Teacher: Karen Gold (who teaches an American studies class with her schoolâs history department chairwoman, Erin OâConnell )
School: The Governorâs Academy, Byfield, Mass.
Grade level: High school juniors
Why we chose it: Not only are these great ideas anyone who teaches these texts might use, but we enjoyed the way Ms. Gold wove in her studentsâ thoughts and reactions to the various pieces.
What Ms. Gold did and why, in her own words
âThe Great Gatsbyâ
I love to use the New York Times archives in my American studies class to help students understand the social, artistic and political context of the literature that we are reading in class.
Beyond reading the review to understand how the novel was received by critics, I ask my students to look at the language of the review, including the tone and the diction. Inevitably, this leads to a discussion about how and why language changes. One of the most interesting observations from students is that reviews or articles published long ago are much more challenging to read than what they read today!
But the theme of the American dream still resonates with high school students, and especially with recent immigrants, as illustrated in the Times article âGatsbyâs Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers.â It is impossible to read the novel without considering Jay Gatsbyâs American dream â a dream that is, of course, still with us today. But how has it changed? Pairing the article about the ânew set of striversâ with âThe Transformation of the âAmerican Dream,ââ an Upshot piece, can help students make connections between the America they know and the America of the 1920s.
âThe Great Gatsbyâ experienced a resurgence of popularity in 2013, when the Baz Luhrmann film adaptation came out. The Learning Network created a whole set of resources that year called âTeaching âThe Great Gatsbyâ With The New York Times.â In it, you can find links like the two I shared above.
In response to my studentsâ pleas (âCan we just watch the movie?â), I ask them to read the novel, watch the movie and compare it to the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. We read A. O. Scottâs positive review of the 2013 film, as well as Vincent Canbyâs less flattering review of the 1974 adaptation.
While today many consider âThe Great Gatsbyâ the great American novel, students are surprised to read that Fitzgerald died almost destitute. In a Times article, âGatsby, 35 Years Later,â Arthur Mizener details the last sad years of the authorâs life. That piece, paired with Fitzgeraldâs New York Times obituary, offers important insights about not only the authorâs life, but also his contributions to the Jazz Age.
Thereâs a reason many high school students read âJulius Caesarâ the same year that they are studying American history.
When I recently compared the Twitter war between Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee and President Trump with Cassiusâ manipulative story about Caesarâs nearly drowning in the Tiber, one of my students marveled, âHow did Shakespeare know?â
The New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood wrote: âA country is thrown into chaos when its leaders descend into conflict in Shakespeareâs âJulius Caesar.â Does this sound slightly familiar?â That he was writing in 2013, and not 2017, speaks to the playâs universal relevance to themes of power.
I try to address adolescent complaints that the playâs language is too difficult by exploring its relevance and controversy in todayâs political climate. We explore last summerâs controversial Public Theater production in Central Park, in which Julius Caesar was depicted as unmistakably Trumpian. We begin with a Times article, âHard Truths or Easy Targets? Confronting the Summer of Trump Onstage,â and then move to a discussion on the role of art and theater with critics.
We read the Times article âHow Outrage Built Over a Shakespearean Depiction of Trump,â and have a discussion about whether corporate sponsors like Bank of America and Delta Air Lines should have withdrawn their support amid the controversy.
Students are surprised to find that âJulius Caesarâ has provoked audiences for centuries, including John Wilkes Booth, who saw himself as a Brutus-like figure, and the director Orson Welles, who staged a production in 1937 protesting fascismâs ascendance in Europe. We use the Times article âWhy âJulius Caesarâ Speaks to Politics Today. With or Without Trumpâ to make that clear.
My students have been fascinated by the myriad productions of âJulius Caesar.â While most of them envision the play in ancient Rome, complete with togas and coliseums, Iâve introduced them to different interpretations of the play â from one set in Africa, via the Times article âThis Caesar Wears an African Cloak,â to an all-female British production set in a prison, reviewed in the piece âFriends, Romans, Countrywomen.â
The Civil War
I have also used Learning Network resources when we look at the Civil War and the social, cultural and political environment that led to the conflict.
When Ms. OâConnell is teaching the events leading to the Civil War, I ask students to look at what Americans were experiencing culturally at that time. We use the Learning Network lesson, âText to Text | The Gettysburg Address and âWhy the Civil War Still Matters,ââ which allows students to look at two different perspectives on Lincolnâs legacy today. Then we discuss and explore how and why Lincolnâs Gettysburg Address has endured, and consider whether Lincolnâs vision remains.
Students at our school memorize the Gettysburg Address their freshman year in a public-speaking class. One of my favorite teaching moments ever was during a field trip to Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. We were looking at Civil War monuments when the guide asked my students if they were familiar with the Gettysburg Address. One student recited it verbatim!
The New York Timesâs Disunion columns are also an incredible resource for teaching the Civil War.
What were Americans seeing in the North and South? For the first time, they saw photographs by Matthew Brady and other early photographers.
What impact did that have on their views of the war? For their Civil War project, I ask students to choose a theme to explore and examine primary documents â a photograph or painting, or music from that era.
Today our students are witnessing a nation divided. Looking at the Civil War through this lens gives them the opportunity to see that our country has survived worse times and in the words of Lincoln, âhas long endured.â
Do you teach with The Times? Tell us about it here.