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:

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

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

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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Reflecting on Backward Design

The end of the year is drawing closer, and today I was thinking about backward design.  This year was the first year I implemented backward design planning.  I have been really impressed with how much students have learned.  My 9th grade students in particular really seemed to connect to this type of learning; furthermore, unless I’m a horrible judge, they have seemed more engaged than I can remember any other class being.  Today they started working on the performance assessment for the unit I created for Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye.  Students were researching and writing about the impact of media and society on how people feel about their bodies.  At the same time as they were analyzing a novel’s theme, they were also writing persuasive essays about body image, using research to support writing, and learning about ways in which literature truly can be a lens through which we examine our society.  In times past, I don’t think I would have designed an assessment nearly as good as this one, and students were clearly interested in what they were learning through their research.  They frequently called me over to read facts and statistics they found.  They wanted me to read what they had written.  One student began her essay with an anecdote that integrated information she learned from a YouTube video I showed the class.  And it was a brilliant introduction.

I know I sound like an evangelist when I talk about UbD, but I can’t help it.  Backward design revolutionized the way I teach.  I feel rejuvenated and invigorated by working with my students.  And I am learning so much, too!  Every day, I just can’t wait to work with students on the units I’ve created.  I truly enjoy planning and creating units now that I have a clear process that helps me focus and think about why I do what I do.  I am really proud of all my students have learned and are learning, and much credit for those learning experiences belongs to UbD.

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The Bluest Eye

The Bluest EyeToni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye is frequently challenged due to situations involving rape and incest. When I first read it several years ago, I found it shocking, but I think it teaches us interesting things about how we define beauty in our society, what acceptance and love are, and how we harm not just black women but our entire society with narrow ideas about beauty and acceptance.

My ninth grade students will read The Bluest Eye as the last novel study this year. I think we will have time to do a study of short fiction and poetry in May following this book. I have just created a UbD unit for this novel; feel free to check it out and give me feedback. One thing I have noticed about myself is that when I create these units, I really skimp on the Learning Plan part. I think that might be because my schedule is so different from most other teachers with a rotating block and frequent schedule alterations that it is hard for me to make a day-by-day plan at the beginning, but I do have a chronological outline for approaching the novel. I will begin with the following video:

Every time I watch this video, it makes me cry — right at the part when the children are choosing dolls. I once had a student who wrote an essay about what she would be like as she aged, and with each progression in age, she noted that her skin was lighter (she was fairly dark-skinned). Part of her definition of future success involved something she couldn’t do anything about — something she shouldn’t feel like she should have to do anything about. I remember crying over that essay, too. And feeling helpless.

I found an excellent webquest by Cele Bisguier that I will use for my performance task.

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Week in Reflection: March 3-7, 2008

I think the Death of a Salesman unit I’m doing with my seniors is going well. At any rate, they seem engaged in the material and are making good connections. I am very excited about starting the part of the unit when we make connections to The World is Flat and globalization and outsourcing.

Speaking of The World is Flat, I finished it this week, and you can read my review at my book blog. The only thing I really want to add to what I said there is that I am really excited about the educational opportunities that will arise from “flat world” technologies like blogs and wikis. Even though I have already begun using these technologies, I still feel that in many ways I have just barely scratched the surface of what is possible, and I find that exciting.

My ninth graders in one class learned a few quick things about mechanics — quotation marks, italics/underlining, colons, and semicolons. The other ninth grade class has been writing an in-class essay. My tenth grade class is nearing the home stretch in their research paper.

Looking ahead, my ninth graders will be studying The Catcher in the Rye, which I always find enjoyable to teach, and which the students usually really like. One class will have the novel read by Tuesday. They are completing reflective journals as they read. I think the unit I am using came from the Understanding by Design: Professional Development Workbook. I know Jay McTighe mentioned it when he did professional development at our school, and later, when Grant allowed UbD Educators wiki members to enroll in his Moodle course, I downloaded the plan from the course documents. The only thing I tweaked was the essential questions. I liked the assessment, but I didn’t feel it really addressed the essential questions. I was curious about different questions, too. I would imagine the material is copyrighted in some way, so I can’t post it to explain what I mean, but I can point you toward the UbD Workbook (linked above).

And speaking of Grant Wiggins, I can’t pretend it was all fun to tangle with Alfie Kohn, but it was good for two reasons: 1) I really reflected about my homework policy and came to the conclusion that I am doing right by my students with regards to homework; 2) I received some clarification regarding Kohn’s ideas. Truth be told, he and I probably agree on a lot — I am not a fan of standardized testing or grades either, but I also don’t think they are going anywhere because schools and parents can’t figure out how else to measure learning. I am not someone who likes to make waves, and I did sort of wind up in the hot seat.

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Death of a Salesman

I have been struggling with writing a UbD plan for Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. I think have have one sketched out, though I still need to create guiding questions for various pieces of the unit, including YouTube videos and a selection from Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat.

