The Great Gatsby: the Culture & Legacy of 1920s America

Intended Grade Levels
11th grade (likely an Honors course)-post-secondary, depending on audience. Modifications can be made to instructional content and course materials depending on the intended grade level and school/homeschool environment. Class size should be around 16. Though this is written as an online unit, it can easily be modified to suit alternative educational settings.

Introduction and Rationale
As an interdisciplinary unit, ideally this segment would be team taught by English and History faculty. In a high school setting, most Juniors take American history and literature in the same year. And there is substantial curricular overlap. Tying all of the issues and materials introduced in this unit into an interdisciplinary exercise would facilitate a more meaningful and enriching learning (and teaching!) experience for students. This unit introduces students to literary analysis and historical research, but, more importantly, it teaches them how to weave the two together into a broader and deeper understanding of a specific period in American history. If the unit is not team taught, hopefully it can be planned to coincide with course content in History.
The unit is comprised of a combination of direct instruction and constructivist learning. It is also informed by Wiggins & McTighe’s (2006) Understanding by Design framework for teaching and learning. I have used and adapted instructional strategies and materials to facilitate broader and richer understandings of the texts and contexts of American literature. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards provided the most practical and insightful set of standards of those that I reviewed. Even so, I used the Standards as a complementary rather than guiding framework for curriculum design, content, and instructional methods. Honestly, for the most part, I had my unit plan sounded out before I consulted the standards for the legitimating theoretical principles. Nonetheless, I found it a useful exercise because it forced me to be reflective about my teaching methods and content. This liberates me, but it also forces me to grapple directly with the explicit and implicit assumptions and expectations that I possess regarding the creation of content and its execution in an instructional setting.

I believe that interdisciplinary teaching and learning that weaves together multiple strands of thought and fields of inquiry is most compatible with deep and meaningful comprehension. Therefore, I complement our reading of The Great Gatsby with historical events and insights and cultural criticism. This holistic approach to literature sustains a dialogue between text and context that encourages students to think more dynamically and critically about the role of literature in history and the role of history in literature. The NCTE Standards explain that “It is not enough to read a variety of works, however; students also need to discover the connections between them. Teachers can help students to discover these textual relationships by assembling clusters of readings” (NCTE, p. 20). I would augment the importance of building textual relationships with building contextual ones that highlight the dynamic interplay between fictional universes and the non-fictional ones in which they are produced, if not necessarily grounded. The NCTE’s second standard recommends that “Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g. philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience” and continues, “Literary works are valuable not just as informative or communicative vehicles, but as artistic creations and representations of human culture at particular times and in particular places” (NCTE, p. 21).

To provide a historical continuum to the issues raised in and by the course readings, the unit is designed to inspire a richer examination and acknowledgement of the historical roots of current ideologies and issues, e.g. the persistence of the “American Dream.” Since Gatsby is read by many as a tragedy premised on a faulty pursuit of an elusive yet tantalizing American dream, this text marks an excellent starting point to explore the ramifications and permutations of the American dream throughout the intervening years and events between its publication and now. To bring the discussion into the current historical moment, I will ask students to read texts, some as brief as newspaper articles or poems, others more elaborate essays, that investigate this powerful national ideological ideological construct. Allowing students to guide discussion while curtailing my own observations and critique of this pernicious mythology at the heart of national discourse and social policy will be exceptionally challenging, and this might well be the truest test of my ability to surrender to the process rather than commandeer it to produce a specific learning outcome!

Student-inspired and student-directed learning is a powerful teaching tool and an important component of this unit. Students will have multiple opportunities and forums in which to direct and enhance their own learning, as outlined below and to assess their progress and the course content. In the final assignment, the research topics that students select for their culminating paper are a product of their own supplementary historical research, rather than assigned by me.

