Reflection: Real World Applications The American Dream: An Image Stored Up in Our Ghostly Hearts? - Section 4: Closing


I have a few pet-projects that I see as part of my responsibility as a teacher, and two big ones are creating a social awareness and a capacity for empathy in students.  My school is extremely homogeneous, and it is predominantly composed of white, middle-to-upper class students, so I try to bring in diverse perspectives whenever possible.  However, in the SIX years that I've been teaching this novel, I have never successfully been able to convince the overwhelming majority of my students that the American Dream is in jeopardy.  (Let's not even get me started on trying to get them to try to separate the consumer-driven basis that for most of them epitomizes the American Dream!  I choose my battles, and this one is one that would drive me too insane to push toward it.)  Likewise, I'm rarely able to convince them that the stereotypical "American Dream" is something that is really not possible for some people based on the conditions of the United States today.  Unfortunately, the handful of students that believe that the American Dream might not be possible for everyone are typically also the students that feel it's not possible for them.  Needless to say, that creates even more of a problem in my classroom, because I end up with one students who KNOWS this truth on a deep level and 30 other students who spit platitudes at them, assuring them that they really can go to Harvard and be an astronaut at NASA.  

Anyway, this refusal to investigate or accept the idea that the American Dream is exclusionary for some really harms my students' understanding of this novel.  It's integral that students get that Gatsby couldn't have done ANYTHING to change Daisy's mind, short of going back and time and being born from a wealthy woman who came from old money, which is obviously not possible.  The book is SO painful when you realize that he's been sucked up into this illusion of possibilities that were never really his own, and that's the intention of Fitzgerald as he's writing it.  The wheels have fallen off the trolley, and the social system is BROKEN.  If students don't understand that concept on a deep level, so much of the book is lost on them.  

Obviously, I've tried many things to get my students to really evaluate their ideas about the American Dream.  I typically start with a humorous example in an attempt to quiet my "you can do anything you put your mind to!" repeaters.  I'm a hefty lady, so I try explaining that no matter what my I-can-do-it mindset, I'm 30 years old, chubby, and never getting to the Olympics for a track and field event.  No amount of training could get me Olympic-ready, and even if it magically did, a woman of my age would NOT be able to compete against young ladies in their prime.  While humorous (and true), students even hesitate to acquiesce to this impossible example, suggesting vigorously that yes, I totally could if I put my mind to it.  Hmph.

So, I move on to something more serious.  If you REALLY REALLY want to get into Harvard and you're reasonably intelligent, with good scores on your ACTs, SATs, and transcript, some people are still excluded from that dream.  First off, not everyone who applies to Harvard gets in.  Secondly, the application fees to even APPLY to most Ivy League schools could be cost-prohibitive to students who come from low-income families.  Heck, I came from a middle-class household and couldn't even afford to apply to Notre Dame!  (Not that I regret that, ultimately...go Northern Illinois Huskies!)  So in that scenario, I would NOT be able to fulfill my dream, no matter my effort.  An outside influence took that away from me, right?  (Typically students still don't accept this.  It will frustrate the heck out of you.)  

I'm not going to recount every example or attempt I've ever given, but I have been ceaseless in my efforts to make students understand that we really AREN'T all equal.  I've showed them graphs and research showing that the Millenials will be the first generation to be financially worse off than their parents.  I've investigated PEW findings that U.S. income inequality is as bad as it was in 1928 (hmm...right around the time that The Great Gatsby was written...coincidence?   I think not!).  I've had them play with interactive maps that track poverty through time and correlated them with articles showing that access to education varies by income level.  I am continuing my quest to help my students understand this idea so that they can get out into the world to CHANGE this trend...but I'm running into yet another problem: my students largely lack empathy for others.  

As far as I can tell, it's a trend everywhere that young people are lacking in empathy.  I've done research as to its causes (and how to change it), and again, I try everything, but I'm never really sure how successful I am in imparting empathy to my students.  I feel like a lot of it has to do with their consumption of media and their interaction with technology, so that's one of the reasons that I appreciate the Common Core's focus on the speaking and listening standards.  It's also a big reason why so much of my classroom is discussion-based.  Students need to talk to other students to truly hear what students from diverse backgrounds have to say.  Without this element, many students simply surround themselves with like-minded friends, filter their news feeds to whatever news they already enjoy, and use YouTube to experience entertainment that they have liked for their entire existence.  They never grow.  They never evolve.  They never see the scope of the world without a filter for their preferences on it.  Even Google tailors your search results based on what you will probably like to see and what you will most likely click on!  How is that for horrifying?  If we as teachers don't help students to understand the value of diversity and develop a capacity for empathy, I'm honestly very afraid that they never will.  Then, problems like all citizens' limited access to the American Dream will never get solved...or even the people in power.  

As a final thought, I would just encourage you to continue trying to help your students think outside of their own box, even if it's frustrating.  I know that I end up in a colleague's room a few times a year utterly irate that students can't empathize or won't recognize that issues exist, despite the evidence to the contrary.  Work your networks, and if you EVER find solutions to these problems, I beg you to share!  The teachers of the world could use a few solutions!  Also, check out the video below for some of the other ways you can encourage access to the American Dream.  While it does make a few jabs a the American Education system, he really does have some great points.  And really, if we're part of the teachers out there trying to make this difference, I am certain he would support our mission!

  The American Dream is in Trouble...Why Can't My Kids See That?
  Real World Applications: The American Dream is in Trouble...Why Can't My Kids See That?
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The American Dream: An Image Stored Up in Our Ghostly Hearts?

Unit 9: Is Gatsby Really so "Great"?
Lesson 4 of 12

Objective: 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?

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hempstead house gold coast
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