Short Essays For Teens
Update: March 1, 2012: This post is so popular and so large that we have permanently moved what’s here to our new page, Great Read-Alouds From The New York Times. Please bookmark that as we’ll continue to update it with more ideas and resources.
In May 1997, a small reading task force at NEA came up with a big idea. “Let’s create a day to celebrate reading,” the group decided. “We hold pep rallies to get kids excited about football. We assemble to remember that Character Counts. Why don’t we do something to get kids excited about reading? We’ll call it ‘NEA’s Read Across America’ and we’ll celebrate it on Dr. Seuss’s birthday.” And so was born on March 2, 1998, the largest celebration of reading this country has ever seen.
—National Education Association
March 3, 2011 | Updated With Added 2011 Selections
In celebration of Read Across America Day, and of World Read-Aloud Day, both in early March, we offer engaging, short Times essays, articles, op-eds and humor pieces on a range of topics for teachers, parents or students to read aloud.
Many of our picks are pieces that someone on the Learning Network staff has field-tested with real, live middle and high school students over the years — though we hope our choices will just be the starting point.
What Times articles, essays or Op-Eds past or present would you recommend for a read-aloud? What categories are we missing? Tell us here!
And if you’re wondering why one should read aloud at all, what you do before or after, or whether there’s such thing as a class too old or advanced to be read aloud to (answer: no), you can find resources here. Or read French author, parent and former teacher Daniel Pennac on the 10 “Rights of the Reader,” especially #9 “The right to read out loud” (PDF). Here is an imagined conversation from his book:
Me: “Did your parents read out loud to you when you were a little girl?”
Her: “Never. My father traveled a lot and my mother was much too busy.”
Me: “So how come you like reading out loud?”
Delighted that someone’s got something positive to say about school, I burst out: “A-ha! You see!”
Her: “It’s not what you’re thinking. School banned us from reading out loud. They made us read silently, even then. Direct from the eye to the brain was the theory. Simultaneous transmission. Quick, efficient. With a comprehension test every ten lines. Analysis and commentary from the word go. Most of the kids were scared witless, and that was just the beginning. I got all the answers right, as it happens, but back home I’d read everything aloud.”
Her: “Because it was so amazing. The words sprang to life as I said them, and took on an existence outside of me. It felt like an act of love. I’ve always thought that a love of reading is directly linked to love itself. I’d tuck my dolls up in my bed, where I was meant to be, and read to them. Sometimes I fell asleep at their feet on the carpet.”
Great “Read-Alouds” From The New York Times
About the Pleasures of Reading Aloud in General: “A Father-Daughter Bond, Page by Page,” in which a single father turns shared reading into a shared language and tradition with his daughter by reading aloud to her every night until she leaves for college.
Cliques and Teenage Social Life:“Yes, I’m in a Clique” is a 1999 Op-Ed piece by high school freshman Nathan Black of Littleton, Colorado, written just after the Columbine shootings. “Advice; Teen Angst? Nah!” was written by author Ned Vizzini when he was a high school junior in 1998.
Portraits of People and Professions: Corey Kilgannon’s 2003 “Not a Good Day to Be the Mailman” and Vincent M. Mallozzi’s 2010 “He Clips Hair, Not Conversation,” about the world’s oldest barber, are both great stories about New York characters. Charlie LeDuff’s 2004 “2 Clean Uniforms, Owners’ Fates Unknown” brings home the war in Iraq through the eyes of a dry cleaner in California.
Controversies That Interest Kids: The 2007 article “Are Your Jeans Sagging? Go Directly to Jail” and our accompanying lesson plan were among the most popular reads on our site that year, while this one by Ian Urbina, about a 6-year-old disciplined for bringing his spork to school, was the third most-viewed article on NYTimes.com in 2009. Update: a teacher in Massachusetts tells us that she read this piece, about eliminating the senior year of high school, aloud to her students this week with great success.
On Mandatory Reading: In “Summer Bummer,” Joe Queenan reflects on his son’s and his own summer reading experiences. (“For as long as anyone can remember, well-meaning pedagogues have been sabotaging summer vacations by forcing high schoolers to read “Lord of the Flies,” “All the King’s Men” and “A Separate Peace.”)
Kids and Media: Humorist Andy Borowitz wrote an Op-Ed called “Why Johnny Can’t Blink” in 1999, while 2010 brought this news (with which you might use our accompanying lesson plan). Update: a New York City teacher wrote us to say her students also enjoyed “Texting May Be Taking a Toll.”
