Putting a Great American (novel) to the Test

The Gist:

  • My G11 students will start reading The Great Gatsby soon.
  • I’m not the biggest fan.
  • I’m thinking about putting the book on trial for slander / libel against other books.
  • I’m looking for suggestions.

The Whole Story:

One of the things I noted at the end of my last post was the importance of nailing my approach when I have my students reading a common text again. That will get underway come March. One of the anchor texts in our G11 English curriculum is The Great Gatsby. The theme for the G11 year is Change, so Gatsby certainly works. The thing is, I’m not a huge fan. Truly.

In all honesty, I made it through high school without encountering what many people (English teachers especially) count as the pinnacle of American letters. Not until my first unit whilst student teaching did I come into contact with Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. In subsequent readings, I’ve found value in the book, but it doesn’t make me feel weak in the knees.

I see overlap and relevance in the text, but I’m hesitant to be another English teacher unpacking this book and making my students understand the symbolism of all those damned shirts.

Here’s the thinking:

  • Every student in the class reads Gatsby.
  • In small groups, the majority of the students (minus a Gatsby group), read one other text per group.
  • Each of the other groups build a case for how their text is equal to or better than Gatsby, thereby proving claims of Gatsby’s place as the ultimate American novel as slanderous and libelous.
  • The Gatsby group is given a heads up by the other groups as they read on what passages of the other books will be important in making the case against Gatsby and the Gatsby group reads those passages.

This all culminates with a trial or debate which I’m envisioning as something similar to a class action suit.

Here are my trepidations / questions:

  • Is a trial / debate played out?
  • Should the other texts have a common theme such as “the American dream?”
  • Do I select other texts from across all time periods?
  • Does this pass the authentic learning muster?

I’ve been mulling this one over for quite some time. I’m writing about it here, before the fact, because I’m looking to cast a wider brainstorming net.


6 thoughts on “Putting a Great American (novel) to the Test

  1. I’m worried that by making it a foregone conclusion that all the other texts they’ll be reading are better than Gatsby, you’ll invite them to blow Gatsby off – to renounce its merit without reading deeply or seriously imagining why people over the years have thought it’s so great. I’d be a fan if you left it to the groups to decide whether the other text is equal to, better than, OR worse than Gatsby. Could lead to some amazing conversations about what a “good book” is, anyway, and how many different criteria you can use to define that.

    It does seem that narrowing the book choices in some way (all “American Dream” or all that time period or all by non-white or non-male or non-wealthy authors) would lead to more critical discussion and thinking about what “better” means.

    Can’t wait to see what you do with this book this year! Keep me posted.

    • Katie,
      Definitely won’t be pushing for the foregone conclusion of Gatsby as less than. I’ll certainly be giving the text the benefit of the doubt. In fact, that’s why I liked the idea of a trial. Inherent within the mechanism is the supposition of innocent until proven guilty. I should also say that I don’t dislike Gatsby. I think it’s a fine text with true flashes of greatness.
      As for deciding whether or not the book is equal / better / worse than the texts to which it’s being compared, I see that as being an eventual ruling. I’m thinking I’ll run things like a civil trial and look for a preponderance of evidence rather than requiring them to convince one another beyond a reasonable doubt.
      I should also say that I’m completely ready for Gatsby to triumph here.
      In the end, I’m not really worried about the outcome here. As per usual, I’m interested in the process and the preparation.
      In agreement with you on the limitations of the other texts. I think it will help them frame things in some way.
      Either way, I’m most looking forward to (though I didn’t mention it in the original post) the discussions on what a “good book” is.
      As always, thank you for the thinking. Nice that the Interwebs can keep you in the room when you’re a continent away.

  2. I love Gatsby, and I think this is a really cool idea!

    Just a couple thoughts about your questions. Is it possible to open up the choices to the class? I know I always have a lot of kids who can offer suggestions for “better” reading material. It might be kind of interesting to let them explore some other choices by looking around at some book reviews or by researching what all of the experts say about Gatsby and then finding alternate texts that do all of those things “better.” I wouldn’t necessarily limit the alternate texts to the American dream theme unless that’s one of the required concepts for the course or unless that’s one of the things you and the kids determine is something that’s “good” to read about.

    In terms of authenticity, is there a way for the students to actually change the curriculum with this project? Just curious.

    • Cathy,
      I’m thinking it might be interesting to pick a few books and have a couple groups who pick their own books and then have them choose randomly to find out what group they’re in. The idea of having them read reviews and lit crit of Gatsby early on is an interesting one. I wonder if I would do that before we start or after Gatsby and before the second book.
      The reason for “The American Dream” is the cross-curricular way it fits with their history class. We won’t necessary be focusing on that theme in class, but it’s a text to which I know their history teacher will be able to refer in her classes.
      At first, I was hesitant to say this could work to change the curriculum. This isn’t because the curriculum is set in stone. We’re not too text-centric with what we do. The hesitation was more about not being able to take this approach next year and refine the experiment. Then the other voice in my brain suggested whichever text comes out on top could be the new defendant.
      Thanks for your thoughts, Cathy.

  3. If you’re putting Gatsby on trial to determine whether it’s the Great American Novel, it’s hard to envision that playing out without actually reaching a conclusion. Since you’ve already made your bias known, you’re going to need some sort of jury to decide the case if you actually take it that far.

    Are there other books on the GAN list that they’ve already read? I can think of this playing out in a couple ways.

    1. Do a “normal” (but perhaps abbreviated) Gatsby unit. Toward the end, bring up the idea that it’s the great American novel. Start a discussion about how perfect the book is, and keep pushing until they push back. This leads to an exploration of what the GAN is, and then you can ring in the other contenders they’ve already read, and/or put them into groups like you were already thinking.

    2. Alternative, start with the idea of the Great American Novel. What are the qualities that a work should have to be considered? Which books would they put on the list? If they use Google at all, you’re sure to end up with Gatsby on the list.

    Any way you do it, though, it’s really hard to debate the books unless the participants have read them all. The Gatsby group, then, will be at a distinct disadvantage.

    What about this? Do away with the Gatsby group. Make the other groups with 4-8 people each. These groups read one other book, and then break into the Gatsby and “other” camps. They prepare a debate/trial, with the rest of the class serving as the jury. So you have a week of trials, where in each case, Gatsby goes up against one other book.

    The whole idea is an interesting concept. It’ll be interesting to see what you end up doing with it.

  4. This doesn’t tie in with your project at all, just Great Gatsby…Chris Bohjalian’s book Double Bind could be a good book for some students to read as a follow-up to Gatsby. It’s a contemporary book with some of the characters, settings, and themes from Gatsby, as well as some pretty nifty narrative twists.

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