The American Dream: An Image Stored Up in Our Ghostly Hearts?

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SWBAT connect the Gold Coast in New York with Fitzgerald's novel as a symbol of the American Dream and evaluate the present-day state of the American Dream through group discussion.

Big Idea

The Gatsby mansion was demolished in 2012 to make way for a developer's housing complex…Is that the 21st-century American Dream in action?


15 minutes

Today our class period started off with a friendly ACT-related visit form our guidance counselor, so we're working on a shortened schedule!  We will start off as usual by taking a quiz in Socrative over Chapter 4 & 5 of The Great Gatsby.  Since we read all of Chapter 4 in class last time (and discussed it), this quiz should be a slam dunk for all students!  If I notice that students are missing questions that we explicitly discussed last class period, I will speak to this students to try to ascertain the reason, but by now most students are catching on to the idea that they need to both listen in class and thoughtfully read the homework assignments.  A copy of this quiz is contained in the Resources section, or you can download it into your Socrative account using SOC#9826197.  Please be aware that there is a short answer this time, so you'll need to go in and grade that yourself.  Socrative will not accurately do this for you.

Building Knowledge

25 minutes

When students complete their reading quiz, they will need to work with their seating partners (I choose the seating chart and they are in "pods" of 3 desks) to evaluate their progress on their visual character maps so far.  Since Chapter 5 was really only dealing with Gatsby, Nick, and Daisy, each student in the group will choose a character on which to be the "authority" for this section.  They will take approximately 10 minutes to review Chapter 5 and the information they wrote down about their chosen character, then they will present that information to their small group.  Other students in the group can update their own character maps during these presentation, and I will encourage them to question their peers if they hear a characteristic that they do not agree with or that seems unsupported by evidence.  This is a fabulous way to make sure all students are making progress on these logs (and force them to work on them if they haven't already!), and it will also help to inform our conversation about Chapter 5's major revelations.  

Each student's presentation should only take about 2 minutes, so after their share-outs, we will meet as a whole group once again.  I will ask each group to share with the whole class the most important or most significant findings of their small group before we move on to discussion.  This will be yet another opportunity for students to engage with their peers, ask questions, and probe responses for more information.   


15 minutes

After our small group sharing, we will move on to discuss the highlights of Chapter 5.  Since we will be dealing with a time constraint, I will format the discussion in a typical Q&A setup, with me asking the questions and students answering them.  The questions I will use are attached in the Resources section.


20 minutes

Finally, we will take a look at the present-day condition of the inspiration behind Gatsby's mansion, which was so thoroughly described in this chapter.  Unfortunately, it was torn down in 2012 (I recall being so depressed that day!), but the story of the home itself makes a great segue for talking about the realities of the American Dream, which is obviously a major theme of this book.  

Before watching the video, I will let students know that what they are about to watch will discuss the inspiration behind Gatsby's fictional mansion, how it came to inspire Fitzgerald, and how the house itself was part of a group of homes that came to symbolize America and the American Dream in action during the 1920's.  While we watch, I will ask them to take notes over the clip, focusing on:

  • Fitzgerald's relationship with that house
  • significance of the Gold Coast homes
  • how the home's life cycle relates to the American Dream over the last 100 years

When the movie is finished, students will have 2 minutes to review their notes to discuss the following questions:

