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Lesson Plan

Chasing the Dream: Researching the Meaning of the American Dream

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Chasing the Dream: Researching the Meaning of the American Dream

Grades 9 – 12
Lesson Plan Type Standard Lesson
Estimated Time Five 50-minute sessions
Lesson Author

Susanne Rubenstein

Susanne Rubenstein

Princeton, Massachusetts


National Council of Teachers of English



Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice



In “Paradox and Dream,” a 1966 essay on the American Dream, John Steinbeck writes, “For Americans too the wide and general dream has a name.  It is called ‘the American Way of Life.'  No one can define it or point to any one person or group who lives it, but it is very real nevertheless.”  Yet a recent cover of Time Magazine reads “The History of the American Dream – Is It Real?”  Here, students explore the meaning of the American Dream by conducting interviews, sharing and assessing data, and writing papers based on their research to draw their own conclusions.

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  • The American Dream Project: This assignment sheet, which is directed to students, explains the three-part nature of this project and paper.
  • Steinbeck John. American and American and Selected Nonfiction. Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson J. Benson, eds.  New York: Penguin Books, 2012: In this 1966 essay, Steinbeck presents a picture of Americans as paradoxical and asks if the American Dream is even possible.  An edited version of this essay can be found at http://politicalsystems.homestead.com/ParadoxAndDream.html
  • Sidel, Ruth. On Her Own: Growing Up in the Shadow of the American Dream.  New York: Viking, 1990: Sidel explores the impact of the American Dream on young women in the 1980’s and 1990s.

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In her book Genre Theory:  Teaching, Writing, and Being, Deborah Dean describes writing “mini-ethnographies,” saying, “Ethnography is a way to look at a culture; Wendy Bishop describes it as ‘a representation of the lived experience of a convened culture’ (3).  Reiff, citing Beverly Moss, explains that ‘the main purpose of the ethnographic genre is ‘to gain a comprehensive view of the social interactions, behaviors, and beliefs of a community or a social group’’”(“Meditating” 42).  This lesson allows students to explore this idea of shared beliefs within a culture and to then use genuine research (one-on-one interviews) to produce a paper that examines the shared belief in the American Dream.  As Dean states, “…conducting research for ethnography requires students to use genres for authentic purposes, which provides them with clear connections between genres and contexts and helps them see genres as actions more than forms.”

Further Reading

Dean, Deborah. Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2008.

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