My favorite book to teach was The Scarlet Letter–the countless examples of symbolism, the past vs. present theme within the novel, the early references to the women’s rights movement, and my incredible compare/contrast assignment with The Village–but, in response to the approximately 25 juniors who failed English 3 every first semester (they identified the difficulty of the language in SL as one reason for failure), our department choose to only teach SL in honors English. We replaced it with The Crucible.
This year is my second without The Scarlet Letter, and I have not fallen in love with any of my extended text units. This semester, I have a student teacher who has been responsible for the lesson planning. And I quickly realized that The Great Gatsby, the novel that I have taught for years as an independent reading assignment using an online classroom (Nicenet) while we prepared the students for standardized testing, has much more complexity than I have taught in other years.
To explore the American nightmare theme, Narrative.ly (I love this website!!) published a set of essays for the week of January 6th, 2014 (the theme was titled American Dreamless). I was able to use these five nonfiction essays (checkmark for CCSS) to provide students with contemporary examples of people who give everything to attempt the American dream but never achieve it as a preview before beginning the novel.
Two activities that my student teacher created for the novel that I had never used before were to read biographies of the real people that Fitzgerald based his characters on (I knew Arnold Rothstein, but not the others) and cite the textual evidence from the biographies and from the novel to compare and contrast the two (real person and character). To meet standard 7 (exploring different artisitc media/multiple interpretations), she showed different Gatsby movie trailers starting with the 1926 version (1926, 1949 1974, 1990’s made-for-tv, and, of course, 2013). The students analyzed what each director (or movie trailer editor) emphasized and what a viewer would expect from that movie; students then compared/contrasted each with the novel.
Being able to listen to the class discussion, I realized that the color references are much more detailed than I usually teach. For next year, I want to do more with the gold and not-gold references; I also just read a short story by Kim Edwards titled “Gold” that includes description of the allure of a gold-colored car. The entire story would relate well to the novel, but I plan to just use the excerpt about the car. In the same collection of short stories (The Secret of the Fire King), Edwards has a short story titled “In the Garden” that is set in the 1920’s and is about a man who believes that he has found the fountain of youth by drinking radium (it makes sense if you are familiar with the historical context); while the story has many similarities to Hawthorne’s “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” it shares the I-will-go-to-any-lengths-to-win-the-girl concept with Gatsby.
Finally, the other symbolism that I became aware of a couple years ago but have not been able to include in a lesson yet is the animal symbolism in the names of the party guests. If you search the names, East Egg and West Egg names, the majority of them are the names of animals. Klipspringer, for example, is a small species of African antelope. A couple names could be a fluke, but the majority of names must be intentional. I just haven’t figured out why Fitzgerald chose to use them (two older scholarly articles exist about the animal names but neither has a definitive conclusion).
While Gatsby has been an easy novel to teach, it hasn’t always been my favorite. However, I need to take advantage of the renewed cultural interest as a result of the 2013 movie, so I will make it my new favorite to focus on improving my unit. After a couple years, I will chose a different favorite book and focus my efforts on it.