The Great Gatsby

This week I begin teaching The Great Gatsby. Of the American literature novels I teach, it is perhaps my favorite. I confess I have a crush on F. Scott Fitzgerald. I am in love with his way with words, his lavish description. It is perilous to teach something we love.

Rebecca Hayden wrote an article entitled “Teaching Works We Love: Hazards of the English Classroom” for the March 2005 issue of English Journal. Hayden writes of an experience teaching Tess of the D’Urbervilles to a group of students who, well, didn’t exactly share her appreciation for “the novel she credits with turning her into an English teacher” (41). In a pull quote that aptly sums up the gist of the article, Hayden writes,

Like many English teachers, I feel that favorite books are part of my soul, and the question arises, To what degree am I willing to bare that soul to hundreds of adolescents, who may be harboring their own quirks, prejudices, and lightning-quick dismissive judgments?

I think what makes us nervous about teaching works we love is that our students seem to complain about everything they’re required to read, and we just can’t bear to hear that when it’s in reference to our favorite books.

I overheard a conversation between two seniors at our school. They are taking a film class that will serve as their English credit for second semester before they go to Israel (all of our seniors have the opportunity to complete their senior year in Israel). They were actually complaining. Imagine! Watching movies for school… and yet there is still something to complain about! It seems they don’t like the movies — classics such as North By Northwest and On the Waterfront. I know, I know. Sometimes I think there is just no making students happy — unless they have complete choice, I suppose. I’ll bet they’d still complain.

Hayden wonders, near the end of her article, “whether it was worth bringing [her] private self into the classroom” (43). She asks herself, “Why bother?” Indeed.

Last year before I began Gatsby, I actually read this article to my students. I thought about it, and I decided it might be interesting for them to know how I really feel about this book — actually come right out and tell them that when I teach it, I am holding my figurative heart out to them and hoping they don’t rip it to pieces.

It worked.

Students responded to the vulnerability and the passion. I doubt they enjoyed the book as much as I hoped. But I do think the students learned a larger lesson. I suppose one could say they learned I’m human. Or perhaps it’s just a little about my background — who I am. Or maybe it’s even that books can change lives, and this one changed mine. It might not have changed theirs, but perhaps another one will.

I guess that’s why we bother, and ultimately, why we teach literature. Or anything at all, for that matter.

Work Cited: Hayden, Rebecca. “Teaching Works We Love: Hazards of the English Classroom.” English Journal. 94.4 (March 2005): 41-44.

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9 thoughts on “The Great Gatsby

  1. Funny- I have had the opposite reactions from students (8th graders). My enthusiasm for Anne Frank and Flowers for Algernon, my two favorite works we read, seems to get the students really engaged.

  2. Think of school as a cocktail party. Are all of your fellow guests going to want to hear about your fascination with F. Scott Fitzgerald? Probably not, though they may be more polite about it than students.

    Why would one expect anything different in the classroom?

    Unfortunately, works of art, like books, or music, are so personal, that what's amazing to one person is a snore to another.

    I'm not a teacher, but, like most monday-morning quarterbacks, I propose a solution:

    If it were feasible, I'd require students to choose their own books to study. They'd decide which book they wanted to read at the end of one school year, then give the book to their next years' teacher (obviously, next years' teacher would have to have been established–not likely, right?). This would give the teacher some time to look at all those books and get the general sense of what interests the students. Then, throughout the school year, the teacher would check in with students to see their level of understanding and thought.

    Is that unrealistic?

  3. Dana,

    First, I love the new look. This works very, VERY nicely. It's clean, it's calm; it's easy on the eye, freeing the mind to respond to the thought.

    Second, I think successful teaching is about taking risks. Sometimes we have to lay it on the line and hope for the best, because if we don't, there will never be new successes to share. Of course, there would never be new failures to learn from, either, but that has to be an acceptable part of the equation. What you did was to trust them. My experience says that that makes it much easier for them to trust you (although they might be reluctant to share a negative reaction to Gatsby/Fitzgerald out of respect for your passion). The increased mutual trust will pay off in unexpected ways.

    Jesse,

    You enter an interesting debate. The short answer to your "is that unrealistic?" question is "yes" (which doesn't mean it's impossible, or that no one does it). Consider that a standard student load approaches 30 per hour, and that the average teacher has at least five classes a day (or the block-schedule equivalent). If half those students choose the same books (a percentage I believe totally unrealistic), that's still 75 books their teacher has to "look at" over the summer. You weren't clear what you meant by "look at," but I know it means something in between seeing them on the shelf at the store and actually reading the entire thing. That actually works out to one a day each day of summer "vacation," time that will have to be spent at the library or sitting in the aisles at the bookstore.

    I'll go no farther here with the downsides of your proposal. Please understand that I see distinct value in responding to the needs and interests of each and every student, and again, the logistical barriers don't mean such a thing is impossible – only that it requires a committment of time and (probably) money that are both in short supply to the average teacher.