In looking at the plot and themes of the play, and perhaps because it is so much in my thoughts lately because of my professional development courses, I made a connection between the play and the modernization/globalization or flattening of the world that our students will need to contend with in their work lives. One chapter of The World is Flat in particular came to mind — “The Untouchables” — as I began thinking about connections. I opened my book only to see Friedman himself referred to Willy Loman in that chapter. It must have been there in my subconscious because I had recently read it, but I was grateful to have my connection thus solidified.

I struggled to come up with a performance task that is relevant and addresses my essential questions, but would also be engaging. I think I have one. I am fairly happy with the unit as it stands because I think it is a unit that connects a past Miller was familiar with to a present and future he probably could not have imagined, and I think it will have interest and relevance for my students. You can check out the unit at the UbD Educators wiki.

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UbD Wiki: Summaries

Miguel Guhlin has joined the UbD Educators wiki and wants your help.  He is posting UbD chapter summaries and wants input from other wiki members.

I want to ask wiki members a question: Miguel suggested that we unlock those summary pages to allow nonmembers to participate.  What do you think?  My idea was that allowing editing by wiki members only would prevent vandalism, but it also closes participation — I have not denied membership to anyone, nor do I plan to (unless they join then vandalize the wiki, which seems unlikely), so perhaps the point is moot.

Check out the summaries and add your thoughts.  I’m really excited about Miguel’s work and plan to begin adding my own ideas this weekend.

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UbD Educators: Suggestions?

I have mentioned before that the UbD Educators wiki has grown quiet.  I think there may be two reasons for this:

  • We’re all busy educators who have difficulty finding the time to create, post, and/or comment on others’ posted UbD units.
  • We’re not getting what we need out of the wiki.

It’s not in my power to alleviate the first problem, and believe me, I hear you there.  However, the second problem is much easier to address.  The wiki is only as good as we make it.  If you need a feature that the wiki doesn’t have, add it.  If you have trouble keeping up with new pages and discussions, try subscribing to the site’s various RSS feeds (you can keep up with all changes or just changes to one page).  If you want to make a change, but you aren’t sure, ask the wiki members about it on the Suggestions page.  the majority of the wiki’s members have not yet contributed either unit plans or discussions.  I want to hear your voice!  I don’t mind lurkers, but we have the potential to make this wiki a huge repository of ideas and discussion about UbD, and we can only do that through teacher contributions.

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Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet

I just finished writing UbD units for Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet at the UbD Educators wiki.  As I finished writing the unit for Hamlet and saved the page, I lost half the work I had done, and I am still not sure how it happened, so I had to re-do it.  Word to the wise — when working with anything you’re doing online, save and save often.  When, oh when will I learn to do that?

Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Hamlet and Henry IV, Part 1In order to successfully steal the Hamlet unit, you’ll need to purchase a copy of Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Hamlet and Henry IV, Part 1.  I have the edition published in 1994, and I haven’t seen the latest edition, so if you know the difference between the two editions and would care to share in the comments for interested parties, I would appreciate it.  I think the Shakespeare Set Free series is a great resource for educators, but I don’t do all of the performance activities.

While we’re discussing good resources for teaching Shakespeare, don’t forget the Folger Shakespeare Library’s website, which has a large repository of lesson plans contributed by teachers.  If you can get them for your classroom, the Folger Shakespeare editions of the plays have pretty good explanatory notes and glossaries, too.  A Way to Teach has a great selection of Macbeth lesson plans and Tempest lesson plans.

If you are looking for Shakespeare video, you might check out Shakespeare and More over at YouTube.  They have a large selection of Shakespearean video.   Speaking of video, if you were looking at older posts about teaching Romeo and Juliet, you will have noticed the videos don’t work.  I’m sorry about that.  I’ll need to go back and revise the posts so that the video isn’t necessary, as the videos are no longer available at YouTube.

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The Faculty Room

Meg Fitzpatrick, editor of of the UbD e-journal Big Ideas, invited me to contribute to both the e-journal and a new blog they are announcing today: The Faculty Room. Please come on over and join in our conversations (my first post on the blog should appear some time tomorrow). You will find other “familiar faces” over there. Also, now seems as good a time as any to remind you that the UbD Educators wiki is a good resource for you to post, share, “borrow,” and obtain or leave feedback on UbD lesson plans.

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The Odyssey

I am once again teaching The Odyssey.  I have posted my UbD plan for this unit over at the UbD Educators wiki.  The unit plan is not different from what I’ve done with The Odyssey in the past, but I don’t think I’ve ever framed it with essential questions.  Incidentally, inspired by Tom from Bionic Teaching, I have decided to integrate Google Earth into the project for the first time.  I need to do some more playing with Google Earth so I can figure out how it works, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I think it will be a good tool for us.

The performance assessment is a project detailed in English Journal, “Bringing Homer’s Odyssey Up to Date: An Alternative Assessment,” Vol. 86 No. 1, pp. 65-68, Jan 1997.  I was a student teacher when I first used it (the 1996-1997 year was my student teaching year), and I have always had great success with it.  If you teach The Odyssey, I highly recommend that you get your hands on a copy of that article.  I am going to have the students chart their own Odysseus’ journey using Google Earth.  I am contemplating publication online through a blog or wiki or some other type of website, but we’ll see.

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