Science: The Science Times is full of so many read-aloud possibilities every week that we encourage you to go there yourself first. But if we were going to recommend a few, we’d go with Natalie Angier’s 2008 “The Wonders of Blood,” Benedict Carey’s 2007 “Brainy Parrot Dies, Emotive to End,” Dennis Overbye’s 2005 “Remembrance of Things Future: The Mystery of Time” (“There was a conference for time travelers at M.I.T. earlier this spring. I’m still hoping to attend…”), or his descriptive 2008 article “First Stars Were Brutes, but Died Young, Astronomers Say.”
Life’s Little Annoyances: The City Room Blog has a section called “Complaint Box” in which people like high school junior Dylan Quinn rail against things like those impossible-to-open plastic packaging cases. And if you want to write your own complaint, we have a lesson plan to help.
Love and Romance: Alan Feuer recasts Missed Connections ads from newyork.craigslist.org as poems in the 2010 “I Was the One Reading Andrew Marvell. You Were . . .”, while Charles H. Antin wrote in 2009 about his grandfather friending his ex-girlfriend on Facebook in “The Boundaries of a Breakup.”
Crime and Punishment A reader suggests this category, and says her students were interested in this recent story about a day in the life of the pay phone outside Queens Criminal Court. We also recommend columnist Bob Herbert, who often covers the relationship between teenagers, especially black and Latino teens, and the police. (Update: Mr. Herbert’s March 2, 2010 column here is also on this topic.) And this 2010 piece, “A Glimpse Inside a Troubled Youth Prison,” tells the story of one boy’s experience in a New York state juvenile prison.
Race, Class, Gender and Identity: Though there are literally thousands of pieces we could have chosen here, some that came to mind first were stories about teenagers. For example, Andy Newman’s 2007 “Journey From a Chinese Orphanage to a Jewish Rite of Passage,” Tamar Lewin’s 2000 “Growing Up, Growing Apart,” Mirta Ojito’s 2000 “Best of Friends, Worlds Apart,” or Frank Paiva’s 2005 “A Prince Charming for the Prom (Not Ever After, Though).”
Sports: We’d love reader recommendations here, but we’ll start the ball rolling with George Vecsey’s 2004 column “Dear Boston Red Sox: Win Already. Now. Please?”Update: In honor of Canada’s win in the Olympics, we also suggest this article about their triumph and about the place of hockey in Canadian culture.
Great Lives Columns: Short, beautifully written and often hilarious, this weekly series in the back of the Sunday Magazine will almost always yield a great read-aloud. Here are three recent favorites: “The Subject of the Sibling,”“Finding That Song” and “Disco Papa.”
Learning Network Weekly Fill-Ins: Each week we choose a high-interest recent article, about everything from pythons to “The Simpsons” and “New Moon” to Halloween houses of horror and drop out some of the words in the first several paragraphs. You might try reading the original pieces aloud to students—especially, perhaps, E.L.L. or other students for whom Times articles are difficult—then have them choose from the list of words that were removed to reconstruct what they’ve just heard.
And finally, to honor Dr. Seuss, the inspiration for Read Across America, you might read aloud either A.O. Scott’s 2008 “Saving Who-Ville Is a Big Production” (“What distinguishes ‘Horton Hears a Who!’ from the other recent Dr. Seuss film adaptations is that it is not one of the worst movies ever made”) or Thomas Friedman’s 2007 column in which he writes, “Maybe Dr. Seuss, in ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ offered the best way to sum up the Middle East today.”
Update | New Selections, Added March, 2011:
Read-Alouds on Read-Alouds: It seems lots of people caught the read-aloud bug this past year, from our nation’s leaders to actors inspired by the Icelandic bank crisis and “The Great Gatsby.” Read about students reading aloud from “Paradise Lost” and “War and Peace” and consider creating your own reading marathon using whatever work you are currently studying — a move of which Curious George, spokesmonkey for the Library of Congress’s public service campaign encouraging parents to read with their children, would approve.
Revolution in the Middle East: Use read-alouds to help history-in-the-making come alive for your students. Share the words of Times columnists like Thomas Friedman or Nicholas Kristof, and personal accounts like this one and others from the Opinionator blog’s “Crisis Points.” One idea is to take quotations from some of these pieces, as well as from news articles about the uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain and Libya and write them on slips of paper. Hand them out to students and do a “read-around,” “spirit read” or “popcorn read” to get a sense of the multiple voices currently at play in the Middle East. (Use our lesson on upheaval in the Middle East to help students get a handle on what’s going on in the Middle East in general.)
From the Blogs: Times bloggers have strong voices and address topical, interesting, and sometimes bizarre subjects perfect for read-alouds.
- The Motherlode blog addresses topics – often controversial ones — relating to children, teens and parents.
- Diners Journal has some fun food writing for reading aloud, like this Q and A with Andrew Simmern about eating bugs, which is sure to gross out students if read before or after lunch.
