Standard Lesson

The Importance of Titles: From Big Blank Space to Small Good Thing

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Three 50-minute sessions
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This lesson asks students to examine two sets of stories that author Raymond Carver renamed in revision: “Popular Mechanics,” which he renamed “Little Things,” and “Everything Stuck to Him,” which he renamed “Distance.” After predicting what they stories “Popular Mechanics” and “Little Things” will be about based only on their titles, the class is divided in half, with each half reading one of the stories. Students discuss the significance of the titles in the two stories, unaware at first that the stories are the same. Next, students read “Everything Stuck to Him” and “Distance,” focusing on the significance of the two titles to determine how each title affects the reader's perception and understanding of the story. After reading and discussing the four stories, students write a reflective essay in which they defend their choice of a title for one of the two sets of Carver stories.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

NCTE author and consultant Susanne Rubenstein relates a common frustration in her book Raymond Carver in the Classroom: "A Small Good Thing": "My students struggle to compose titles. Frequently I'm asked, ‘Does it have to have a title?' and though I tell them, yes, and emphasize how important a title can be to the understanding of the work, they are often apt to leave a big blank space where the title should be. These two stories [Raymond Carver's ‘Distance' and ‘Everything Stuck to Him'] offer a persuasive example of how much a title can matter" (55-56). By prompting students to analyze Carver's own changes to his short story titles, this lesson helps students understand the importance of a title in relation both to the story unto itself and to a reader's response to the story. Students then are better prepared themselves to fill in that big blank space with thoughtfully chosen titles for their own written work.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Copies of “Little Things” in Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories by Raymond Carver (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988)

  • Copies of “Popular Mechanics” in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (Knopf, 1981)

  • Copies of “Distance”  in Furious Seasons and Other Stories by Raymond Carver (Capra Press, 1977)

  • Copies of “Everything Stuck to Him” in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (Knopf, 1981)

  • Copies of the essay “What We Talk About When We Talk About Carver” by David Carpenter  (optional)

  • Copies of the short story “A Rose for Emily” in These 13 by William Faulkner (1931) (optional)




  • Obtain copies of “Little Things,” “Popular Mechanics,” “Distance,” and “Everything Stuck to Him” by Raymond Carver.

  • Optional: Obtain copies of the essay “What We Talk About When We Talk About Carver” by David Carpenter and the short story “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner.

  • Familiarize yourself with biographical information on Carver to provide background to the stories. Useful Websites are listed in Resources section.

  • Familiarize yourself with the magazine Popular Mechanics and some information about its history and content using the Websites in the Resources section.

  • Prepare a copy of Essay Writing: Writer’s Checklist for each student.

  • Between Sessions 1 and 2, prepare an overhead transparency of selected student responses to stimulate class discussion.

  • Test the Venn Diagram tool to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • read and interpret fiction by Raymond Carver.

  • consider how the title influences a reader's understanding of a story.

  • develop an appreciation for the revision process.

  • defend and support their opinions with specific information from text.

  • develop analytical writing skills.

  • create effective titles for their own work.

Session One

  1. On the board or overhead projector, write the two titles: “Little Things” and “Popular Mechanics.”

  2. Ask students to brainstorm as a class what they believe a story titled “Little Things” would be about. Record all responses on the board.

  3. Repeat this process with the title “Popular Mechanics.”

  4. If no student is familiar with the magazine Popular Mechanics and there are no ideas in connection with the magazine, conclude the brainstorming activity by passing around the magazine to students and then asking for further ideas about the story title.

  5. Split the class in half and ask one half to read the story “Little Things” and the other half to read the story “Popular Mechanics.” These very short stories are identical except for their titles. Students should not, however, be aware of this at this point.

  6. After students have completed the reading, instruct them to write a short individual rationale for the choice of the title. Tell them that in their rationale they should give every reason they can think of for why Carver might have chosen this title. Encourage them to refer to ideas on the board/overhead as well as their own observations from the reading.

  7. Ask for two or three volunteers in each group to share their reasons. As the discussion continues, students will begin to realize that each group has read the same story and that only the titles differ.

  8. Ask students to decide individually which title they think best fits the story and to determine specific reasons for their choice. Then tell students to move their desks/chairs so that those who support the title “Little Things” are one side of the room and those who believe “Popular Mechanics” is a better title are on the other side.

  9. Facilitate a class discussion that allows each group to defend its choice with solid reasons. Encourage students to see how each title affects the reader’s perception of the work, both before and after reading it.