Students will come to this unit with a diversity of skills and levels of achievement. Some students excel at class discussion, but falter when it comes to clarifying their ideas in written form. Others can write excellent essays, but have a hard time articulating their ideas in the classroom setting. Some students perform best on the in-class essay, under the pressure of time constraints, while others need longer periods of contemplation and gestation to organize their thoughts and observations. In terms of research, some students possess impressive research skills and may know how to use multiple academic databases and search for appropriate resources, though they may be less skilled in information literacy, i.e. knowing how to evaluate and synthesize those findings. In other words, in this class, as in all others, students possess varied strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully, the diversity of assignments and instruction draws upon students’ strengths and addresses and ameliorates their weaknesses. As in most of the units that I construct, the most important skill necessary for student success is motivation and persistence.

Timeline and course format
The unit unfolds over the course of 7 weeks, and is a component of a year-long American Literature survey course (at either the high school or college level). Classes meet twice a week for one-hour sessions to discuss assigned readings. Class sessions will be held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. I will share my desktop with students to present notes, post and highlight certain portions of the texts, and to point out links or further topics of interest. Every Monday I will post notes to the class web site that are meant to complement rather than supplant students’ reading and interpretive endeavors. Aside from recording class meetings, there will be a designated “reporter” assigned each week to gather and record the key discussion points raised during the week’s sessions. The student will then post her/his notes to the course web site by Sunday at 11.59 PM. The intention of this practice is to foster a continuing thread of discussion and dialogue throughout class sessions as well as to encourage student comprehension and synthesis. This is an ungraded assignment, but students will be given credit or non-credit for the task, which will then be factored into the final “process grade” for the unit. Students will also be required to attend an orientation session with the librarian as well as to set up an individual meeting with the librarian to discuss specific research issues and questions. There will be no class sessions in Weeks 6 & 7 so that students can focus on their research and writing. However, during this time, I will be monitoring students’ progress via observations of their blogs as well as individual meetings (via Skype or, if not possible, via google docs and email).

I will provide an introductory lecture during the first class session as well as post supplementary notes to the course web site to situate The Great Gatsby in historical context and literary culture. This lecture will include a timeline of related events, a brief overview of Fitzgerald’s biography, and an explanation of the key learning objectives and milestones of the unit.

Class sessions will have a dual focus: discussion of the primary text with regard to stylistic conventions and literary form and relating secondary texts to the primary text. Students will be encouraged to read Gatsby closely, as they would any other literary text, but also to bring the secondary materials to bear on their reading and vice versa. Hopefully, this will foster a lively discussion that explores the relationship between products and processes of American history. Some secondary materials will be more “obviously” relevant to the primary text, e.g. materials from the Library of Congress’s online holdings pertinent to the 1920s. Others, like the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, may appear to be tangentially relevant, but a deeper connection will be examined during class discussion and/or my notes, and potentially unraveled in the independent research students perform for their final papers. The purported relevance or irrelevance of specific materials offers the class an opportunity to examine what exactly we mean when we assign these labels and to examine cultural production as a holistic process of intertextuality and interconnectedness. Class discussions are meant to serve as a model for how to conduct close reading (in preparation for the in class passage analysis) as well as a conduit for broader conversations that encourage intertextual and intercontextual dialogue (to help assist in their research process).

Although I will begin the unit without a discussion board in favor of more spontaneous class discussions, I will conduct an interim assessment to determine whether class time would be better spent focusing more directly on specific questions that can be posted before class sessions and responded to on a discussion board. The purpose of the more open-ended and fluid format that I begin with is to generate more student-based discussion and foster a shared sense of ownership of the class’s progression amongst all involved, teachers and students alike. As the instructor I will help guide and moderate the discussion, but I hope that the students will take the more active role in fleshing out the themes and concepts central to this unit. This entails a degree of risk and ceding of control on my part, since I am certain that there will be issues that I am hoping to cover in class discussion that may or may not get brought up, but I will use the class notes posted to the course web site once a week to supplement class discussion. In other words, I hope that the discussion evolves organically over time as the unit unfolds and students begin to build deeper understandings of the texts at hand, this moment in American history, and their investment within it.

Course Content

The selection of readings comports with the NCTE Standards 1 & 2 that suggest a sound rationale behind curriculum design. The readings represent diverse and often divergent points of view, draw upon students’ experience, and present questions and issues that are relevant to the contemporary world.

