I begin The Great Gatsby by taking great lengths to ensure that my students are familiar with the idea of the American Dream. Since the pursuit of the American Dream is the fuel that drives The Great Gatsby, students need to understand it as a great motivational force that can be traced back to the founding of our country.
More importantly, I attempt to take off "the rose-colored glasses" by encouraging students to consider the two realities that the American Dream conjures: one of opportunity and one of perpetual struggle. Students will connect to the topic by identifying their own dreams and aspirations.
To begin the lesson, I write the words "The American Dream" on the board and the class brainstorms possible meanings to the term. Usually, students responses are linked to typical adolescent pursuits such as a new car, lots of cash, gold chains, etc. Often, I have to redirect them and ask them to consider the American Dream from an adult point of view. I may say, "Picture yourself as an adult, out of high school, what would be your American Dream?" Responses vary from having a family, owning home, or being successful.
Students are then given a piece of oaktag, a few markers, and are asked to create a symbol of what they believe is the American Dream. At the bottom of the paper, students write a one-sentence description of how they define the American Dream.
To get the class moving and motivated, I ask each student to walk to the front of the class and survey the room to examine the multitude of symbols and meanings. This is done one at a time in a rotation. Finally, I ask the class to identify one predominant symbol that they noticed.
Some students examples are attached below.
As a whole-class activity, I draw a timeline on the board with a starting point of eleventh grade in high school and an ending point that references a composite of students' American Dreams. Usually, this means a dollar sign, a house, a beautiful wife, etc. I divide the class into two groups: the pathfinders and the pitfallers.
Pathfinders are going to add to the timeline one way a student can reach his/her American Dream. (i.e. graduate from high school, go to college, etc.) Pitfallers are challenged to find a way that an individual's dreams can go awry. After one pathfinder adds a positive entry to the map, a pitfaller will trump that example by adding an entry that could go wrong. Then, another pathfinder will add another positive entry, followed by a pitfaller and a negative entry. This volley continues until each student has entered an entry. I chose this type of movement so students can see how fragile the pursuit of the American Dream can be. An individual may have an example of success, but it can so quickly go awry. They is the reason for the pitfallers to follow the pathfinders. Again, students will consider the frustrations and difficulty associated with trying to achieve the American Dream.
Students almost always associate success and the American Dream with money, although some students will equate it with family and marriage. I find that students definitely have an idea what the American Dream is; however, they may not necessary know how to achieve it. This is something explored in the latter part of the assignment when students have an opportunity to see what their path to success is like. We then open up the floor to discussing how to achieve these dreams.
An example of what the timeline looks like is attached below.
In order to illustrate the struggles associated with achieving the American Dream, I draw upon the Langston Hughes poem "A Dream Deferred." I chose this poem because students read A Raisin in the Sun in tenth grade and they are familiar with the poem. Of course, the poem's title is the essential line in the poem.
Students silently analyze Langston Hughes' message. I write on the whiteboard the following questions:
In a written response, students closely examine the word choice to determine the poet's ideas and are able to support their answers with specific words and phrases from the poem. Their responses with accompanying text "emphasize use of evidence from sources to inform or make an argument," which is a shift demanded by the Common Core State Standards.
Response may be written in a journal or on a separate piece of paper.
The next piece to my lesson is to show the first five minutes of the PBS documentary, Novel Reflections on The American Dream. I chose this video because it demonstrates the degree to which the American Dream has been an influential and motivational force in our society.
Secondly, it is a topic that American writers have depicted since the days of Ben Franklin. I only show the first five minutes because after that time the video describes how the American Dream has been presented in specific pieces of literature. It does have a section on The Great Gatsby, but the video gives away too much of the plot.
After viewing the video, students in the form of a written reflection respond to the documentary describing how the American Dream presents a dichotomy of meaning. Students also offer their opinion as to whether the American Dream differs by decade. For example, is our definition in 2013 the same as it was in 2000, 1950, 1930, etc.? Students will offer specific examples either historical or personal to respond to these questions.
This assignment is done as a homework assignment. I have included examples of student work.