Disillusionment and the American Dream Topic 2


Disillusion and the American Dream in various short stories.

Disillusion and the American Dream in various poems.

While it may be attainable for some, the American Dream, for the majority, at its best, is elusive; at its worst, the American Dream is a myth. The idealistic vision of America as a melting pot is dealt with and/or countered by most of the short stories and poems found in this section of the unit. Is America really a melting pot? How does race/ethnic background affect the characters’ attitudes and conflicts? Does our contemporary society reflect the ideal of the melting pot? Exploring this complex and vital concept is one of the main motivations for reading these texts and completing these lesson/activities.

Common Core Standards

RL.11-12.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

RL.11-12.2. Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

RL.11-12.3. Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

RL.11-12.4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.

RL.11-12.5. Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

RL.11-12.6. Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

RL.11-12.9. Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

RI.11-12.6. Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.

W.11-12.2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

W.11-12.5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience.

W.11-12.6. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.

SL.11-12.1. Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11–12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

L.11-12.1. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.

L.11-12.4. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 11–12 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
  • Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or text; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
  • Identify and correctly use patterns of word changes that indicate different meanings or parts of speech (e.g., conceive, conception, conceivable).
  • Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning, its part of speech, its etymology, or its standard usage.
  • Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).

L.11-12.5. Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
  • Interpret figures of speech (e.g., hyperbole, paradox) in context and analyze their role in the text.
  • Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.

Suggested Student Objectives

  • To explore the themes of The American Dream in depth from many different angles and points of view and through the genres of short stories and poetry.
  • To help students explore and understand the intentions, characterizations, literary devices and techniques, and meanings of these literary texts.
  • To encourage students to analyze and interpret the development of the main characters.
  • To understand dramatic elements such as symbols, flashbacks, figurative language, foreshadowing, and irony and to understand how they are used in the context of the texts.
  • To enrich students’ vocabulary and to encourage them to use the vocabulary of the literature such as: climax, exposition, melodrama, atmosphere, dialogue, setting, tragedy, and theme. Students should understand how these terms apply to each of these texts.
  • To improve writing skills by providing a variety of writing assignments related to the literary selections.
  • To improve literary analysis skills and comprehension by understanding cause and effect, the differences between fantasy and reality and past and present.
  • To provide students with a springboard to choose a concept of the American Dream for themselves

Suggested Additional Readings

Two Kinds by Amy Tan (short story)
Little Things are Big by Jesus Colon (short story)
Let America Be America Againby Langston Hughes (poem)
I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman (poem)
I, Too, Sing America by Langston Hughes (poem)
Crossing Brooklyn Ferryby Walt Whitman (poem)
Theme for English B by Langston Hughes (poem)

Resource Links

Two Kinds by Amy Tan (short story):

Little Things are Big by Jesus Colon (full text with audio reading):

Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes

I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman:

I, Too, Sing America by Langston Hughes

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry by Walt Whitman

Theme for English B by Langston Hughes


Note: When planning lessons related to the following activities, please consider that each activity (identified by an asterisk *) requires multiple days to complete.

*During and after reading each text, students should identify and analyze (through discussion and writing) the speakers’/protagonists’ personal versions of the American Dream. They should also analyze symbols in these works that represent the American Dream and its failure to be attained.

*While analyzing and evaluating the texts, students should focus on how the idealistic vision America as a melting pot is dealt with and/or countered by the short stories and poems. According to the authors, is the American melting pot a reality? How does race/ethnic background affect the characters’ attitudes and conflicts? A full length essay (either as an exam or a multi-day writing assignment (complete with peer editing and revisions to multiple drafts) should compare or contrast how these texts emphasize this idea.

*A suggested activity which connects these lessons to students’ lives is to have students write about to what extent their own families/economic situations reflect or do not reflect the promises of the American Dream. This activity can take the form of a formal essay or as a multi-day/week journal assignment.

*During and after reading each text, students should identify, explain, and analyze (through discussion and writing) how and why a character’s race, gender, ethnic group, age group, and/or economic/social class may have more access to the American Dream than others characters?

*Another activity that lends itself to the Common Core Standards and to the requirements for the English Regents is choosing one short story and one poem in order to write an essay that establishes how each author uses different techniques and approaches to establishing a similar controlling idea about the American Dream. They should use the writing process to draft, edit, and revise in order to produce a final product that is free from errors and which exhibits control over stylistic conventions expected from a college level essay.


The teacher will monitor and critique/evaluate class activities while providing assistance and feedback when necessary. Students will be assessed through a variety of evaluative tools/assignments. These include but are not limited to questioning during whole-class or individualized close readings which checks for understanding/comprehension of the texts' complexities an multiple meanings, homework assignments which reinforce skills developed during class activities and instruction, frequent quizzes, tests/exams, and thematic essay assignments which reinforce skills required for the Common Core English Standards, the English Regents Exam, and the above activities. Teachers should feel free to adapt any of the above activities to fit essay assignments or lessons that span multiple days. At the very least, a variation of the rubrics used for the English Regents should be used for evaluation and to provide students with feedback and validations of grades.

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