The Death of the Salesmen: A Flat World Lens for Arthur Miller’s Play

Regular readers of my blog know I am really invested in backward design (Understanding by Design or UbD).  I have several UbD units posted over at the UbD Educators wiki, but I decided maybe I should explain them a little bit more just in case you are interested in using them.

After I wrote my UbD unit for Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, I was really excited to explore it with my students.  At the time, I had either just finished or was in the midst of reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat.  Friedman actually mentions Willy Loman in the book, and it occurred to me the play could appeal to my students if we looked at it through a modern lens — outsourcing, or what Friedman refers to as “the Death of the Salesmen.”  I tied one of the themes of the play — that the world has passed Willy by and gradually made him obsolete as he failed to keep up — with a very real phenomenon in our society.  Outsourcing is a huge concern in America, and over the last few decades in particular, we have also seen some jobs eliminated by technology.

My essential questions for the unit are as follows:

  • What is the American Dream? Why do some achieve it while others are cut out?
  • What is the importance of being “well liked” and popular?
  • How do we form our identities?
  • How do capitalism and modernization affect American workers?

Through exploring these question, I hoped my students would come to the following understandings:

  • The American dream is an undercurrent of American society, but is not attainable by all in our society.
  • Popularity and being well-liked do not necessarily equal success.
  • Our identities are formed in a variety of ways, including our family of origin, our career choice(s), and our hopes and dreams.
  • Capitalism and modernization are forces that have great impact on American society.

By the end of the unit, I hoped my students would be able to do the following:

  • Analyze the impact of globalization and modernization on society and compare it to the “outsourcing” of Willy Loman.
  • Synthesize information about globalization and modernization from various sources.
  • Determine what skills 21st century workers will need in order to be successful in a global economy.
  • Evaluate how globalization and modernization will impact the concept of the American Dream, how we form our identities, and how we define success or become successful.
  • Relate Death of a Salesman‘s themes and message to American life in the 21st century.

First, we read the play, all the while having discussings about how Willy could be a modern character.  The 1940′s, when the play was written, seem very far away from our students today, but I think this play is very modern in many ways, which I addressed in my essential questions.

After we read the play, we watched Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod’s video “Did You Know?” and discussed the ideas it presents:

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We watched an episode of The Simpsons about outsourcing called “Kiss Kiss Bang Bangalore”:

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Finally, we viewed a Discovery Times special featuring Thomas Friedman called “The Other Side of Outsourcing”:

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I have discussion questions for each of these videos, and it occurs to me I probably should have put them on my flash drive so I could upload them here.  I will update this post in the future and attach the proper documents to the bottom of the post.

We also read excerpts of The World is Flat; specifically, we read “Death of the Salesmen” (256-259) from chapter four “The Great Sorting Out” and chapter six “The Untouchables” (278-307).  Page number refer to the edition of the book I linked.  Again, there are guided study questions.

Finally we synthesized all we had seen and read in a discussion that centered around the following questions:

  1. How can outsourcing possibly produce more Willy Lomans?
  2. What do Americans need to do in the 21st century to avoid the fate of Willy Loman?
  3. What sort of shift do you think will happen in the concept of the American Dream?

Then I gave my students their job, which was to explore these questions in a handbook created for either high school graduates or college graduates (I assigned them randomly on the suggestion of our Learning Specialist) that would be a helpful guide for young people navigating our increasingly flattening world.  I asked the students to consider the following in their handbooks:

  1. What will the graduates need to do to ensure they always have a job?
  2. What will they need to do to compete in a global economy? What skills will they need?
  3. What do you recommend they do to stand out, to become “untouchable”?
  4. How is Death of a Salesman a cautionary tale in a flat world? — Draw a parallel betweeen the fate of Willy Loman and the possible fate of many other American workers today. What can readers of your handbook do to avoid his fate?

I am not going to lie and say the assignment was a blazing success.  I will say the reason it wasn’t was most likely due to the particular makeup of students I had and the fact that they were seniors who were checked out.  I do believe it would be engaging for different students.  It wasn’t a total failure either.  I do think the students enjoyed examining these questions and thinking about them.  Only about half of them really wanted to do the assignment, though.  That half did a really nice job.  Given the time of year and particular makeup of the class, I consider the unit as a whole a success, and I would definitely do it again.  What I like about the assignment is that it enables students to examine literature through a modern lens, and I think they enjoyed it more than they otherwise would have.

