31 January 2011

Reading Mondays: Books I'm Teaching This Spring Term

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  (The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776)

Yes, we are a little early for the Fourth of July but bear with me.  This quote has a big connection to my topic for today.  Many know that I am a teacher.  What many don't know is that I am a Special Education teacher who has a handful of students included in a New York City general education high school.  I provide support to not only students with disabilities but also for the teacher with whom I co-teach.  For the Spring semester, I will be collaborating with an awesome English teacher, we'll just call her Ms. S., whom I have known for approximately 12 years.  The theme for this semester is "the American Dream."

This ideal is one that is ingrained into the very fabric of American society.  It is the promise that no matter what your socioeconomic status, there is a capacity of prosperity and success.  The American Dream is the theoretical, Utopian fairy-tale that all dreams can come true if you just work hard and believe.  Sometimes they do but as you'll see in these literary works, most often they don't.  As Americans, we are promised by the Declaration above, that all are created equal and we can each attain the pursuit of happiness.

In order to facilitate a better understanding of this theme, Ms. S. decided that there are several literary works which would best exemplify the "American Dream."  (I told you there would be a connection.)  Warning and Digression: the last literary work is a play by William Shakespeare, takes place in Venice and is not really about the American Dream.  However, it has many related motifs, symbols and concepts, (like infidelity, jealousy, betrayal), to the other three works of fiction.

The first of these written works is the play Fences by August Wilson set in the 1940's.  The protagonist Troy Maxson, is a 53 year-old, ex-Negro Leagues baseball player who is now a garbage collector.  He never quite made it to the Major Leagues, as he was too old to play when African American men were allowed to play professionally.  Troy also has a wife and two sons, Lyons from a previous woman during Troys imprisonment and Cory from his eighteen year marriage to his wife Rose.  She continually nags her husband to fix the fence around the home.  This is Rose's way of keeping those she loves near.  Conflict arises between Troy and almost every character in the play, even his mentally disabled brother Gabriel.  He is embittered  by his inability to attain his dreams and places these same ideals onto others.  Troy is often idealistic and embellishes his stories with metaphors of Death and baseball.  This play is a great insight into a family and what happens when dreams are deferred.  My favorite portrayal of Troy's character is by James Earl Jones.  He played the part perfectly.

The next literary work is A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. ( Ladies, stop drooling at Marlon Brando's pecs and bad boy good looks!  :D)  Set in New Orleans during the 1940's, the main character Blanche Dubois arrives on the doorstep of her sister and brother-in-law' two-room apartment, Stella and Stanley Kowalski.  Blanche exudes charm and is The Southern Belle incarnate.  However, because she disdains the everything to do with the "working class," Blanch and Stanley are in constant conflict.  Stanley is a Polish auto-parts supply man who provides for Stella, a homemaker.  Blanche's fragile mental state is soon revealed through her indulgence in alcohol, sexual inappropriateness and her inability to accept reality.  The themes of domestic abuse, rape, death, sexuality, desire and the reliance of these women on men is prevalent throughout the play.  It is the unrealized American Dream which propels Stella, Stanley and Blanche to their fates.  

Next on this train of great classics is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Now I am going to be honest, I have never read this book.  *hides from the pitchforks*  I did read a little about the novel's description and is next in line to be read.  It takes place in Long Island, New York and delineates the era known as "The Roaring Twenties."  Nick Carraway, a young man from the Midwest, journeys East to get a piece of the American Dream by delving into Wall Streets financial industry.  He rents a house and becomes neighbors with the illustrious and mysterious, Jay Gatsby.  Soon, through the infamous weekly parties thrown by Gatsby, both men are entangled in deception, wasteful indulgence, infidelity and death.  This novel is a revelation into the attainment of the American Dream leading to a gluttony of fatal pleasures.  Fitzgerald was one of the best chroniclers of the 1920's.

Finally, we have the play Othello by William Shakespeare.  I have been a bit deceitful myself as this is the first literary work we are going to teach.  I just thought it would be better to introduce the others as this one is a bit off the beaten path.  It is the tale of a Spanish Military Moor who loves and marries an upper class Venetian lady.  The antagonist, Iago, is a subordinate in Othello's command and resents being passed up for military promotion.   Iago creates this tangled web of lies which propel Othello down a path of no return.  I bet most of you have read this play already!  :D

At the end of each unit, Ms. S. and I will show the film adaptations of each book.  It will be a nice way to tidy up the plays and novel.  I hope the students will enjoy these classics as much as I do.  Well, I'm off the read The Great Gatsby.  Wish me luck!

Image for Fences courtesy of Playbill
Images for Liberty, Suburbs, Othello and A Street Car Named Desire courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Image for The Great Gatsby courtesy of The New York Sun


Su said...

Wow, what a great collection! Have a fun semester!

Hart Johnson said...

I think you've got a great collection here for teaching kids about the TRUTH about the American dream... that the PURSUIT of happiness is no GUARANTEE and that circumstances can work against you, and sometimes even the spoiled people are miserable (Gatsby). I read Streetcar as part of a class and think there is a ton the class dialog adds to it. Gatsby I read on a 'list' (you know... high school teacher says pick 2 from this list and 3 from this one?) and I DIDN'T like it, but I think my brain may not have been mature enough to grasp the underlying message... I just say a bunch of pampered, spoiled people, still unhappy with their lot, and felt only annoyed. A class discussion might have given me more (I was only 15)

I think you will do great with these. I hope your class enjoys them!

Unknown said...

@ Sue- Thanks. I am really excited and hope it becomes infectious!

@ Hart- I think my students will be engaged, not because it will be a whole group and small group discussions but because they are mature enough to handle all the heavy adult themes in the book.

Your teacher should have read it with the whole class and have you choose books more to your interest as an independent reader.

Although, I haven't read the Great Gatsby, I think it will align and tie in nicely with U.S History.

Sue said...

A good meaty collection. I 'studied' the Great Gatsby at school, I think I'd get more out of it now. I hope you both enjoy bringing these alive for the students. Sounds like a really interesting semester coming up.