  • You probably weren't surprised to learn that this fictional house was created from a real-life concept, but was there anything that struck you as unusual or odd about how or why Fitzgerald chose this house?  (Students will typically say that it's weird that Fitzgerald wasn't the one living there.  Since he's the author, they usually assume that he was tremendously wealthy when he wrote the novel, when in reality, he's much closer to Nick's income level.  He also shares Gatsby's sense of longing, which is an emotion Fitzgerald includes in the book, for the wealth and lifestyle of the people on the other side of the bay.  He's part of the group that was fantasizing about being rich and ogling the party-goers, not attending the parties.)
  • The historian stops short of saying that the houses on the Gold Coast symbolize the American Dream come to life, but she does elude to that.  What DOES she say that these homes represent?  (Students should recall that she says they're basically everything you could aspire to have.  They give a sense of "what America was" and what it could be.  She also says that the parties Fitzgerald talks about there are representative of the whole decade wrapped into one symbolic party.)
  • Do you think that's accurate?  Were those homes a symbol of America?  Explain your reasoning.  (I should see some dissent here.  Yes, they are what people strive for, but no, they aren't ACTUALLY what America WAS.  It's what they wanted to be.)
  • How would you characterize the American Dream?  What components does it have?  Can you think of someone who you would say has achieved the American Dream? (Students typically identify having a house, children, access to education, wealth, and possibly fame as main components.  They will reach for famous examples, usually the from-nothing-to-something examples like Donald Trump or Eminem.)
  • Do people with "old money" automatically get labeled as having the American Dream?  Like if I'm Paris Hilton and I have a house, access to education, money, and if I want them...did I achieve the American Dream even if I didn't really have to "work" for it?  (This will likely be a split-vote in your class.  Some students feel that if you have all these checkboxes filled, you have achieved the American Dream.  Others might suggest that you SHOULD work for it or that if you didn't it's somehow less meaningful.)
  • Okay, new question.  So if this is the "American Dream," is it something that most people get?  Like is it indicative of America?  And if it's not, is it fair that it's still the "American Dream"?  (In every year that I teach this, students maintain that even though they acknowledge that relatively few people attain the dream, it's POSSIBLE for everyone.  Everyone COULD get it if they worked hard enough, and just because people don't get there, they claim it doesn't devalue having the dream itself.  I LOVE when students walk into this statement, because later when we see Gatsby NEVER had a shot at this dream...that it really was all just built up as a delusional possibility for him...they understand his pain more deeply.  Before you get your hopes up, they still believe in the American Dream and "you can do anything you set your mind to" philosophy to a rather surprising level...but at least they can accurately see that Gatsby believed that too and got NOTHING from his hard work.)
  • So if we buy in to the idea that those homes represent the American Dream...what American STRIVE for...what does it mean that it's getting torn down now?  Is that symbolic?  (Again, this is open for interpretation as long as students show you their logic.  You could argue that it isn't symbolic because we've moved on in the world and now the "epitome" of what we want is a beach home in Hollywood or a mansion somewhere else.  However, you could also argue that it still represents the American Dream because this developer bought this historic landmark and is destroying it to build five mansions...which will clearly benefit him economically.  Isn't that the American Dream?  Don't we run over history to get what we want now?  Totally.  And another thing...why is this home in such TERRIBLE shape after only 100 years?  There are plenty of homes from the 1900's that were much better maintained than this one.  Is that indicative of the carelessness of the wealthy or material-seeking class perhaps?  This is another topic that will be ideal for discussion, especially since we'll be talking more about the American Dream in the novel as it progresses.)

When we conclude our discussion, students will be given whatever time is remaining to continue reading and working on character maps for tonight's reading assignment, which will be all of Chapter 6 and part of Chapter 7 (through page 133 when they leave the gas station).  

Next Steps

Next time we will have a quiz over Chapters 6 & the assigned section of Chapter 7, and we will also return to acting out the novel.  At this point we are rapidly nearing the Prairie State Achievement Exam, so I am trying to cut down on the written work I am assigning students outside of class to allow them the time they desire to attend our school's ACT Prep classes.  I am continuing to assign reading homework, however, because by now students have gotten into the book and I know they will take the time to complete the homework.  If I see their interest level starting to fade, I usually toss in some cliff-hanging comment before they leave the classroom like, "Ooo, I can't wait for you to read tonight's chapter.  You're going to FLIP OUT when you see Daisy burn Tom at this party!" or "Tonight's chapter starts the downward slope of the literary rollercoaster...but you CAN'T read farther than page 133.  Fight the urge.  I'll be mad if you do! You'll ruin everything."  These gentle nudges toward reading have actually been pretty effective for this particular novel, which I famously describe as Jerry Springer of the Twenties.  What kid doesn't want a reason to read about rich people, violence, drunken debauchery, love triangles, organized crime, and bootlegging?  'Nuff said.