Comparative Filmography: Close Reading & Closer Viewing of "The Valley of Ashes"

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SWBAT analyze a key scene in "The Great Gatsby" by viewing, comparing, and discussing the portrayal of The Valley of Ashes in text and a variety of films.

Big Idea

Bombarded as they are by visual images in daily life, students are learning "go deeper" into what is before their eyes by going deeper into their reading of "The Valley of Ashes."

Introduction & Welcome: On This Day in 1953, The Oscars Were Aired on NBC

3 minutes

I welcome students to class by sharing that on this day, 61 years ago, the Academy Awards were broadcast on TV for the first time. Bob Hope hosted. The first Academy Awards were begun in 1929, and radio coverage began in 1930. (History.Com)

I also share with students "The Great Gatsby's" history with the Oscars: 

The 1974 film won for Best Costume Design and Best Score/Music.

The 2000 film was a TV Movie, so not eligible for Academy Awards (Although Mira Sorvino did win an Oscar for "Mighty Aphrodite" )

The 2013 film won for Costume Design and Production Design.

As always, the Daily Holiday serves to draw students in, building student ownership and a sense of community in the class.

Close Reading: Analysis, Symbols, and Color

15 minutes

In order to continue and develop our look at "The Great Gatsby," students are conducting a close reading of Chapter 2 of the novel, particularly the opening sequence describing the Valley of Ashes. 

To provide students with a sense of scale of The Valley of Ashes, and the real-life Corona Dump, I project this areal photograph of the region while we read

Students are directed to Chapter 2 of "The Great Gatsby," and directed to to read and annotate the text (lightly, in pencil); I read the passage once to focus students, and students read a second time, to themselves, in order to annotate and react. 

Students are looking to do the following:

1. Read with a pencil in hand, and annotate the text--underlining or highlighting key words and phrases, anything surprising or significant, or questions-raising, as well as make notes in the margins

2. Look for patterns in the things you've noticed about the text—repetitions, contradictions, similarities.

3. Ask questions about the patterns you've noticed—especially how and why.

Once students have had time to read and annotate, and I have circulated the classroom answering any questions that may come up or clarifying word meanings. When questions come up as I move about the classroom, I encourage the students to volunteer when we present, and take note of their questions in order to call on them if they do not volunteer. 

I project a scan of this selection onto the classroom board, and ask the students to share what they found striking, what patterns they noticed, and what questions they had while reading. As students share their ideas, I'll take note on the board, modeling annotation. There are two ideas that I am specifically looking for, and guide students toward: 

1. The use of figurative language to describe the Valley of Ashes (RL.9-10.4) .

2. The visual representation of the "big symbol," the Eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg (RL.9-10.7). 

3. The descriptions provided to the characters, especially George Wilson and Myrtle Wilson, how they interact with Tom Buchannan and how they "fit" the tone set by the description of the Valley of Ashes (RL.9-10.3).

Students are taking a closer look at this scene using these techniques, described by the Harvard (University) Writing Center. As the Writing Center notes, "When we respond to a text in this way, we not only force ourselves to pay close attention, but we also begin to think with the author about the evidence." At this point, students are familiar with close reading, having performed the task previously, most recently in a look at Chapter 1 of "The Great Gatsby." In my class, close reading is used as a way to get students thinking critically about the material; students "observe facts and details about the text" in order to find strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis, both of what the text says explicitly and inferences drawn from the reading (RL.9-10.1). 

For our purposes on this assignment, students have been using close reading to focus on visual details, particularly in determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, and analyzing the impact of specific word choices on the meaning of the novel and how the reader perceives the scene (RL.9-10.4).

The close look at the text sets up the look at the film in the next section of today's lessons, have the scene as Fitzgerald describes it in their heads, and use that to fuel classroom conversation in our film comparison.

Critical Viewing: Visual Literacy for Comparison

30 minutes

In order to further look into the portrayal and interpretation of The Valley of Ashes, students view selections from the three film versions of "The Great Gatsby" noted in the introduction, specifically, the scenes paralleling the opening of Chapter II and "The Valley of Ashes."

I provide each student with "Critical Viewing Worksheet," on which they're asked to write their thoughts and reactions as they view the film. Students are taking notes to analyze the representation of the scene in different artistic media: text and three different film portrayals, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (RL.9-10.7).

Before we begin the film, I again project and share David Considine's "Critical Viewing and Critical Thinking Skills" article with students* in order to put them in the frame of mind for why we will be watching film adaptations of the texts we read this semester. As Considine says, critical viewing, "give[s students] the ability to think critically about the composition of the picture, enhancing their ability to read words and worlds."

I present each clip to the students, sharing as much as was covered in the reading: the setting of the Valley of Ashes, Wilson's Garage, and George and Myrtle Wilson, time permitting. 

If time permits, between each clip, I ask if there are any questions. Once we have viewed all clips, I provide students a few minutes to organize their thoughts, before they are asked to explain and justify what they noticed, and why some things may be emphasized over others. As with the close reading, I am drawing attention to and directing students to the visual details given of the Valley of Ashes, and the representation of George and Myrtle Wilson. The discussion provides students a deeper understanding of F. Scott Fitzgerald's decisions in what is explicitly said in the text, what is implied (RL.9-10.1) and how the characters are representative of the setting and themes of the novel (RL.9-10.3).

*This article is available to reprint; follow the directions on the page for publisher's permission.  

A Note: I personally own each copy of the film, and am showing small snippets for educational purposes. This lesson can be easily adapted/modified for teachers who only have access to one or two versions of the film:

"The Great Gatsby." Dir. Jack Clayton. Perf. Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Sam Watterston, Bruce Dern. Paramount Pictures. 1974. DVD.

"The Great Gatsby." Dir. Robert Markowitz. Perf. Toby Stephens, Mira Sorvino, Paul Rudd, Martin Donovan. A&E Television Networks. 2000. DVD. 

"The Great Gatsby." Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton. Warner Brothers. 2013. DVD.


Two-Minute Warning: Wrap-Up and Reminders

2 minutes

With two minutes remaining, I remind students that today's practice will set the stage for part of the "test" (Performance Assessment) on "The Great Gatsby," as they will be doing this exact thing in class. I also note Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 and the review guides for each are due in two days,  in order for students to wrap up the novel, and locate strong and thorough textual evidence to support their analysis of the novel (RL.9-10.1)