Here is a link to the UbD unit over at the wiki, and here is a printer-friendly link.

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Week in Reflection: March 17-21

This was a crazy week.  Monday was a teacher workday; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, our schedules were different from “normal”; and Friday was Purim — we didn’t have classes and spent the day celebrating.  The students were pretty good considering all the schedule disruptions.  I had a really good discussion with my senior class about a piece I asked them to read from Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat as well as two short videos we watched — Karl Fisch’s “Did You Know?” and an excerpt from The Simpsons — “Kiss Kiss Bang Bangalore.”  We are making connections between Death of a Salesman and the plight of Willy Loman to modern issues of globalization, outsourcing, and living in “exponential times.”

My tenth grade class will turn in the final draft of their research papers tomorrow.  One hard worker has written something like ten drafts!  I am proud of all their hard work and have a suitable celebration in mind.  This week is a much more normal week, thank goodness.

We have 12th grade and 10th grade trips coming up in the next couple of weeks.  Spring break isn’t far off, either.

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Can Teaching Be Outsourced?

The World is FlatYou may recall I am reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat for an online PLU course. In chapter six, he describes the kinds of people who will be “untouchable,” that is their jobs will be safe in the flat world. I admit to thinking that teaching is one of those “untouchable” jobs. However, I am also taking this course online and specifically sought out an online masters program in Instructional Technology to apply to because I did not want to schlep downtown to classes two nights a week or go to a weekly professional development class at a school across town. I wanted the convenience of learning at my own pace, in my own home. And it’s not difficult anymore for adults to find an online program of study. What about K-12? Can teaching be outsourced? If it can, what do we as teachers need to be able to do in order to remain viable in the field of education. If it can’t be outsourced, why do you think that is the case? How will education change in view of the prospect of outsourcing?

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Some Thoughts on The World is Flat

The World is FlatI have been reading Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat as part of an online PLU course.  Really the course just gave me a good excuse for reading a book I had been wanting to read for some time.

I am still finishing the second chapter about various flatteners that have brought us to the point where we find ourselves today, and I could not help but be struck by his comments regarding blogs.  Is it just me, or does he seems somewhat more concerned about the negative aspects of blogs and blogging in comparison with the other flatteners he discusses?  He says at one point, “A blog is your own personal virtual soapbox, where you can get up every morning, and, in the form of a column or a newsletter or just a screed, tell the world what you think about any subject, upload the content to your own Web site, and then wait for the world to come check it out” (117).  Perhaps the word “screed” just jumps out at me, but I see this comment as somewhat negative.  Yes, some bloggers write screeds, but I don’t read many blogs like that.  He praises the bloggers who were able to expose “Rathergate,” but in the next breath he adds that “no one is in charge, standards of practice vary wildly, and some of it is downright irresponsible” (117).  I know that what he says at true, but part of me wonders if he isn’t worried because bloggers are, as Charles Johnson quoted on the same page describes them, “an army of citizen journalists.”  It just makes me wonder if Friedman feels threatened by bloggers.

I have to say I have found the book engaging and intriguing, and frankly, I have learned a great deal from the book.  I know one thing — it is critical that educators help students prepare for entering this new flat world, and I don’t think all of our schools are doing enough.

Another curiosity I have about this book — when I posted on my reading blog that I was reading this book, a reader who had never commented on my blog before left a comment suggesting I read alternative theories by two other authors, criticized the length of Friedman’s book, and then left.  A quick Google search unearthed four pages of extremely similar comments.  She has not, at least not in the comments I have read, really explained her passion for convincing others not to read this book, or at least not to take it as the last word, but she clearly has some kind of agenda.  It would not surprise me to see her comment here, as I think she monitors Technorati or Google for blogs discussing this book, and it is my hope that rather than leave her standard comment, she will be willing to engage in a discussion of her particular concerns about this book.

At any rate, as I progress through the book, I do intend to post my thoughts about it here.

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