Teaching The Great Gatsby: How I Plan My Unit

Teaching The Great Gatsby: Unit-Planning

MY PAST: FROM HATE TO GREAT

I love teaching The Great Gatsby now, but in high school, I didn’t enjoy reading it. In fact, I despised it: the eggs, the parties, the wealth, and the carelessness…all of it. I remember thinking, “Why should I care? How is this relevant?” At some point, I think I just tuned out and went through the motions, collecting my As on papers without ever being fully engaged. Fake it ’til ya make it, right? Just like Gatsby!

Over the years, I've developed a love for teaching The Great Gatsby.

Fast forward 5 years, again, just like Gatsby, and suddenly, I was looking at this novel through a new lens. A fresh young teacher, I was preparing to teach The Great Gatsby to my first American Lit classes. So I re-read the novel. As I turned each page, I began to appreciate Fitzgerald’s compelling language, Gatsby’s undying hope, the perfectly crafted symbolism, the transcending themes, and the life and death of the American dream in a mere 180 pages. By the end of the novel, I had found my green light: a goal of making Gatsby engaging and relevant for today’s teens. And I’ve been beating on, a boat against the current, ever since!

TEACHING GATSBY: A BOAT AGAINST THE CURRENT

That current is a mix of adolescent apathy and kids who don’t read, unlikeable characters, and the difficulty of making Fitzgerald’s language accessible to teens. When I’m working against the current, I remember my past hatred of the book, and I’m inspired to dream a little more about how I can engage my students. Over the past 5 years, I’ve reflected and revised my Gatsby approach, throwing some lessons out, creating new activities, and tweaking others. And unlike Jay Gatsby, I’ve embraced my past and used it to create lessons that can withstand the reality of teaching a tough but worthwhile text to teenagers. Now, my Gatsby unit is “my baby.” I look forward to teaching it every year and get a little sad when it’s over (which why I am writing this post and trying to live vicariously through my blog).

Ever since I started religiously Instagram storying my Gatsby units, I’ve received many questions and comments about how I plan and teach this text, so I thought I would address everything in a series of 5 blog posts (one for each year of Gatsby’s broken dreams). In this first post, I’ll outline my approach to teaching Gatsby and how I plan my units. The following posts will walk you through how I teach all of the skills and essential questions I mention below. Enjoy, old sports!

MY APPROACH

I’ve heard (well, mainly seen in ELA Facebook group comments) some fiery debates over teaching the novel vs. teaching the standards/skills. There is merit in both approaches, and certainly, the extremes of both sides should be avoided. So that’s why my approach is a happy medium. I believe that you can have your cake and eat it, too! You can teach students to appreciate literature and what it reveals about the world AND teach the standards without drowning the reading experience in drill-and-kill instruction.

Another debate involves the teaching of whole-class novels vs. literature circles or choice reading. Once again, balance is key. There’s a time, place, and group of students for every approach. I facilitate literature circles with Into the Wild, but I’ve always taught The Great Gatsby as a whole-class novel. That being said, my whole-class approach is very student-centered, and there’s not a whole lot of me standing at the podium and facilitating whole-class discussions. Rather, there are small-group discussions and student-led whole class discussions (Socratic Seminars).

PLANNING MY UNIT: STANDARDS TO TEACH

A classic like Gatsby can be overwhelming, because there’s so much you can do with it. I remember having no idea what to focus on as a brand new teacher. Over the years, I’ve been able to determine the primary standards I want to teach, and then plan backwards from there. When I am teaching The Great Gatsby, I focus on the following Common Core standards:

  • Author’s Choices:
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.3: Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
  • Word Choice: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings. Analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)
  • Themes & Central Ideas: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.2: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account. Provide an objective summary of the text.
  • Citing Textual Evidence: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

When unit planning, I always make sure I have a collection of essential questions that will drive teaching and learning. Without standards and these “big picture” questions, it’s easy to lose focus of your objectives. Here are my top 10 questions that drive my Gatsby unit:

  1. What is Nick’s complex attitude toward Gatsby?
  2. What is Nick’s attitude toward Eastern Society, and how does it change throughout the text?
  3. How does Fitzgerald use symbolism to accomplish his purpose in writing?
  4. How does Fitzgerald use setting to accomplish his purpose in writing?
  5. Why did Fitzgerald choose Nick to be the narrator?
  6. Why did Fitzgerald choose to end the novel with Gatsby’s tragic death?
  7. What makes Gatsby great? Why did Fitzgerald title the novel The Great Gatsby?
  8. Why did Fitzgerald write The Great Gatsby?
  9. What is Fitzgerald’s commentary on the Roaring 20s?
  10. What can we learn from The Great Gatsby?

HOW TO ASSESS

I utilize a variety of formal and informal assessments and checkpoints throughout my unit, including bell-ringers, quizzes, group work, an escape room, a blame chart, writing tasks, and more. My definition of “assessment” is open-ended, and I like to mix up my approach to support a variety of needs and learning preferences.