Most reading assignments pair a selection from Gatsby with a secondary text to facilitate a dialogue between the two. Some sessions will focus solely on Gatsby depending on the section under consideration. The convergence of texts and issues is intended to produce a broader understanding of the dialectical relationship between history and historical context and cultural forms and production. Though short in length at less than 200 pages depending on the edition, Gatsby is dense in terms of content and rich and far-reaching opportunities for discussion. The timeframe allotted for reading assignments and discussion reflects the latter consideration in order to foster a deeper and more engaged reading of the text.

I am aware of the abundance of scholarly (and not so scholarly) cultural criticism of The Great Gatsby on the Web (as well as the extensive collection of free or fee-based research papers instantly available to students). It is my sincerest hope that the Honor Code that governs student conduct in the entire course prevails in this unit and that students refrain from reading and relying on critical materials addressing these issues to facilitate their class participation. The research paper will allow students plenty of time to examine scholarly articles, but here again, I hope that students develop their own arguments based on original research rather than reproducing and reiterating others’ ideas.

Primary text:
The Great Gatsby

Secondary texts:
These selections are intended to provide students with an introduction to and model of interdisciplinary dialogue and research. The topics covered and broached by these readings are meant to serve as an overview and prompt for further investigation of topics of interest to students. The texts will be drawn from a broad range of media included to highlight alternative methods of documenting history and to encourage students to explore these media in their own research. I also include a host of primary sources to introduce students to the use and analysis of online primary source materials. Examples of proposed readings are listed below and grouped by theme. It’s likely that this list will remain in this order when pairing with Gatsby, but I might rearrange them when I flesh out the unit further and as the class progresses.

Selections from Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, video footage of Ellis Island drawn from the Library of Congress’s (LOC) American Memory Resources, description and experiences of “Americanization” culled from excerpts from Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America

Covering both urban migration and urbanization patterns and trends and African American migration to the cities. Excerpts from Eric Arnesen, Black Protest and the Great Migration: A Brief History with Documents. We will also look at photos and newspaper articles from mainstream and African American newspapers.

World War I in Historical and Cultural Context
In this segment we will look at posters, media representation and statistics. But the focus will be on exploring the impact of World War I on the overall “zeitgeist” of the era, particularly in the cultural realm, in terms of shifts in content and form/style in literary and artistic works. I need to think and research more extensively to choose representative materials that speak to these issues.

Women’s Suffrage
Various posters, cartoons, and editorials documenting and satirizing the Women’s Movement. Excerpts from Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism and Otto Weininger, Sex and Character

The Harlem Renaissance
Continues the discussion of African American urban migration and its evolution and lived experience. Material includes: the poetry of Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Gwendolyn Bennett; visual art by Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden
Mass Production & Consumption: will be split into 2 sessions
Material will be used from The LOC’s American Memory Project, especially the collection entitled “Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929.” Media includes broadsides, advertisements, photos, audio files, and texts. Students will also read a brief selection from Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: an Economic Study of Institutions. Discussion will focus on mechanized production, factory work, the automobile, the commodification of leisure, and the psychology of consumption.

The Culture of the 1920s
Topics under consideration: What was the “Jazz Age?;” the Prohibition Era, bootlegging, and speakeasies; The flapper image and lifestyle. Some written texts will be included, but this unit will focus primarily on visual artifacts and literacy. Examples of materials include: photos depicting the culture of celebrity as embodied and embedded in Hollywood and gossip columns, photos of flapper culture and costume and depictions of “The Jazz Age;” images and text from Brown University Library’s digitized collection, “Alcohol, Temperance, and Prohibition.”
The American Dream in Images: will be split into 2 sessions
Excerpt from Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940, photos of Charles Sheeler’s architecture, selected Edward Hopper paintings, and the publications Life, Look, and Saturday Evening Post; selected images from Duke University’s digital collection, “The Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850-1920”
The Ideology of the American Dream in Contemporary Times: will be split into 2 sessions
Excerpts from Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking; Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America; June Jordan, “Waking up in the Middle of Some American Dreams;” Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet;” and contemporary multicultural short fiction and poetry
**All mandatory course readings will be completed by the end of Week 5, providing students with two full weeks to research and write their final paper.**

Students will have the opportunity at the unit’s conclusion to perform a summative assessment to review anonymously the readings and “rank” them based on relevance, intellectual substance and stimulation, personal interest, and other criteria TBD. I want to learn from students which readings “worked” or gelled best with the unit, without student fear of repercussions. I will take the survey information under consideration in future development of the unit.