  10. If discussion falters, offer students help by suggesting some of the following ideas:

    • Help foster the understanding that the title “Little Things” focuses on the idea that though the fight may be over a “little thing,” it appears to have enormous consequences in these people’s lives.

    • Guide students to talk about the fact that although the baby is a “little thing” in terms of size/age, this “little thing” is in fact of great importance even though the adults don’t seem to see it that way.

    • Help students understand that the adults in the story treat the baby as if it were a “little thing,” with the emphasis on both words “little” as in unimportant and “thing” as in an object, and encourage students to see the sad irony in this way of thinking.

    • Encourage the “Popular Mechanics” group to explore the irony of this title in connection with the idea that Popular Mechanics is a “home how-to” magazine, while this story is definitely an example of how not to run a home.

    • Prompt students to discuss the idea that the magazine is devoted to the technology of “things” and that this too reflects the idea that the baby is little more than a thing in the story.

    • Point out that the baby is not easily “fixed,” while the magazine focuses on fixing/servicing things.
  11. Conclude the discussion by asking students if, after this discussion, they choose to “switch sides,” and allow them to explain their reasons if they do so.

  12. Write two more Carver titles on the board: “Everything Stuck to Him” and “Distance.” Give students no more than five minutes to record quick written impressions of what they believe each story will be about. Collect their responses.

  13. Using this activity as an introduction, tell students to now read the story “Everything Stuck to Him” for homework.

Session Two

  1. Write on the board or project on the overhead an assortment of student responses to the previous class session’s activity of reacting to the title “Everything Stuck to Him.” Ask students to explain why they gave such responses.

  2. Ask students, now having read the story, to refine and revise their reactions to the title, explaining why they believe Carver called this story “Everything Stuck to Him.” Encourage literal interpretations connected to the waffles and syrup as well as deeper interpretations related to the adult responsibilities that now “stick to” the boy.

  3. As a class, read the story “Distance.” Ask students to pay particular attention to differences between this story and the earlier version “Everything Stuck to Him.” Focus on such things as the emphasis on the Canadian geese and the symbolism connected to killing these geese; the material involving Carl, a hunting buddy of the boy’s father; and the material devoted to the boy’s decisions about the hunting trip. For more specific discussion of these changes, see pages 50–57 in Raymond Carver in the Classroom: “A Small Good Thing” by Susanne Rubenstein (NCTE 2005). If desired, students can use the Venn Diagram to compare and contrast the two stories.

  4. Guide students to see the clear difference between the two titles “Everything Stuck to Him” and “Distance.” Help them recognize that the two titles stand in contrast to one another—one implying extreme closeness and the other the opposite—and ask them to discuss how this difference influences their final interpretation of each story.

  5. Optional: Read the essay “What We Talk About When We Talk About Carver” by David Carpenter. Encourage students to talk about what they learn about Carver and about these two stories through the essay.

Session Three

  1. Ask student pairs to review and assimilate the material discussed in class over the past two sessions. Students will write a reflective essay in which they defend their choice of a title for one of the two sets of Carver stories.

  2. Write the following prompt on the board or place on the overhead: Which is a better title for the Carver story you read: “Popular Mechanics” or “Little Things”? OR Which is a better title for the Carver story you read: “Everything Stuck to Him” or “Distance”? Defend your choice in a clear, well-written essay that uses material from the text to support your decision.

  3. Ask students to pair up based on the prompt and the stories/titles they preferred for a brief collaborative writing assignment.

  4. Give each pair a copy of the Essay Writing: Writer’s Checklist to use to guide their process and serve as a checklist.

  5. Allow the pairs the period to discuss and compose their reflection. Assure students that the essay will be evaluated as a draft, but that the culmination of their best thinking from the past two sessions should be present in the essay.


  • If students keep writing portfolios in your class, have students review recent written work (including both creative and analytical/expository/persuasive pieces). Instruct students to choose either a piece that they did not title or a piece that may be in need of a revised title. Ask them to re-read the piece carefully and determine an appropriate title. Have them write a paragraph justifying their choice.

  • Ask students to apply the skills developed in this lesson to a new work. Students read an unfamiliar short story with a title that is open to various interpretations and write an essay in which they discuss how the title contributes to the overall meaning of the story. For example, have students read “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner. This story is challenging, and students are often perplexed by the title. Give students the Essay Writing: Writer’s Checklist to use as an individual checklist, to guide small group response, and/or to serve as a grading rubric.

  • Have students continue to reflect on the importance of titles every time they write a paper. They should be encouraged to revise their titles as much as they revise their papers.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Use the Essay Writing: Writer’s Checklist as an evaluation/response guide for the in-class collaborative reflections.

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