Irony can be a hard concept for students to grasp, even when every other word out of their mouth is sarcastic (yes, that’s ironic). Help students understand irony in literature with these short stories.
Teaching Irony the Hard Way
One time I got so enthralled with teaching irony in literature that I stayed up all night writing irony lesson plans, all of which had the same purpose: to convince students that everything in life is ironic (except for things in that song by Alanis Morissette, which is ironic).
After not sleeping for three days and accidentally stapling my hand to a bulletin board, I decided the best way to teach irony in literature is to use the following short stories.
General Irony Definitions
First things first: Teach these basic definitions for irony.
Irony. The difference between what someone would reasonably expect to happen and what actually does happen.
Situational Irony . When one’s efforts produces the opposite results of what was expected
- Example from “The Ransom of Red Chief.” A boy is kidnapped, but instead of the kidnappers demanding money for the kid’s return, the parents demand money to take him back.
- Historical Example: Surrendering guards at the Bastille still managed to kill 98 citizens.
Verbal Irony. A contrast between what is said and what is actually meant
- Literary Example: Prometheus says to Zeus, “You are as kind as you are wise.” Zeus thinks it’s a compliment. Because Prometheus doesn’t think Zeus is wise, it’s actually an insult.
Dramatic Irony. When the audience knows things the characters do not
- Romeo and Juliet Example: We know Juliet has taken a sleeping potion. Everyone else, except Friar Lawrence, thinks she is dead.
- Literature Example: In Horton Hears a Who, we know that Horton really is talking to little people on a bubble, but everyone else thinks he’s crazy.
Irony Lesson Plan
Here’s a chart: Analyzing Irony in Literature
The chart’s pretty self explanatory. Make copies. Hand it out. Discuss irony. Read a story. Maybe do an example. Dazzle your colleagues.
List of Short Stories for Teaching Irony
Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” – Join one of literature’s most unlikeable characters as she ruins her life in a most ironic way.
Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” – First her husband’s dead, which makes her sad but happy. Then her husband’s alive, which kills her. All this takes place in an hour (you may have figured that out from the title). After reading “Story of an Hour,” I started feeling paranoid and plotted to derail a train I was supposed to be on in order to test my wife. The Department of Homeland Security frowns on such activity, so I continued my life as before. Here’s a bunch of stuff for teaching “The Story of an Hour.”
Isaac Asimov’s “The Machine that Won the War” – The ultimate in situational irony as Earth defeats a technologically advanced alien civilization by using the simplest machine ever created — a coin. It’s like the time you got a ‘B’ on your physics test after studying for hours and Donny Dumbbutt got an ‘A’ using a random number generator on the multiple choice and matching sections. Examine statistical anamolies to teach just how ridiculous this victory was. Here are some examples:
- Explain what the odds are of flipping a coin x number of times and coming up with the correct answer each time.
- For sports fans, look up statistical anamolies in sports: Villanova’s shooting percentage in the 1985 NCAA championship game, the Orlando Magic’s 3-point shooting percentage in the 2009 Eastern Conference NBA Finals (yes, I’m a bitter Cavs fan), the odds of David Tyree catching a pass with one hand against his helmet in the 2008 Super Bowl, or me finishing first in the 2008 Gran Pheelasco Sprint Triathlon in Boulder City, NV.
Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” – Yes, I know it’s not a short story. It is, however, a short play with irony. Chauvinistic men don’t learn the mistake of overlooking seemingly unimportant Trifles. (Note to male readers: never strangle your wife’s bird).
Saki's "The Interlopers" - Don't you hate it when clan leaders sign a peace treaty and get eaten by wolves before they tell anyone else? The "Interlopers" makes for good creative writing lesson plans: (1) rewrite the ending; (2) imitate the story's style with a modern day update; (3) write about how the story would be different if cell phones had been invented. If you read "The Interlopers" and want to teach theme, go ahead.
Stephen Crane's "The Blue Hotel" - Don't you hate it when you accuse someone of wrong doing, hire a private investigator, spread lies on the Internet, causing him or her to commit suicide? In "The Blue Hotel," the roles are reversed. A man accuses another of cheating at poker and nobody believes him.
O'Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief" - Anybody who's ever babysat a brat can relate to Red Chief's kidnappers. A prereading discussion on wishing for something, getting it, and wishing you hadn't makes for an engaging discussion, kind of like the time I begged my Mom to let me open a Christmas present the week before Christmas, her not letting me do it, opening the corner of it when she went to the grocery store, and finding it replaced with coal on Christmas morning.
ELA Common Core Standards Covered
Teaching irony in short stories can accomplish the following ELA Common Core Standards. This is for your administrator, not your kids. Kids need student-friendly worded objectives.
- RL.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
- RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
- RL.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone)
- RL.9-10.10 By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9-10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range. By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of the grades 9-10 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
Understanding literary elements is necessary for literary analysis. These short stories will help you teach literary elements.
- The Best American Short Stories
- Short Stories for Teaching Theme
- Short Stories for Teaching Irony
- Short Stories for Teaching Symbolism
- Short Stories for Teaching Conflict
- Short Stories for Teaching Foreshadowing
- Short Stories for Teaching Imagery
- Short Stories for Teaching Characterization