- Finally, Schott’s Vocab offers engaging definitions of interesting words and holds contests, like one in which “co-vocabularists” were invited to design greeting card slogans fit for the times in which we live, for sharing out loud.
Portraits of People and Professions: Corey Kilgannon’s “Mr. Mummy, at Home in the Bronx” and Ken Plutnicki’s “Doris from Rego Park Lives on in Song” are great stories about New York characters. Use our lesson “Putting Personality on Paper: Writing About People Using Times Models” to encourage students to write their own stories about interesting local characters. Take, for example, the Books of the Times profile of Jay-Z, which will fascinate students and lends itself to lessons on both poetic devices and the writing process.
Exploring Tone with the Times: Reading aloud is a wonderful way to help students hear and understand tone. Columnist Maureen Dowd’s pieces, like “Have You Driven a Smartphone Lately?” are strong on sarcasm and big on voice. First person pieces like “Lost in Las Vegas” also work well out loud. Students can experiment with tone by creating a speech from a piece like Mark Bittman’s food manifesto.
On Reading and Technology: The essay “Bent Spines” by Leah Price talks about injury by reading, and innovations throughout time to help prevent such troubles. Other Times writers have explored the intersection between books and technology throughout the past year in pieces like “Living Singles,”“Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” and a Bits blog post on social e-reading.
Kids in the News: Among the most-emailed articles of 2010 are two stories about controversial decisions regarding children: “4-Year-Old Can Be Sued, Judge Rules in Bike Case” and “Meet Mikey, 8: U.S. Has Him on Watch List.” Coverage of the suicide-by-bullying incident in South Hadley, Massachusetts will also get students’ attention. They can read and share opinions in our related Student Opinion post.
Science: The Science Times is full of so many read-aloud possibilities every week that we encourage you to go there yourself first. Some of our favorites from the past year include Natalie Angier’s “Natalie Portman, Oscar Winner, Was Also a Precocious Scientist”, Anahad O’Connor’s Really? columns on subjects like brain freeze and counting sheep and the intriguing “A Masterpiece of Nature? Yuck!” which is accompanied by a terrific slide show and interactive feature full of reader photos of ugly animals.
Love and Romance: Though it may be cheating, as this list comes primarily from the last year, we want to include two of the winners of the 2008 contest in which Sunday Styles asked college students nationwide to tell the plain truth about what love is like for them. Marguerite Fields’s “Want to Be My Boyfriend? Please Define” and Owen Powell’s “May I Have This Dance?” both make for great read-alouds, but check them for suitability for your students first.
Other Modern Love essays we love include “GPS on a Path to the Heart,” an exploration of how to find love in modern times, and Tess Russell’s very funny “Alone When the Bedbugs Bite.”
Use our sentence starters to encourage students to write and read aloud their own pieces about love and relationships. Or perhaps they’d like to read some six-word love stories and write their own.
Great Lives Columns: These columns always make for good reading and provide fodder for discussion and student writing. John Moe’s “Nice Girls” provides a great counterpoint to negative press about teenagers. Laura Munson’s poignant “Montana Soccer-Mom Moment” also defies stereotypical parent-teen relationships, making for a thought-provoking read-aloud.
Learning Network Student Opinion: We post a daily Student Opinion question here on the blog that is inspired by a recent Times article, and responses come from students all over the world. The high-interest articles themselves make good read-alouds, but even more interesting is to read the responses and use them to provoke discussion of the question of the day.
In February, we shared a City Room post about a lost wallet recovered after 40 years, and asked “Have You Ever Lost (or Found) Something Valuable?”. Engage kids in story-telling with Student Opinion using our resource page on writing for an authentic audience.
Okay, we just have to add one more. Holly Epstein Ojalvo says that when she would read this 2002 movie review by Elvis Mitchell aloud, she and her students would laugh so hard that she sometimes had to turn around to the board to compose herself before continuing.
Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.
One of the most important goals of any English class should be to help students learn how to express themselves to an audience — how to tell their own stories, how to provide much-needed information, and how to convince others to see things from a different perspective.
Below are some essays students can read, not only to help them see how such writing is done in the real world, but also to learn more about the world around them.
Need a #mentortext for student essays? Check out these exemplars for personal narrative, argumentative, and expository essay writing. Click To Tweet
Note: This is a living list. I will continue adding to it as I find important essays and articles, and as my readers make suggestions.
If You Think Racism Doesn’t Exist by Jordan Womack | Lesson Plan
A 17-year-old Oklahoma author details incidents of discrimination he has faced within his own community. Brief, yet impactful, the author’s authenticity strikes readers at their core and naturally leads the audience to consider other perspectives.