Written Assignments
Aside from the informal writing of blog entries, students will be assessed based on one in-class passage analysis and a final research paper, comprised of both an abstract and the body of the paper. The diversity of assignments and forms offers students a chance to shape their writing according to audience, format, and purpose. This plurality is in accordance with NCTE Standard 5: “Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes” (NCTE, p. 25).

All of the assignments are aligned with NCTE Standard 5. More specifically, the NCTE reports that “Students need guidance and practice to develop their skills in academic writing, whether they are responding to literary works or writing for other school subjects…As with other aspects of learning, students’ ability to create text – whether expressive or academic, formal or informal – is best developed through engagement in meaningful reading and writing activities. Students who write in the context of meaningful goals are more likely to work carefully to shape and revise what they compose” (NCTE, p. 25). It is in this spirit that I have devised these assignments, especially the blogging and final research paper.

The final paper is also aligned with NCTE Standard 7 which focuses on students’ ability to define research questions and topics and to collect, evaluate, and synthesize their findings. The NCTE writes “Perhaps the idea of research is best considered in terms of inquiry – the learner’s desire to look deeply into a question or idea that interests him or her. Viewed in this way, research becomes an investigation into an issue or problem chosen by the student. It involves posing interesting and substantive questions, identifying and securing multiple data sources, analyzing and synthesizing data, and positing new findings or new understandings” (NCTE, p. 27).

In class Passage Analysis
Description: At the beginning of the seventh class, students will be given a passage from Gatsby (culled from prior reading) and asked to produce an analysis and close reading within the timeframe of the class session. At the end of the class session students will email the document to me as a word attachment. These must be submitted within ten minutes of the close of the class session.

Goal: This task challenges students to focus concretely on building an argument based on textual evidence and close reading. It will also demonstrate the extent to which students have been completing the reading and assimilating class discussion. The final product will demonstrate whether students know how to integrate quotations into their critical analysis: both stylistically/mechanically (do students know how to introduce and incorporate quotations properly?) and how to select and use appropriate textual evidence to substantiate their claims. Also, since the AP and college exams consists of timed essays, this exercise is integral to developing the skills and toolset necessary for students to respond quickly and confidently to a given essay topic.

Grading: Grading will be based on students’ ability to weave together a coherent thesis based on a micro-reading of the passage at hand. Since I have no way of surveilling students while they work, the honor system is in place to ensure that students do not seek “Internet assistance” while completing the assignment.

Description: The course of which this unit is a part requires students to create and maintain blogs devoted to reading responses. However, in this unit, students will use the blog to document the process of their research and preparation for the culminating research paper. This will ensure that students are thinking ahead and working methodically towards the paper. Students will be divided into four groups of four to read and comment on the progress of one another’s work, and I will comment individually as well (in private) to the student to help shape ideas and form as the work progresses. Once the student has completed her/his final draft, the group will be split into pairs, and students will peer-edit each other’s work.

Goal: This exercise is an extension of collaborative, or interdependent learning. It offers students a chance to express and flesh out ideas in an informal forum that provides feedback for and fosters dialogue with their peers. It builds trust and community amongst classmates and allows students to learn from one another as they build upon their peers’ comments and the independent work of their peers. It reflects the NCTE’s provision that “Students need frequent opportunities to talk and write as learners and thinkers. Student journals and small-group discussions may be especially productive in this regard. By engaging in these types of activities, and by discussing their reflections with others, students develop a sense of their own resourcefulness and of the possibilities that language makes available to them, and are better able to set and work toward their own goals. Such activities also provide their teachers with valuable insights into their students’ learning” (NCTE, p. 13). The assignment also promotes the creation of multiple and different literacy communities (as referred to in NCTE Standard 11). Since this is an online course, there is no face to face interaction. Thus, it is even more important to foster multiple streams of communication and collaboration between students. Though I will be perusing the blogs, it is important for students to know that they are being graded on their effort, rather than the content per se. That is, hopefully, there is less pressure on students to present a polished entry, and they use the forum as a way to flesh out ideas that may be inchoate at the moment of their expression.

