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The Voice of Dreams

by Elizabeth de La Garza Vargas

Overview | Procedures for Teachers & Organizers for Students

Introductory Activity:

1. Explain to students that they will be exploring the theme of the American dream through literature, research, and community involvement.

2. Ask students what the term "American dream" means to them. Record their responses on chart paper.

3. Screen AMERICAN MASTERS: NOVEL REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN DREAM.

4. In a group discussion, ask students to reflect on the documentary. Questions to consider:

How were American writers influenced by the idea of the American dream?

How were American writers inspired to write about the American dream by their own life experiences?

How did the experience of the American dream provide material for creating compelling emotional character and plot development?

5. Ask students to peruse the list of American authors on the American Novel site http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americannovel/timeline/index.html. Another excellent resource can be found at http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/aufram.html. Then, ask them to choose one author and conduct Internet research on his or her life. Distribute the handout Guide Questions for Portrait of American Author to help students create a portrait of the author and his or her effort to either live or write about the American dream experience.

6. To supplement their research, direct students toward AMERICAN DREAM clips that describe characters from novels attempting to achieve the American dream. Or, ask students to read actual text and provide them page numbers to passages from novels.

7. After students have viewed or read the selected passages, facilitate a discussion about what kinds of qualities the characters have that relate to the American dream.

8. Ask students to use their author research, text passages/video clips, and group discussion notes to help them write a reflective essay answering this question: Who are/were the people seeking the American dream? On the chalkboard or white board, post the following guide questions:

Where are/were these people from (geographically)?

They are/were likely trying to find a better life. What are/were their lives like that made them want something better?

How did they attempt to make their lives better to move ahead? (What was their strategy)?

What obstacles did they have to overcome to achieve their goals?

Did many of them achieve the American dream?

Is it possible to achieve the American dream in the 21st century?

Learning Activity:

1. Prepare pre-typed excerpts of student essays (from introductory activity).

2. Explain to students that they are about to embark on a field research project, exploring the American dream theme on their own.

3. Ask students to identify someone in their families or communities who has achieved or aspires to achieve the American dream.

4. After students have identified an interviewee, and when that person has officially agreed to be interviewed, ask students to conduct background research on their interviewees (possibly a look at the time in which the person lives, the place the person is from, the way he/she is working toward the American dream -- perhaps through a career choice, field of study, etc.).

5. Students must also consider the questions they will ask -- which should be well thought out, prepared in advance, and tailored to their interviewee's life experiences.

6. If possible, lend tape recorders to each student (even if they have to take turns using a few), and ask them to tape their interviews. They can then refer to the recording for quotes and to clarify any factual discrepancies.

7. Once the interviews have been conducted, ask students to synthesize the details of their reports, perhaps using the questions from #8 above to help organize their writing.

8. Have students share their reports in class -- either reading them aloud verbatim, reading a selected section, or summarizing them. Visual images might accompany the reports (photos, drawings by the students, etc.).

Culminating Activity:

1. Ask students to consider the fictional and factual American dream stories they have studied so far (including the personal stories they have gathered on their own through their interviews).

2. Facilitate a class discussion in which students recap their understandings of the American dream:

  • characteristics of people who work toward the American dream
  • paths toward achieving the American dream
  • obstacles people face when working toward the American dream
  • emotions people experience when working toward the American dream
  • does everyone who aspires to achieve the American dream achieve it and what happens when it doesn't work out?
3. Distribute copies of the Character Sketch Guide (PDF) handout. Ask students to use it to begin to think of a new, fictional American-dream-seeking character of their own.

4. Tell them they will each eventually write a monologue for this character. Discuss the term "monologue": a character speaking alone in front of an audience. Provide audio/visual and textual examples.

5. Before they begin writing their monologues, facilitate a group discussion, asking students to compare the ways the authors created their characters in the text and the way the characters were portrayed in the AMERICAN DREAM segments.

6. Then talk to students about writing dramatic pieces.

As you write the monologue, consider the setting in which the character is located -- laying on his bed, sitting on the beach, running down the street.

Consider the audience to whom the character is speaking. This is important and will help set the tone, the language used, the emotions expressed.

Characters often speak in different vernaculars. It's okay for monologues to not be written in "correct English," if it's the way a person would really speak.

In a monologue, a character should change or develop in some way. We should see emotional shifts.

Characters can be given something to do while they are reciting a monologue. Does your character twirl her hair, sigh, look up at the stars? Build that into your monologue -- set it off in italics and parentheses.

Assessment:

Have the students perform their monologues in class. During each presentation, three peers will complete the American Dream Monologue Summary (PDF) handout.

Cross-Curricular Extensions:

Math: Since immigrants often come to the United States to work toward the American dream, conduct a survey of your school to see where your classmates or their ancestors are from. Figure out the percentages and organize the data in a pie chart. Do you see any patterns?

Science: Research inventions that were made by scientists pursuing the American dream (Ben Franklin and the stove/oven, etc.).

Community Connections:
  • Perform monologues for a group of 8th graders.
  • Pen pal with kids who are part of an ESL program.
  • Invite a guest speaker from the community who feels he or she has achieved the American dream to the classroom to discuss with the students his or her personal journey.
Online Resources:

Washington State University American Literature http://www.wsu.edu/campbelld/amlit.html Various resources regarding American novels, including a time line and author list.

Electronic Texts for the Study of American Culture http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/hypertex.html A selection of texts by American authors available online.

The Society for the Study of American Women Authors http://www.lehigh.edu/%7Edek7/SSAWW/ Information about American women authors, primarily from the 19th century.

PBS Teachers http://www.pbs.org/teachers/

About the Author:

After working in educational media production for more than 10 years, Elizabeth de La Garza Vargas went back to school and received an M.S.Ed. from Bank Street College of Education. Her studies focused on adolescent development and the teaching of English/Language Arts and Social Studies. Currently, Elizabeth works in New York City as a freelance writer and educator for institutions including the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, The Brooklyn Museum, El Museo del Barrio, and the New York Botanical Garden.

The American Novel