uncomfortable after meeting the landlady, Billy decides to stay the night. As they discuss two of her previous guests during tea time, Billy soon realizes he is in grave danger.

Boost reading comprehension skills by having students respond to Discussion Question 1, “In this text, Roald Dahl never outright states the landlady's dark secret or reveals the fate of Billy and the other boys – what is the effect of this? How does it contribute to the suspense of the story?”  If you want students to work on their writing skills, have students write an alternate ending to the story.

Two Kinds” by Amy Tan (9th grade)

In this excerpt from The Joy Luck Club, June recounts how her mother was determined to make her daughter into a prodigy. After being forced to learn piano, June purposefully sabotages her performance to rebel against her mother. Later in life,  June reflects on her childhood and reconciles her mother’s ambitions with her own.

Pair this excerpt with the poem “Mothers” by Nikki Giovani. Ask students to discuss each text’s portrayal of mothers through the eyes of a child. What does it mean to “consciously [see]” someone? When does June “consciously [see]” her mother? How does growing older change the way children view their parents?

Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell (10th grade)

Novelist, poet, and critic, George Orwell, describes the time he was forced to shoot an elephant while working as a police officer in imperialized Burma. He responded to a call of an elephant that killed a man while terrorizing a village. He struggled to make the decision to shoot the elephant, but admits that he had to do it to avoid looking like a fool to the villagers.

As students read, have them take note of how the narrator's personal beliefs conflict with his actions. Lead students in a class discussion using Discussion Question 3, “In the essay, the narrator knows that he shouldn't kill the elephant, but does so anyway. Why does he do this? Describe a time when you knew something was wrong, but you did it anyway. What was the motivation behind your actions?”

The Black Cat” by Edgar Allen Poe (11th grade)

In this first person point of view story, an alcohol-fueled narrator descends into madness over his resentment towards his black cat. After killing the black cat, his wife brings home a stray cat which puts him in a fit of rage. As he attempts to kill the new cat, he ends up killing his wife and leaves a gruesome scene for the police to find.

Use suggested paired texts such as “The Fly” by Katherine Mansfield to extend your lesson. Ask students to compare what the insect and the cat symbolize in each story. Why do the main characters abuse the creatures? What does this use of violence say about each man? What is the significance of not naming either of the main characters?”

Shopping” by Joyce Carol Oates (12th grade)

In this short story by famous author Joyce Carol Oates, Mrs. Dietrich takes her teenage daughter Nola to the mall for their annual back to school shopping trip. As they shop, Mrs. Dietrich struggles as she reflects on how their relationship has changed since Nola gained independence. Despite trying to avoid her feelings, Nola becomes overwhelmed with emotion as they leave, and Mrs. Dietrich takes the opportunity to comfort her daughter.

After reading, have students complete Discussion Question 3, “In the context of the text, what makes a family? How do changes within families affect parents and children? Cite evidence from this text, your own experience, and other literature, art, or history in your answer.”

Next Steps

Looking for more texts by famous authors to support reading comprehension for your secondary students? Check out the CommonLit library!

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