    I urge you to consider the value in teaching a common text, though: students with different interests, different skills, different needs each bring a unique perspective to a set of common words and thoughts. With the guidance of a gifted teacher like Dana, they acquire the tools to extract individual interpretations of a common meaning – variations on a theme, if you will. They increase their ability to understand how one arrives at a conclusion, which of a given set of "facts" influenced their neighbor more than it did them.

    Value is gained with either approach. A mix of the two is probably best. There are significant barriers to the approach you suggest, in spite of its potential value.

  4. I'm about to reveal how "old school" I am. I simply don't buy into total choice for students. I think they would never expose themselves to certain works without teacher direction, and sometimes they actually like it. I think letting students have some choices is fine, but I don't see anything wrong with required reading. I think students benefit from being exposed to works that make them culturally literate. I know others disagree, but I think reading some of the canon is important. I am NOT saying the canon is fixed or that it can't expand to include newer books. It certainly can.

    Al, thanks for the comments on the new look. I like Word Press a lot. And I couldn't have said it better — trying to read like that would be a nightmare.

    I realize that students might be more reluctant to share negative reactions with me, but I have discovered that they are reluctant to do that anyway. It's new to me. Everywhere else I've taught, students had no problems telling me they disliked what we were studying. At Weber, students tend to want to please so much (not such a bad trait) and I sometimes find out second or third hand that they didn't like something when they never indicated such in class.

  5. Okay, I think I see your points, but I also think I didn't make myself clear enough.

    The teacher wouldn't read all the books, front to back, in-depth, throughout the summer. Instead, it would be something like 15-20 minutes on each one, getting an idea of the main topic, the style, etc., and coming up with a range of questions for the student to ponder as he/she reads the book. Then, in classes, while the rest of the class reads or writes (is this possible?), the teacher discusses the individual book with the students, getting a check on where the student is.

    I can see the value in having one book and discussing it, and perhaps part of the year could be that, but, in my limited experience, for every 1 student who enjoys the discussions there are 15 or so who are just going through the motions and/or tuning out. I don't know, maybe it's personal memories!

    As to having a canon of literature, I'm not so sure it's vital. Let me restate that: I'm not so sure it's AS vital as having students as active readers and being interested in reading. It's probably not a true either/or situation, but I see it like that, sometimes.

    Anyways, I, too, like the design of the site.

  6. No, we definitely want our students to be active readers and to be interested in reading. I think you are right that it isn't an either/or situation, though. Why can't we allow students to have some choices and then also have some required reading? I don't do this anymore because my curriculum is too full, but I used to ask that students pick a free-reading book and do a project on it — one per semester. I let anything fly as long as it was over 200 pages and was considered an adult book (meaning, I didn't allow young adult books, because I wanted the readers to challenge themselves at least a bit). I even let a kid read a book, either from the "For Dummies" or "Complete Idiot's" series, on Ghost Hunting. He made a wonderful board game to accompany the book.

    On the other hand, a lot of my students have told me, time and time again, that they liked a book I required. I just know that your average teenage boy probably isn't going to pick up The Scarlet Letter on his own. Yet, one of my students, upon hearing me re-read the scene in which Dimmesdale tears open his shirt and reveals his own scarlet letter, exclaimed, "This book would make a great movie!" That, as any English teacher can tell you, is high praise.

    <blockquote cite="Jessie">The teacher wouldn’t read all the books, front to back, in-depth, throughout the summer. Instead, it would be something like 15-20 minutes on each one, getting an idea of the main topic, the style, etc., and coming up with a range of questions for the student to ponder as he/she reads the book. Then, in classes, while the rest of the class reads or writes (is this possible?), the teacher discusses the individual book with the students, getting a check on where the student is.

    That just won't work. I don't know what teacher can come up with questions about a book he/she hasn't read, or for that matter, to be able to judge adequately whether the student read it. The whole notion of doing that makes me very uncomfortable. I think if you are planning on doing something like this, it has to be a project, sort of like the project I did, and it cannot replace required novels. Teaching books one hasn't read is not good teaching.

  7. I suppose I was being too optimistic, but then again, I'm not a teacher. It is encouraging, however, to see you did have that self-selection project (too bad you had to cut it).

    I just feel that a unit on self-guided reading would be helpful, because that's what most students will be doing in their lives. If only there were a feasible way of doing that.

  8. It isn't so much that it can't be done. And self-guided reading can be helpful. It has been done with literature circles. Reminds me I need to post about how a colleague integrated those into her classroom. It can be done with free-reading books like I used to do. I just don't think it can replace required reading.

  9. I keep teaching All Quiet on the Western Front for how it affected me and for how necessary I feel it is for our youth, but they won't give it the time of day. I remember that article, but I also remember seeing Sandra Cisneros at the '02 Atlanta NCTE Conference telling us to teach what we love. With Gatsby, I confess, I was able to "fake it until I made it" to deep affection.

    Just my 2 bits

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