From the Valley of Ashes to a Tourist Attraction?

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SWBAT identify characteristics & motivations of main characters in The Great Gatsby and contextualize "The Valley of Ashes" through a multimedia investigation of coal ash.

Big Idea

Think the Valley of Ashes is gross? You don't know the half of it. (And did I mention you probably have your own toxic "Valley" nearby?)


15 minutes

We will start this hour with a reading quiz over Chapters 1 & 2 of The Great Gatsby.  To streamline this process, students will use Socrative, which is entirely multiple choice and instantly graded.  This quiz is attached in the Resources section, or you can download it directly into your own Socrative account using SOC#:3612951.  Since all students will finish this quiz at different times, they will be instructed to review Chapter 1 after finishing the quiz in order to collect questions they had about the reading assignment to inform our discussion.

Building Knowledge

30 minutes

After our quiz, we will go over any questions that students have about the quiz or the reading assignment.  As always, I will have a set of questions that I DEFINITELY want discussed during this section of the class, and as students address these, I will mark them off the list.  I will bring up whatever discussion topics remain after students have completed their own investigation of the text.  This will be my default format for discussing this entire book, as it shifts the focus off of me as the teacher and places it on the students to be the leaders of the discussion and analyzers of the text.  I've been working all year to create the open environment to make this dream a reality, so I always really enjoy these days when I get to see them engaging with one another so naturally!  The questions that I definitely want discussed are attached in the resources section.


30 minutes

In the next lesson section, I want my students to learn more about the real-life Valley of Ashes, which was modeled on the Corona Ash Dump in Flushing, Queens.  My students are primarily higher-income suburban kids, so while many of them have traveled extensively, they typically don't travel to less-than-glamorous places.  Consequently, it's hard for them to picture what the Valley of Ashes would really look like, and it's harder still for them to imagine that the same ash-plague that was smothering the people of Flushing is STILL wreaking havoc on many people right here in the United States today.  In years past I just compared the Valley of Ashes to another city in Illinois (which I would never do in this forum...but I'm sure you have a stereotypical city that would be like the Valley of Ashes that you could call to mind for the name of improving comprehension only...), but this year I found FABULOUS primary sources for students to look at to propel their own investigation of the issue.  This type of investigation is much more aligned with the Common Core, and it also increases student engagement since it pulls in various forms of media.

First, I will give students the link to The Bowery Boys' New York City blog post about the Corona Ash Dump, which we will quickly read.  This article will give students a better idea of the horrid living conditions in this area.  They will be horrified to learn that it wasn't just ash that inhabitants dealt with, but excrement and rats as well.  (I'm so happy that disgust leads to interest for high school students!  It makes my job so much easier!)  Then, we will view three images from the New York City Aerial Map generator.  The first image is of the area in 1924, the second image is from 1951 after the second-largest World Fair was hosted at the cleaned-up site of the ash dump, and the third image clearly depicts tourist attractions like a baseball stadium and the Unisphere taken in 2012.  These pictures will allow students to better conceptualize the area and the problem that Fitzgerald drew attention to in his novel, which was actually one of the inciting factors that led to a clean-up of the Corona Ash Dump!  (Way to go, Fitzgerald!)

On the heels of this environmental kudos for Fitzgerald, I do want my students to understand that the coal ash problem that Fitzgerald drew attention to nearly 90 years ago is STILL a problem today.  In that spirit, we will watch a segment of 60 Minutes, which focuses on the modern-day troubles with coal ash and discusses a 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee that caused more destruction than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the 1980's.  While viewing, students need to take notes in a shared Google Document.  Students should focus on defining what coal ash is, what it's used for, and what the effects of exposure may be.  They should also note their reaction to the credibility of the people being interviewed, noting wherever possible specific phrases or gestures that made them question them.

When we finish the film segment, I will allow students approximately five minutes to turn their notes into well-crafted short-answer responses and highlight any additional questions about coal ash that they might have.  Then, we will share our evaluations of this film as a whole class and address any outstanding questions.  If students have questions that another classmate did not hear answered by the film, I will ask for a volunteer to locate the information from a credible source using Google while we continue to discuss the film.  Students will share their findings with their classmates as they discover them.  


15 minutes

For the remainder of the period we will continue reading The Great Gatsby in our modified "popcorn" reading format.  While reading, I will encourage students to read using voices, varied inflection, and even gestures to make their character come to life.  Since the narration part comes from Nick's point of view, even the narration can be read with expressiveness!  Additionally, if students reported that they had problems with their character maps at the beginning of the hour, I will repeat our activity from yesterday and model (with input from the class) how students should complete this activity.  I want to make sure that all students are aware of how to fill these out (and tweak them to meet their specific learning needs), because these will become extremely useful documents that will aid them in completing their summative evaluations of this novel.  I'll attach a set of completed character maps from one of my students in the Resources section, but remember that these will all look different based on your students.  Not all maps must contain images or use fancy writing.  I chose this format to allow students the flexibility to incorporate these things as their learning styles find it useful, but I don't want students who are not typically visual learners to be forced to jump through extra hoops.  This assignment is a great example of how differentiation can help students create learning tools that match their needs, as students ultimately have the ownership over what the activity looks like and how it functions for them.  I'm only really interested in the textual evidence and characteristics they add to the map.  Everything else is their choice.  FYI, I would NOT grade the attached character maps as a 100%, despite their outwardly-sleek appearance.  When you evaluate the evidence she chose to include, it's mostly surface-level characteristics rather than deeper-level insights.  Additionally, it doesn't represent a complete view of the character from beginning to end.  Each map is noticeably lacking evidence in the middle and end chapters of the book, despite MAJOR character changes occurring in these sections.  Don't be fooled by the snazziness of this project...for content, which is what we're interested in (since it's not ultimately an art project), it's only at about a C level.  

We will read as much of Chapter 3 as we can in the remainder for this hour (stopping whenever students have questions or reactions), and students will need to finish the remainder of Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 through page 68 before the next class period.  Additionally, they will need to continue building on their character maps over the course of both of these chapters.

Next Steps

Next class period we will follow the same format so that students get into a routine for book discussions.  Like this period, we will have a quiz at the top of the hour that will help frame discussion.  Before next time, I will review our results more deeply and create a list of students whose quizzes demonstrate that they did not read the chapters completely.  I will also generate a list of students who missed answers that we explicitly discussed while reading in class (since we always start off reading the assignment at the end of the hour and discussion ensues).  Next class period I will generate lists in the same fashion so that I can touch base with students who are not completing their reading homework and/or are not paying attention in class.  Since we're a 1:1 district, students use their Chromebooks to read the story in class and at home, so finding out which students are not using these tools appropriately will allow me to give them hard copies of the book to use in class and/or take home.  While the Chromebooks are really amazing to have in the classroom, at times they are a distraction.  Knowing that and dealing with it proactively is probably one of the best pieces of advice I could give to any teacher working in a 1:1 environment! Furthermore, if students are still not remaining on track during our reading assignments, my off-task list also doubles nicely as a "volunteer" list for acting out our main character roles during reading!  (*Insert wicked laugh*)