One way to encourage students to think deeper is to have them make connections across texts. Building thematic units using unusual pairings based around a shared idea is one way to encourage that thinking. It also allows opportunities to compare and analyze, such as how a literary device is used in the text(s) or how a theme is approached.
The use of dreams in stories varies greatly and can be a fun topic of exploration.
Some stories with dreams (plus activities and ideas for them):
Rip Van Winkle (Washington Irving)— quintessential story of a super long nap. Students can study the events and decide if they are intended to be a real story or supernatural.
Activities and Projects: Write a Rip Van Winkle- style story where someone sleeps long enough to miss major changes. Create projects to compare different uses of the Rip Van Winkle idea and nap. Study Flemish poetry or research old Danish legends.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (James Thurber)— the titular character spends a lot of time day dreaming in this slice-of-life story. Students may examine why he does it or whether it’s an issue.
Activities and Projects: They can compare the impact of the daydreams in this story with other day or night dreams to see if they are portrayed positively, negatively, or neutrally. Students can also write their own day dream for Walter Mitty.
Pairing: Study Rip Van Winkle and Walter Mitty together. They both deal with dreams, but how are they different? How are they the same, such as in escaping their charming wives?
A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)— the visits of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future– dreams or true supernatural events. Another story that as invaded popular culture, which provides additional study and opportunity for discussion.
Activities and Projects: Students can study how the ghosts are used in popular culture or compare the text with one of the many, many film or play versions. Other options include researching ideas from the text, such as the workhouses, and evaluating them– should workhouses be used today?
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Ambrose Bierce) the story takes a turn at the ending, revealing that the big escape was just a dream. Students can discuss the impact of the twist ending. They can also compare the purpose of the dream to another story with a dream– how does a dream of physical escape compare to, say, daydreams of virtual escape.
Activities and Projects: Students can write a prequel. Another activity would to be write an obituary– would an obituary from his family be different from one written by the solider? Students might also research the war along with similar crimes and punishments.
Pairing: Christmas Carol with Owl Creek. How is the dream used as a plot device in each one? Could the story be told without the use of the dream? What does the dream reveal?
Other Texts for Unit Building:
Thematic units need not be limited to short stories. Other texts can be used as well. Poetry is a good addition to a unit on dreams. “Land of Nod” by Robert Louis Stevenson is one example. “Dreams” and “Dream Within a Dream” by Edgar Allan Poe are other choices of poems about dreams that can be read and studied to answer questions, such as, “How are dreams treated in literature?” Students can also write their own poems on dreams. Another addition is for students to write about and/ or illustrate a (school appropriate) dream.
Looking for more ideas for thematic units? Consider stories of Science Gone Wrong!
Also see my lists of 5 Creepy Short Stories for Halloween for more story and activity ideas.