Grading: Students will be assessed based both on their own blog entries, as well as the thoughtfulness with which they respond to those of their peers. The blogging assignment will also be included in the unit’s process grade described in further detail below.

Research Paper
Description: Instruction will focus on how to build a research paper around a text that incorporates context to explore broader themes and issues raised by the primary text. Students will develop their own research angles and theses. These topics may emerge from issues raised by the readings, during class discussion, or an independent reading. All topics will be thoroughly grounded in substantive research and analysis with feedback provided by both the instructor and fellow classmates. In consultation with the instructor, it is possible that students might produce a multimedia presentation, but the final product must reflect thorough research and analysis and cite scholarly resources.

Goal: Hopefully, by guiding students through the process of exploratory research and giving them an adequate amount of time to hone in on a topic of interest, the thesis will emerge organically as a result of their efforts. This is also intended to curtail students’ tendency to devise a thesis before doing the research, which often leads to a narrowed field of vision that seeks out sources that validate a particular point of view, rather than illuminating the richness of a particular topic. By selecting a broad topic of inquiry at the outset and being given ample time to conduct research, the hope is that the narrowing and refinement of topic and argument will proceed apace. The focus on guiding students through the nascent stages of formulating research questions and topics reflects NCTE Standard 7. The research process specifically addresses the use of online resources, reflecting the implementation of NCTE Standard 8.

Grading: Students will be given both a process and a product grade. I want to distinguish between the two in order to preserve the integrity of what I believe is an A-quality paper but at the same time to acknowledge the effort and work that goes into completing this assignment, regardless of the grade attached to the final product. The process grade will include blog entries and responses, consultations with both teacher and librarian, the abstract, credit for their posting of a class session report, and class participation.

The conclusion of the unit will offer students an opportunity to provide a “breakdown” of the entire unit anonymously to provide critical feedback to the instructor. In terms of the research paper, students will be required to submit an “essay cover sheet” along with the paper. This form asks them to comment on the process of writing the paper as well as the final product, inviting them to reflect on the “intellectual risks” they took in its composition, what they consider to be the paper’s strengths and weaknesses, and what areas of difficulty they encountered in the process. This provides me with valuable information both pertinent to the individual student as well as to the collective experience of the class with regard to this assignment.

Instructional Support
I perform two roles within the scope of this curricular unit: English instructor and teacher librarian. In the latter role, I will hold two class sessions and prepare a list of the library’s holdings related to The Great Gatsby and 1920s America and selected Internet resources, both library databases and other useful web sites. In the first class session, I will point out some of these Internet resources, e.g. JSTOR and America: History and Life, to show the diversity of materials and perspectives available to students for their research. I will focus primarily on search strategies before moving into a discussion of how to use, evaluate, and cite resources. Topics covered include: example of searching several databases (cross-searches); how to search by keyword, by subject, or medium; and limiting search parameters by date, type of media, narrowing subject, identifying the information source, assessing point of view, and verifying accuracy.

I will devise an online information literacy tutorial to supplement my instruction. During our second meeting, I will consult individually with students to pinpoint and address specific research-related issues that they are facing.

I will also prepare materials (“hand-outs”) that detail the steps of the research process, explain the purpose and content of an abstract, and other material that I think might be useful to guide students in the final assignment.

Curricular Standards
NCTE Standards 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, and 11
Standard 1
Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the demands and needs of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
Standard 2
Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g. philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of the human experience.
Standard 5
Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
Standard 7
Students conduct research on issues and interests generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g. print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
Standard 8
Students use a variety of technological and informational resources (e.g. libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
Standard 11
Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

California Department of Education. (1997). English language arts content standards for California
public schools. Retrieved from
International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English. (1996).
Standards for the english language arts. Retrieved from
Wiggins, G. &McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by design. 2nd ed. New Jersey: Pearson
Education, Inc.

© Rachel Rosekind, PhD, MLIS