High School

Gatsby for the 21st Century Student

I told my Freshman High School English teacher that even though I loved to read, I didn’t care for English class because we never read anything “cool.” A year later, I returned to her classroom to recant my previous statement. I fell in love with English class when I read The Great Gatsby. As a sixteen-year-old, I defined Fitzgerald’s work as a rare masterpiece. Seven years later, I was assigned English III (American Lit) and tasked to teach Gatsby. Imagine my delight to share my first love with my students!
I fell in love with English class when I read The Great Gatsby Click To Tweet
By the end of the first discussion, I was disheartened. Despite my enthusiasm and the hype around the upcoming movie release, most of my students refused to read. They couldn’t even be bothered to consult Sparknotes or to watch the original movie version. They didn’t care. Their essays (common assessment set by the department) were abysmal because they wouldn’t read. They didn’t care about the green light or the meaning of the title. They didn’t care about how Nick’s unreliability affected the storyline. They didn’t care about Fitzgerald’s criticism of the American Dream. My heart broke.
Over the following three years, I developed an Inquiry-Based Learning unit for The Great Gatsby in hopes of sparking something within my students. The process required researching for hours, collaborating with teachers, and revising plans with students. At the end of last year, my honors students overwhelmingly chose Gatsby as their favorite unit. They don’t love the book for the same reasons I do, but they appreciate the timelessness of Fitzgerald’s story. Most importantly, they reference the story when speaking about their lives.
The Essential Question: When developing the essential question, I listed several Gatsby themes. Then I looked for a real-world connection, before I selected a theme to focus on. After reading about Ethan Couch (sixteen year old who killed four people while driving under the influence) and his “affluenza” (“Rich person syndrome”) case, I established the essential question: How can money corrupt an individual?
The Assessment: One year I had the students write an essay that answered the essential question. They had to use the resources provided in class (listed below) and one piece of personal research. Last year, I expanded the project to include a group component (in addition to the individual essay). As a team, students had to propose an appropriate consequence for Ethan Couch’s probation violation. This group assignment helped students prepare for their individual research projects (the following unit). Students enjoyed the group project because they had more opportunities to discuss their opinions. Additionally, I had the group project reviewed by a committee (Social Studies Teacher, Law Teacher, and myself) to determine which group argued the strongest proposal. This created an authentic assignment for the students.
Resources: 1.) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. 2.) News articles and tv reports about Ethan Couch. 3.) Psychology publications about “Affluenza”. 4.) Law & Order: SVU episode about wealthy kids drinking (mix of summary and clips).
Activities: Reading Check Quizzes (reading accountability), Socratic Seminars, Fishbowl Discussions, Free Writes, 4 Corner Debates (ask a discussion question, give 4 options for answers, argue the “best” answer). Additionally, we worked on targeted writing skills.
the essential question was something they wanted to answer because it was relevant to their world. Click To Tweet
Why this unit was successful: Unlike my non-IBL units, most students came to class prepared to discuss. Why? They understood that they needed Gatsby in order to answer the question. Furthermore, the essential question was something they wanted to answer because it was relevant to their world. Since they already had an answer to the question at the start of the unit, they worked harder to argue their opinions with the resources provided. Working with a team provided security and feedback that later led to confidence in the following unit. Having the group project reviewed by a committee provided an authentic learning experience (and some competition). Most importantly, this unit was a success because I invited students to help me revise plans. They stayed after school to voice their opinions, and therefore, they became stakeholders in the unit. Even though I compromised on some of my objectives, I was still able to share my love for this novel. Best of all, I know that it mattered because a year later those students are still discussing Gatsby with me.

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