Letter from a Vietnamese to an Iraqi Refugee by Andrew Lam
Vietnamese lecturer, journalist, and author Andrew Lam offers advice in this letter to a young Iraqi refugee he sees in a photograph on the Internet.
Allowing Teenage Boys to Love Their Friends by Jan Hoffman
Learn why early and lifelong friendships are as vital for boys as they are for girls and what happens when those friendships are fractured.
Chris Cecil: Plagiarism Gets You Fired by Leonard Pitts Jr
The Miami Herald columnist and 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary winner castigates a Georgia newspaper editor for plagiarizing his work. This column would go great with this followup article from The Boston Globe: Ga. Editor is Fired for Lifting Columns.
Class Dismissed by Walter Kirn
The author of Lost in the Meritocracy postulates that getting rid of the high school senior year might be good for students.
Complaint Box | Packaging by Dylan Quinn
A high school junior complains about the impossible-to-open packaging faced by consumers of everything “from action figures to zip drives.”
Drowning in Dishes, but Finding a Home by Danial Adkison
In this 2014 essay, a teenager learns important lessons from his boss at Pizza Hut.
How to Tame a Wild Tongue by Gloria Anzaldua
An American scholar of Chicana cultural theory discusses how she maintained her identity by refusing to submit to linguistic terrorism.
Humble Beast: Samaje Perine by John Rohde
The five-time Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year features the University of Oklahoma’s running back.
In Praise of the F Word by Mary Sherry
An adult literacy program teacher argues that allowing students to fail will actually help them.
The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me by Sherman Alexie
A Native American novelist recounts his experience loving reading and finally writing in spite of a culture that expected him to fail in the “non-Indian world” in order to be accepted.
Lane’s Legacy: One Final Ride by Keith Ryan Cartwright
A heartbreaking look back at the hours before and the circumstances surrounding Lane Frost’s untimely death, followed by reflections on his rise to fame — before and after death.
Learning to Read by Malcolm X
The 1960s Civil Rights leader writes about how educating himself in prison opened his mind and lead him to become one of the leading spokesmen for black separatism.
Learning to Read and Write by Frederick Douglass
A former slave born in 1818 discusses how he learned to read in spite of laws against teaching slaves and how reading opened his eyes to his “wretched condition, without remedy.”
Learning From Animal Friendships by Erica Goode
Scientists consider studying the phenomenon of cross-species animal friendships like the ones you see on YouTube.
Losing Everything, Except What Really Matters by Dan Barry
After a 2011 tornado destroys a house, but spares the family, a reporter writes about what’s important.
The Marked Woman by David Grann
How an Osage Indian family in Oklahoma became the prime target of one of the most sinister crimes in American history.
Meet Mikey, 8: U.S. Has Him on Watch List by Lizette Alvarez
Read about what happens if you happen to share a name of a “suspicious person” on the U.S. No-Fly List.
Newly Homeless in Japan Re-Establish Order Amid Chaos by Michael Wines
After the tsunami that resulted in nuclear disaster in 2011, a reporter writes about the “quiet bravery in the face of tragedy” of the Japanese people.
No Ordinary Joe by Rick Reilly
Why in creation did American Football Conference’s 1981 best young running back Joe Delaney jump into that pit full of water that day, even though he couldn’t swim?
Politics and the English Language By George Orwell
Animal Farm and 1984 author, Orwell correlates the degradation of the English language into multi-syllabic drivel and the corruption of the American political process.
Serving in Florida by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America author tells about her experiences attempting to survive on income of low-paying jobs.
Starvation Under the Orange Trees by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck, who later authored the fictionalized account of Okies in California, The Grapes of Wrath, first wrote this essay documenting the starvation of migrant workers in California during the Great Depression.
To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This by Mandy Len Catron
Is falling in love really a random event, or can two people “love smarter?”
We’ll Go Forward from this Moment by Leonard Pitts
The 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary winner pens a column chronicling the toughness of the American family’s spirit in the face of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks. He wrote the column one day after the attacks.
What’s Wrong with Black English? by Rachel L. Jones
Jones, a student at Southern Illinois University in the 1980s, wrote this piece for Newsweek. In her essay, Jones adds her story and perspective to the debate over Black English.
Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood by Sherman Alexie
Alexie speaks on the importance of Young Adult literature in the lives of students struggling to survive abuse, racism, poverty, depression, gang warfare, negligent parents, drugs, and poverty.
Explore highly relevant issues & practice reading comprehension through short essays written for authentic audiences. #litchat Click To Tweet
I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma graduate student, and a NBPTS candidate. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify my students’ voices and choices.
Filed Under: PedagogyTagged With: Model Essays