Hi there, old sport! Let’s chat about teaching The Great Gatsby! Before we dive into Chapters 1-3 of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic, make sure that you’ve checked out my first post about my approach to teaching the novel as a whole.
Throughout the past 5 years, I’ve learned a lot about teaching The Great Gatsby, and my love for the novel has only grown as I’ve found ways to make my novel unit more engaging for my students. It’s my hope that this series of blog posts will help you spread the Gatsby love to your students and beat on against the currents that we face as English teachers! Whether you are teaching The Great Gatsby for the first time or looking to rehaul your existing unit, I hope you find the following information helpful. Happy teaching!
PRE-READING FOR THE GREAT GATSBY
As much as I love Gatsby, I’ll be the first to admit that this novel is challenging for my students! That’s why it’s incredibly important to scaffold during the pre-reading phase. Time invested during pre-reading will pay off when you ask students to critically think later on in the text. Students will not be able to analyze Fitzgerald’s symbolism, themes, or social commentary if they do not understand the historical context before reading.
To prepare students for reading, I facilitate pre-reading learning stations on the Roaring 20s. These stations help students understanding disillusionment and the Lost Generation, the economy and divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” prohibition and the rise of organized crime, and other key ideas that surface in The Great Gatsby. Additionally, I show “The Great American Dreamer” documentary that covers Fitzgerald’s scandalous life. During the documentary, I have my students complete a viewing guide that is designed to make them pay attention to the details and ideas that are reflected in the novel. Fitzgerald’s life shaped a lot of his work, especially The Great Gatsby, so the documentary helps build essential background information that students can use to draw parallels between Fitzgerald’s life and the novel.
After I am confident in my students’ understanding of the time period, I do one last bit of pre-reading to acquaint my readers with the text itself. Assigning Chapter 1 without support only results in confusion and frustration for my students, so I facilitate another round of learning stations to introduce students to the novel. Stations cover Nick, the setting, Daisy and Tom, and Gatsby, and they include excerpts of essential passages and dialogue so that students can “meet” the characters and make inferences before reading.
CHAPTER 1 OF THE GREAT GATSBY
Let’s all admit it: Chapter 1 is a doozy. I’m a devoted fan when it comes to teaching The Great Gatsby, and even I think the first few pages can be dry, boring, and challenging. That’s coming from me, so you can only imagine how reluctant high school readers feel when they open the book for the first time. When I think about reading from my students’ perspective, here’s what I keep in mind:
- Chapter 1 is not inherently engaging, and it’s difficult for students to relate to the characters, setting, and time period.
- The language is so complex that it will tempt struggling readers to close the book and never open it again.
- Nick is a bit of an awkward narrator, and it’s difficult to distinguish what’s important.
Hopefully I didn’t just convince you to remove Gatsby from your curriculum! I think it’s important to be honest with yourself as a teacher and with the students. I always warn my kids that Chapter 1 is challenging, and I attempt to keep them engaged with lots of begging along the lines of “Stay tuned for Chapter 2!”
But seriously, to address those three issues, I bring my A-game to Chapter 1 of Gatsby: lots of scaffolding, modeling, vocabulary support, and discussion! I also don’t expect my students to “get it” on the first read, and I don’t overwhelm them with much literary analysis just yet. Reading the first chapter is all about laying the foundation for teaching the standards during the rest of the model. I’m more concerned with getting my students through this tough chunk of the text and engaging them so that they actually want to keep reading. Our focus here is mainly comprehension, not analysis, and that’s okay.
After facilitating a discussion and doing some “think-alouds” to help students through challenging excerpts of the text, we do a “Character Report Card” activity that my students always enjoy. This activity asks students to “grade” Nick, Daisy, and Tom on different character traits and then provide evidence to support their evaluation of each character. It gets students critically thinking and discussing the text, and it’s a great way for them to notice that these characters aren’t particularly likable (which will help them analyze Fitzgerald’s social commentary later on).
CHAPTER 2 OF THE GREAT GATSBY
Finally, some filth, alcohol, an affair, and violence! Chapter 2 is typically when my students start nodding their heads like, “Okay, I can get into some juicy scandal!” Teaching this chapter is all about building on the foundation of the first chapter and taking the students’ understanding of setting, narration, and characterization to a more analytical level. It’s also a chance to begin to dissect some of Fitzgerald’s language.
For example, we always stop to discuss and analyze the first few paragraphs of the chapter, the description of the Valley of Ashes and the T.J. Eckleberg billboard. We analyze how Fitzgerald’s word choice contributes to the mood. I also start asking my students guiding questions about Fitzgerald’s choices here, in the hopes that I can lead them to an understanding of symbolism of this setting later on in the novel. Similarly, we practice close reading with Fitzgerald’s characterization of Myrtle, and then students compare Myrtle and Daisy and consider the importance of their names (flowers). My approach to teaching Chapter 2 is moving away from mere comprehension and teaching the “baby steps” it takes to get to full-blown analysis. I continue to do lots of modeling through “think-alouds,” but I also challenge the students to dive into the text and think for themselves. You can find my activities for Chapter 2 here!
I also make sure we discuss Nick’s attitude as the narrator, and I delight in leading a discussion over his “within and without” perspective (Fitzgerald 35). The 2013 film version captures Nick’s attitude perfectly, so I typically show the movie after Chapter 2. While watching the film, students practice their literary analysis skills by answering film analysis questions. Same skill, different medium! To read more about how I scaffold the text through film, check out my Gatsby unit planning post, or the fifth tip on this blog post.
CHAPTER 3 OF THE GREAT GATSBY
Finally, it’s Gatsby time! Chapter 3 is an exciting one because we finally meet Gatsby and we start to dive into an analysis of Fitzgerald’s choices. This when I really force my students to transition from the “what” to the “why.” Why did Fitzgerald make this choice? What effect does it have on the reader and the text itself? Students spend time digging through the text to discover how Fitzgerald sets the scene for the first party, and then they contemplate the chapter’s most important elements: Nick meeting Gatsby, Owl Eyes and the books, the drunk driving scene, etc. We return to the question of “Why?” and I encourage my students to keep track of how all of Fitzgerald’s choices work together. After lots of modeling and repeated practice, students will eventually start asking “Why?” on their own, which is essential for our Socratic seminars later on in the novel. If you’re interested in my Chapter 3 assignments, you can find them here.
Before my students move on to Chapter 4, I like to challenge them with a Chapters 1-3 Escape Room. It’s the perfect way to review key elements and assess the literary analysis skills we’ve been working on. Plus, it’s tons of fun! The escape room forces students to analyze key excerpts and answer essential questions that will prepare them for the rest of the novel. It’s my way of making sure they are ready to move on and conquer the rest of this challenging but beautiful book.
I hope you found this blog post helpful! As a reminder, you can find all of the activities mentioned here in my Gatsby bundle! Next up in the series is how I teach Chapters 4-6, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, drop a comment below with your favorite activities and lessons for Chapters 1-3. I would love to hear your ideas for teaching The Great Gatsby!