I use Socratic Seminars to assess student understanding during The Great Gatsby.
A Socratic Seminar is a great way to empower students.

The primary formal assessment model I use for our Gatsby unit is a Socratic Seminar. With this student-centered approach, students are empowered to learn from each other as they demonstrate mastery of the standards and understanding of the questions. I facilitate one seminar halfway through the novel and another at the end. To prepare for seminars, students create their own questions about Fitzgerald’s choices, themes, and other elements. For information on structuring your own seminar, check out this blog post. If you would like to save time with ready-to-print materials, check out my Socratic Seminar For ANY Text resource.

In addition to a Socratic Seminar, I also assess students’ understanding of author’s choices, theme/purpose, and evidence with an extended response question. This is actually on our final exam because Gatsby is the last text we read in the semester, and it has always made sense to do that.

HOW TO SCAFFOLD GATSBY

As you can see, all of the aforementioned standards describe analytical skills, not mere comprehension. But of course, students must be able to comprehend before they can analyze. I teach such a wide range of learners that I’ve realized I have to scaffold comprehension of Gatsby in different ways.

Scaffolding Vocabulary

Teaching The Great Gatsby can be challenging, but these vocabulary bookmarks scaffold Fitzgerald's language.

One of the largest barriers standing in front of comprehension is Fitzgerald’s complex (but beautiful) language. In fact, this is the first thing I see students get frustrated with when we begin reading Chapter 1. But because I know this is a recurring issue, I’ve learned to scaffold it before I hear my students’ grumbles about the “big, fancy words.” To support my students’ understanding of Fitzgerald’s complex language, I created a set of vocabulary bookmarks, one for each chapter. I print, copy, and cut these before our unit and pass out a new one each time a chapter is due. These bookmarks are incredibly helpful to students, and I thoroughly enjoy answering questions of “What does this mean?” with “Look at your vocabulary bookmark!”

Scaffolding Comprehension

Another way to support comprehension in order to move students toward analysis is through using the film version. I’m a big fan of the 2013 version (Hello, Leo!) Pressing play on the movie is not “lazy” teaching; in fact, when you structure it correctly, it can be effective scaffolding for struggling students and English language learners. Students can still practice the standards from above: The text becomes the film, the author’s choices become director’s choices, the textual evidence becomes the visual details, etc.

The movie makes literary analysis more accessible for all students.  Literary analysis can be an intimidating, elusive concept for students, but it’s really just a matter of two big questions: Why? and How? Why did the author do this? How did the author do this? Using the film will help your students see the directors also make deliberate choices for certain effects on the viewers. When we dissect Fitzgerald’s language, we’re not just being crazy English teachers! Film directors dissect language, analyze characters, examine theme, and more, and then they make choices about how to best portray those elements on the big screen. For many of my students, analyzing the film has helped them “get it.” It’s also trained them to be more observant and inquisitive as read or watch movies.

In order to facilitate effective film analysis that transfers to literary analysis, I created film analysis worksheets for each segment of the movie. If you’d like more information on creating your own questions, check out the fifth tip on this blog post.

ASSIGNING READING HOMEWORK

When mapping out my Gatsby unit, I typically assign reading homework every other night, with a few exceptions for extension activities or assessments. This gives us 2 days per chapter, which works out well. I do try to read (or listen to the audio) the first chapter aloud and find other pockets of time where students can get some reading done in class. But let’s face reality: If our green light is 100% of students completing their reading homework, that’s unattainable.

Like Gatsby, I was a dreamer my first year of teaching, and when students didn’t do their reading homework, it absolutely crushed me. Let me just let you down now: If your students are anything like mine, some of them are NOT GOING TO DO THEIR READING HOMEWORK. I learned this the hard way, so I learned to approach my Gatsby unit differently. Over the years, I’ve revised lessons so that they aren’t entirely dependent on the reading homework. I know that may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s my way of still reaching those non-readers, who — if they had their way — would just sit in class and shrug, saying “IDK. I didn’t read.” When you plan lessons that make the text accessible, through lots of excerpts, close reads, and group work, you will increase exposure and engagement for those reluctant readers (or non-readers).

If you’d like more information on how plan these kinds of lessons and combat this perpetual problem, I wrote an entire blog post on what to do when kids aren’t reading!

THANKS FOR READING, OLD SPORT!

I hope this post helped you to jump-start or tweak your Gatsby plans! With a beautiful, challenging classic like Gatsby, I think it’s incredibly important to re-read the text, annotate it, and spend some time really thinking about it before you start planning lessons. So while you’re waiting on my following blog posts about how I teach the novel, maybe you can grab your copy of the book, get cozy, and find some time to revel in Fitzgerald’s language and Gatsby’s dreams. While you’re reading, feel free to chat with me in the comments or pop in my Instagram DMs if you just want to talk nerdy to me about The Great Gatsby!

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