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If you are teaching “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, you may be looking for strategies and tips for analyzing this challenging plot. Not to worry as I’m sharing my best tips for helping you navigate all elements of this classic story with your students.
In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” we enter the mind of a disturbed narrator attempting to convince the reader of his sanity while telling the story of how he came to commit a murder. Poe’s story focuses on the reasons for the man’s actions, the process he takes, and the guilt and paranoia he feels.
So, where to begin when teaching this short story? Below are some tips to bring this story to life for your middle or high school students.
Before introducing any short story to your students, I would suggest providing any context that students may need to fully understand the background of the story. When teaching “The Tell-Tale Heart,” I like to focus on two elements of context in particular:
Introduce students to Edgar Allan Poe with a biographical overview. This background information gives students a better sense of who is telling this story: by becoming more invested in the author, your students can become more invested in their writing.
This is especially true of Edgar Allan Poe, the mystery writer who attracted a mysterious fan. I like to tell students all about The Poe Toaster, the figure dressed in all black who visited the author’s grave for 50 years in a row, leaving roses and a partially filled bottle of French cognac.
You’ll also want to provide background information on the genre of the story (gothic) and encourage students to keep an eye out for distinguishing features of this genre as they read. For example, in gothic literature, it is common for the atmosphere of the story to be one of mystery and suspense, for there to be a victim who is helpless, and for emotions to run high. Of course, each of these elements is present in “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Before diving into the story itself, I like to do some pre-reading discussion with students to further prepare them for the text. I typically use questions that are meant to provoke text-to-self connections related to the story. This gets students emotionally invested in the subject matter before they even read the first sentence. Here are a couple of discussion questions I have used in the past:
Because there are lots of new vocabulary terms in this story, I also like to do some pre-reading vocabulary work to prep students for what can at times be a challenging read. I encourage you to spend a little time going over some of the unfamiliar language with your students before they start reading. This way, your students will be less likely to get slowed down by words they might not have heard before (like “suavity” and “derision,” for example.) You might have students look up individual words in the dictionary to find their definitions, synonyms, etc., or even make a word wall!
Just as Poe’s story includes plenty of new vocabulary terms, it is also rich in figurative language. Once your students have finished reading through the story, it can be a good idea to go through some of the examples with them. I like to use a figurative language activity for this.
What I do is give students a series of quotes for them to label with the correct figurative language term. Then, I get them to find their own examples in the text. I have them focus on alliteration, hyperbole, simile, metaphor, and personification, in particular. These are the ones that appear most frequently in the text.
Give your students reading analysis questions to help them dig a little deeper into the story. For these, I like to focus on teaching aspects of conflict, comprehension, symbolism, and narration in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” You can have them answer these questions independently or in small groups. You can even put the questions on chart paper and have students circulate the room and answer the questions on chart paper in small groups!
Then, fill in the gaps with an interactive lecture. This is where you can share a bit more detail about some of the other story elements. I find doing an interactive lecture at this point to be effective. It gives you the opportunity to emphasize certain aspects of the story that might not have been articulated during the classroom discussion so far. Even though you will be leading this yourself, it can be a good idea to try and involve students as much as possible here. Engage them with questions related to the lecture (instead of simply telling them the information).
After concluding the interactive lecture, I like to show students an animated interpretation of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” This gives us all a break from talking, and it helps students visualize the story in a different way. Watching adaptations of literature can disrupt our initial perceptions of the source material, but that is not necessarily a bad thing! Doing this helps to widen our understanding of the source material.
As a final creative assignment, I have students choose between two assignments.
There you have it! In my experience, teaching “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe is always an enjoyable experience. If you would like to grab a ready-to-teach bundle with all of the resources mentioned above, you can do so by clicking the button below.
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Here is what a few teachers who have used the resources already had to say:
Looking for more stories like this one? Check out this blog post on my favorite spooky stories to teach in middle and high ELA.
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