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by Melissa Elliott

Some of my students from the 2016 graduating class will never forgive my daughter. I was on maternity leave when they were in my AP English Language and Composition class and read The Great Gatsby. My long term sub had my lessons and I assured them that it would be the same. They have assured me it was not.

So much of what we do as English teachers is share our passion and experience with a book. Years ago, during a discussion about the novel, a student stopped, looked at me and said, “You love him.” She was correct. I have loved Jay Gatsby since I was a junior in high school.

I have also hated Daisy. So much so, that I was called into a professor’s office due to his concern over my hate of her and by association, Zelda. As an adult, I understand her more but I am an idealist and a hopeless romantic. Love should conquer all, but sometimes, as the modernist led us to==it doesn’t.

I believe that great works of art are mirrors. For the most part, I would classify myself as a New Historian. However, when it comes to The Great Gatsby, for me it was always personal.  I share some of my experiences with my students. I share how often I have read The Great Gatsby, starting at 16, 19, again at 27 and every year since. My love of this novel has raised it to mythic status. Parents have sent in Peanuts comic strips with Gatsby allusions, numerous pieces of artwork from students decorate my room, and this year my AP class dressed in 1920’s attire and all signed a copy of the book as my end of the year present.

But the Blame Game is about what students think. As a culminating activity for the novel we play The Blame Game. This was adapted from a lesson/idea I found many years ago.

Here’s how it works: 

Before class, I set up the activity by hanging character sheets evenly spaced around the room. To create a character sheet, simply write the names of major characters from the novel at the top of blank sheets of paper. I also include a “Someone Else” as a character sheet–you would be surprised how many people want to blame the dog or Pammy. (Sidebar: A teacher asked why the TV was named George.)

To begin, I give students these instructions:

  • I will ask a series of questions.
  • Your answer will be a character.
  • Check in by writing the question number and your name.
  • You and your group will provide a justification for your answer. 

Depending on our year and previous discussion, the number of questions will vary from 5-8.  As a culminating activity, I am able to assess my students’ learning without a test, even though I often explain it as a “review game.”

The Questions 

Below is a sample of my actual question sheet to show its development. What could begin as a Bell Ringer question turns into a whole day’s activity. (Please excuse my handwriting and any spelling errors. I verbally give these questions.) The first two are always in order.

  • Q1. Who is responsible for Jay Gatsby’s murder?
  • Q2. Who do you blame for Jay Gatsby’s murder? (The why has become implied since they must justify their answer.)

This can throw some students for a loop. I use it, however, to bring up one of my favorite things: specificity in language. Responsibility has more of a legal definition to it and blame is more of our emotional response. In any level class, creating an awareness of language and how it is used to frame a question can be valuable discussion.

The remaining questions follow:

  • Q3. Who is to blame for Myrtle’s death?
  • Q4. Nick says you can’t fault a woman for dishonesty. Who is the most dishonest character?
  • Q5. Who is your least favorite?
  • Q6. Who do you admire?
  • Q7. Who is your favorite character? Why what did they do? (Again, this question allows for discussion of admiration without liking someone.)
  • Q8. Who is the most moral character?

Responses & Reflections 

After students have answered on the character sheets, I ask the groups to share. This allows for students to see how other students rationalize their choices and engage in whole class discussion. It is recommended that they use their books and those that do are able to provide solid textual evidence as support.

This activity usually lasts one full 45-minute class period but could easily be a two-day activity. This is also easily adapted for any grade level or literary work. This is usually one of my students’ favorite activities with the novel. They also enjoy some of the other subtle aspects of this activity. First of all, they are out of their seats and moving. The fluid groups are based on their opinion; they are not “stuck” all period in one group or with the same people.

I enjoy seeing their perspectives on my favorite American novel. I have had classes hate Jay and feel he is a “creeper”, and romantic classes who see his adoration and devotion as admirable. I invite all of them to reread Gatsby when they are older and see if they have changed their minds.

What text could you use this activity with? What questions would you ask students? Do you have an idea for extending the activity? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Melissa Elliott currently teaches Shakespeare, AP English Language and Composition, English 12, and 12 Honors at Martinsburg High School. Melissa is originally from Staten Island, NY and taught middle school for two years before relocating to West Virginia. The 2016-2017 school year marks a decade with Martinsburg High School and her husband. She is member of the Executive Committee of WVCTE and an AP English Language Reader.

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