BY: LIZ KEIPER
The American Dream.
It’s one of those slippery concepts that is hard to define or pin down. We have a sense of what it is, but helping 14-year-olds to a nuanced understanding of the term can be difficult because often people mean many different concepts when they use that phrase. Some mean either being able to achieve high levels of wealth, or just being able to escape poverty and achieve financial stability. Others mean having their rights and freedoms secured. Those coming to this country from war-torn nations view the “land of opportunity” in a different light than most of us—we take for granted that we don’t generally have to worry about armed bands of militias breaking down our front door and taking whatever they want from us at gunpoint.
All of these complicated viewpoints form facets of this concept that is The American Dream… the idea that in America, one can become who they want to be through hard work and perseverance. This concept is important in the book Of Mice and Men that I teach with my ninth grade English students, but truly it is an important concept in any book that deals with poverty, injustice, or economics.
When students come into my class, they usually fall into one of two fairly rigid platforms regarding America; they either view America as infallible and think that patriotism entails unwavering and wholesale support of everything about this nation, or they have a markedly negative view of America and think that we can never do anything right as a country. Part of my goal through this unit is to help students come to a more nuanced understanding of America—that citizens here do indeed have many more rights and freedoms than other places around the world and that we do aspire to justly secure these rights and freedoms for all people in our country, but also that we are far from perfectly achieving that goal and that there is much work to be done to improve our country. I want them to duly feel thankful for what we have in this nation but also not view as patriotic sacrilege critiquing aspects of American society that need to be changed.
Social Mobility Video Analysis
This year, I decided to focus on the phrase “Social Mobility” in order to explain what it means to achieve the American Dream. I found three helpful videos relating to the phrase “Social Mobility”:
- Social Mobility: Crash Course Sociology #26—This is a helpful overview of social mobility and some data showing how this plays out in society. As per most Crash Course videos, the speaker talks REALLY fast, so tell your students to buckle their seatbelts! And that it’s ok for them not to retain every single word that the speaker says as long as they understand the bigger picture that she’s painting.
- Is America Dreaming?: Understanding Social Mobility—This is a video produced by the Brookings Institute, a think-tank based in Washington D.C. The speaker uses Legos to visually portray the data that he cites to back up his points about social mobility in America.
- Current Trends in Social Mobility: Raj Chetty—Produced by the Stanford Economics department, in this video, the speaker uses a heat map of the United States to show how social mobility differs depending on the region of the country in which a person grows up, and he draws some overarching conclusions about what communities in the U.S. with high social mobility are doing right to help people achieve the American Dream.
I had my students watch the above videos in succession and write down three facts that they learned from each of them. Then, I had them answer the following analysis questions in groups:
- Based on information in the videos, explain what “social mobility” is in your own words.
- What were similar pieces of information or themes that you heard repeated in multiple videos?
- Based on the videos, what are some things about American society that seem to be going well? In other words, how is America improving or helping some people achieve the American Dream? Give specific evidence from the videos to support your point.
- Based on the videos, what are some things about American society that seem to be going poorly? In other words, how does America need to get better at helping some people achieve the American Dream? Give specific evidence from the videos to support your point.
We then used these questions to springboard discussion about the real possibility of achieving the American Dream for various demographics of society. Here is a copy of the document I used for that: Social Mobility Videos Analysis
Human Development Index Analysis
After exposing my students to some disheartening inequality in our country, I also wanted them to see our nation from a more international perspective because that plays a big role in defining the American Dream as well.
To achieve that goal, I had my students analyze data from the Human Development Index (HDI). The very newest data from the year 2017 was just released about a week ago, which was before I designed the project, so I used last year’s processed data from 2016: hdr_2016_statistical_annex
The HDI is a massive amount of data from every country in the world that is collected and compiled by the UN. Using data on everything from education to inequality to medical access to the justice system, the Human Development Index lists countries from what they term “Most Developed” to “Least Developed.” They also provide a plethora of tables to show the individual pieces of data used to determine this classification.
The U.S. is currently at #10, tied with Canada, on the 2016 version of the HDI. In the grand scheme of things, this is pretty high, but there are ten other countries that considered “more developed” than the U.S., so there is also room for improvement. Here is a helpful video that explains the HDI and how to use it to analyze countries’ development.
For this activity, I first had students work in groups and gave each group five countries to examine: the U.S., a country higher than the U.S. on the HDI which was ranked “Very High,” a country ranked “High,” a country ranked “Medium,” and a country ranked “Low.” For each of these countries (other than the U.S.), the groups had to answer these questions to familiarize them a bit with the countries that they were studying:
- Describe where this country is located.
- What is the national language of this country?
- What sort of government/leadership does this country have?
- What is the capitol of this country?
- Do a Google image search for the capitol. Describe what the capitol of this country looks like.
Then, I gave them a chart of specific data to find on these countries using the HDI. My document for this activity is linked here. Human Development Index analysis
After finding data on each of their assigned countries, each student answered these analysis questions synthesizing their findings from the data:
- Which piece(s) of data surprised you the most, and why? Explain.
- Give some examples of measures in which the United States seemed to rank better than another country. Provide specific data to back up your answers.
- Give some examples of measures in which the United States seemed to rank worse than another country. Provide specific data to back up your answers.
- Name at least three specific criteria that you think would most affect a country’s development efforts. In other words, name three categories that would most hold a country back if they were not doing well in those categories. Explain why you think that those categories are so important to a country’s wellbeing.
- Name at least three ways that the United States seems to be helping people achieve the American Dream based on the data. Provide specific data to back up your answers, and explain your choices.
- Name at least three areas in which the United States needs to improve in order to better help people achieve the American Dream based on the data. Provide specific data to back up your answers, and explain your choices.
As with the video analysis, this activity also sparked great discussion from my students. For example, as they were locating data on their assigned countries, they were surprised to find that among the citizens in many countries labeled as “Medium” or “Low,” there was high justification of wife beating, and sometimes the percentages of this justification was higher for women than for men. “Ms. Keiper,” they asked, “why would WOMEN ever justify WIFE BEATING??” We were able to have some great conversations about societal pressure in shaping people’s opinions and ethics.
On the flip side, they were also surprised to find that the incarceration rate in the U.S. was exponentially higher than any other country above it on the HDI, and that the “confidence in the judicial system” for the U.S. was incredibly low—even lower than many countries listed as “Medium” or “Low” on the HDI. While there is little justification of wife beating in the U.S. and we have many more doctors per 1,000 people than many lesser developed nations do, we are not perfect by any means.
Allowing students to build their own knowledge to come to an understanding of complex themes is essential to their deep understanding of them. After engaging in these data-driven analyses of American society, my students have been much more prepared this year to discuss what Steinbeck is trying to convey about both the beauty and tragedy of American opportunity in Of Mice and Men.
Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.
WVCTE is wondering…
- How do you teach about poverty and social mobility in relation to novels in your classroom?
- What other books besides Of Mice and Men would connect well with this type of analysis?
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