Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Final Project on the American dream

The Great Gatsby Final Project

This project could be used after students have read The Great Gatsby as a final unit project. With some modifications, it could also be used before students read The Great Gatsby to prepare them for the themes found in the novel.

Essential questions: Is there still such a thing as “the American Dream” in today’s world? How does the idea of an “American dream” affect modern American society?

Goals/objectives: Students will be able to understand the history of the American dream.
Students will be able to understand how “the American dream” has evolved in modern society.
Students will be able to decide whether the American dream is possible in modern society or whether it is impossible, and provide evidence to back up their argument.

One of the most prevalent themes of the novel is the impossibility of the “American dream.” Gatsby was the traditional “rags-to-riches” story that American society loves to tell. According to Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby showed up in New York after the war, decorated in metals, but he “hadn’t eaten anything for a couple of days.” Wolfsheim “raised him up out of nothing, right out of the gutter.” Gatsby eventually got everything that “the American dream” promised: money, mansions, flashy cars, “friends,” etc., however, he was never happy because he couldn’t have the one thing he wanted: Daisy. He died completely alone, without friends, very little family, and not even a note or message from the love of his life. Thus, the overarching message of The Great Gatsby has been widely taught to be that the American dream really is impossible. The idea that people can begin with nothing, work hard, and eventually achieve success and happiness is seen as completely untrue. In this unit, I want students to really look at the question of the “American dream.” Is it really impossible? Can hard work ever result in success and happiness? If success and happiness is attainable to certain people, then who can have it? Who cannot? Why does the “rags-to-riches” story resonate so loudly to Americans?

In order to begin answering these questions, I will have students look critically at how the American dream has been portrayed historically and then move on to studying the modern depiction of the American dream and how modern culture perceives it. Because this theme can be subjective, I want students to explore the theme of the “American dream” and make their own decisions regarding the impossibility of it. Thus, instead of providing them with the answer as to what the “American dream” is, I want students to think through and make their own definition of it by experiencing the different ways modern society deals with the “American dream.”

I would begin this unit by asking students what they think the American dream is. Are they working towards “the American dream?” How would they know if they have achieved it? Students would freewrite their ideas and keep them as a reference to guide them through the unit. They will continually look back to this writing, and edit it or revise it as needed after they have worked with examples of the “American dream” in modern culture.

After this, we would then work on trying to discover where the idea of the “American dream” first originated. I would have students look at land ads from the 19th century that tried to entice immigrants from Europe as well as people from the east coast to move west and settle the land. Students would be divided into small groups, each group would get a chance to study and discuss each ad individually. They should look at the wording of the ads, what words are bigger than others, which ones are emphasized? Why do you think so?  Do they make any assumptions or promises? What do these ads say about America? What do the ads insinuate about the connection between America and success and happiness? Where can you see instances of Gatsby’s “American dream” in the ads?

After studying the ads and discussing them, students would be given Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus:" 

The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Students should read the poem, looking for connections between the messages portrayed in the ads and the message in the poem. What does the poem say about America? What does it insinuate about the American people? Once students have discussed the poem, they should go back to their original writings on their idea of “the American dream.” They should look critically at their original ideas of the American dream and compare it to the American dream in the ads and in the poem. Are they different? Why? They should write down any new thoughts that they have after viewing the ads or revise their original thoughts with their new knowledge. However, their original writings should not be thrown away, just added to. Since “the American dream” is slightly subjective, once students have thoroughly written out their ideas, I would want them to discuss in small groups their individual definitions of the American dream to help get everyone on the same page and hear what their peers think the "American dream" is. While discussing, they could focus on questions such as: What does it mean to be working toward the American dream? How do you get it and how do you know that you have achieved it? Did Gatsby achieve it?

Once students have discussed their ideas, we can begin looking at how the idea of the “American dream” is still present in American society and how it affects American life. To do this, I will show them various instances of “the American dream” in modern media. In addition to the examples I have chosen, students are also encouraged to bring in examples of a depiction of the “American dream” that they find to share with the class.

I think that one of the best examples of the “American dream” in modern media is the use of it in advertising. Students can look at the way that advertising companies target Americans working towards the “American dream” to sell their products. These companies want Americans to think that they can buy happiness and success when they buy their product. Here are a few examples of ads that link their product to the achievement of the “American dream.”

Rice Krispies



Students would view the commercials and discuss how the “American dream” is portrayed in each. How do the advertisements try to sell their products by promoting the “American dream?” If a consumer was to buy these products, would they have achieved the “American dream?” Do these commercials make you rethink your original definition of the “American dream?” After viewing the commercials, students should revisit their writings on the "American dream." Does the depiction of the dream in the commercial coincide with their original thought? How is it the same/different?

To help students further round out their ideas about the "American dream," they can view clips from recent television shows. Recently, there have been quite a few popular shows that depict the opposite of the “American dream.” These shows either depict the “American dream” on the surface and then dig deeper to show corruption underneath (such as the way home life is depicted in Mad Men) or they completely do away with the “American dream” and show families living in complete chaos.

A good example of this is The Middle:

In The Middle the comedic effect comes from the fact that this family is not living the life that is sketched out in the “American dream.” They are the complete opposite. The show asks the viewer to recall the idea of the perfect “American dream” life, an idea that is instilled in every American, and then compare this idea to the depiction of the dysfunctional family. Students can compare this clip to the commercials seen earlier that depicted “super moms” with perfect kids. Has the “American dream” completely shattered in “The Middle”? Or is this a modified version of the “American dream?” Is the family in “The Middle” exaggerated or is this really how Americans live today? What does it say about the state of the “American dream” in modern culture when in its perfect form it is used to force us to buy things, but when it breaks down, it is used as comedy? Overall, I want students to see how both sides of the “American dream” argument – that the American dream is possible on one side and impossible on the other – is surrounding them every day and affecting their lives. Once again, after viewing the clip, students should reexamine their writings on the American dream and see if they should be changed, revised, or added to. 

Finally, to help students gain a larger view of the American dream and how it affects not only their own lives and the lives of their fellow Americans, students can news clips that depict immigration to America to explore the way that others view America and the reasons why people immigrate to America. This is a good example:

Why did the family immigrate to America? What is available to them in America that isn’t available in Mexico? Were they able to achieve the “American dream?” Why or why not? 
Compare this video to the “free land” ads we viewed earlier. How are they different? How are they similar? Does this mean that the “American dream” is only reachable for certain people?

Here once again students can go back again to their original writing of what they think the American dream is and reevaluate it to see if any of their ideas have changed. They can then use their writings to open discussion of what they think the "American dream" is and why.  

For a final project, students should use their original and revised writings on their ideas of the “American dream” to decide what exactly the “American dream” is and what it means to Americans. They will then use their interpretation of the American dream to decide if achieving the “American dream” in modern culture really is impossible as Fitzgerald would have us believe in The Great Gatsby or if he was wrong and it is possible to achieve the “American dream.” Or they can claim that neither side is right and the “American dream” is possible for some, but not others or even that it doesn’t exist at all. Overall, I want students to explore their individual beliefs on the “American dream.” Once students have made their decision, they should collect evidence that supports their claim. They can use anything in modern culture: music videos, film clips, advertisements, commercials, etc., that supports their decision. They will then compile their evidence (at least 5 pieces) into either a VoiceThread or a video presentation to share with the class. The presentation should state explicitly the student’s views on the “American dream” and then use the collected evidence to back up his claim. 

(The images of the land/home ads are from the Library of Congress's digital collection. All video clips are from

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