Standard Lesson

Chasing the Dream: Researching the Meaning of the American Dream

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 50-minute sessions
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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.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

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

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology



This website, The Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, is a university archive focusing on Steinbeck’s life and work and offering a variety of materials for teacher interesting in teaching Steinbeck’s work.

This article discusses how the idea of the American Dream has changed society and  traces the history of the American Dream.


  1. Familiarize yourself with the concept of the American Dream and its history.  An excellent resource is “Keeping the Dream Alive” by Jon Meacham (Time, July 2, 2012 Vol. 180  No.1).
  2. Prepare student copies or plan access to the two readings listed above by Steinbeck and Sidel and prepare discussion starters.  (Sample starters for the Sidel reading are included.)
  3. Make class copies of the assignment sheet The American Dream Project.
  4. Determine the appropriate number of groups to divide the class into.  (Note: there should be a minimum of 4 students per group, but 5-7 is optimal.  If class size is too small to allow for six groups, one for each decade 1950 – present, it is best to omit the most recent decade where interviewees often offer less material.)

Student Objectives

Students will:

  • develop an understanding of the meaning of the concept the American Dream through readings, discussion, and authentic research.
  • practice interviewing skills, including formulation of questions, listening and response skills, and notetaking.
  • learn to work cooperatively with other students to pool data and draw conclusions.
  • demonstrate the ability to present thoughtful and well-documented conclusions in a formal paper.

Session One

  1. Ask students to define “the American Dream.”  Brainstorm as a class, listing on the board all ideas, words, and phrases that students offer. (Examples: financial security; a home, a job, two kids and a dog; happiness; freedom to do and be what you want; being better off than your parents; a house with a white picket fence; being able to pursue your dreams, the chance to succeed, etc.)
  2. Encourage students to explore the concept of the American Dream by discussing such questions as:
    • Is the idea of the American Dream unique to Americans, or is it a “Human” Dream?
    • Do you believe the American Dream has changed over time?  If so, how?
    • Do all US citizens have equal opportunities to achieve the American Dream?  What do you based your opinion on?
    • Is the belief in the American Dream necessary to society?  Why/why not?
    • How do you personally define the American Dream?
  3. Read aloud in class Steinbeck’s “Paradox and Dream” from America and Americans.
  4. Immediately after the reading, ask students to freewrite briefly about their reactions to the piece, focusing in particular on what Steinbeck says about the American Dream.
  5. Ask students to share their freewrites.  Use their responses to refine the definition and meaning of the American Dream on the board.  (Note: The term “The America Dream” was first coined by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America in 1931.)  Although there is no one definition of the American Dream, students often come to the conclusion that it is the freedom and opportunity to achieve one’s goals through hard work.
  6. Ask students to read Ruth Sidel’s “The New American Dreamers” before the next session.

Session Two

  1. If students were able to read the Sidel piece for homework, begin class with a discussion of “The New American Dreamers”  (see attached discussion starters).  If students were not able to read the piece for homework, share it with them in class.
  2. Ask students to freewrite, expressing their reactions to this piece and commenting in particular on how young women in contemporary times define the American Dream.
    • Sample comments from students:
      • “Professional success is important to women today.”
      • “The old dream of a husband and a family isn’t important to all women anymore.”
      • “If I ever do get married, I want my relationship to be 50-50.  I don’t want to be the only one responsible for taking care of the house and kids.”
      • “Money and independence are really important to women now.”
      • “Women can do and have whatever they want, just like men."
    • Sample key lines from "The New American Dreamers":
      • “…she is convinced that if she plans carefully, works hard and makes the right decisions, she will have success in her chosen field; have the material goods she desires; in time marry if she wishes; and, in all probability, have children.  She plans, as the expression goes, to ‘have it all.’”  (p.15)
      • “No matter what class they come from, their fantasies are of upward mobility, a comfortable life filled with personal choice and material possessions.” (p. 18)
      • “A key message that the New American Dreamers are both receiving and sending is one of optimism—the sense that they can do whatever they want with their lives.” (p. 24)
      • “To many of them, an affluent life-style is central to their dreams; they often describe their goals in terms of cars, homes, travel to Europe.” (p. 27)
  3. Invite students to share their freewrites.  Use their responses to continue to refine the definition and meaning of the American Dream.  Ask students to compare Sidel’s conclusions with Steinbeck’s comments on the American Dream
  4. Discuss the format and voice of the Sidel piece.  Ask students to point out how she uses specific data from interviewees to draw her conclusions.  Have students note how she implements direct quotations from the interviews to illustrate specific points.
  5. Introduce students to the idea that they will be conducting their own interviews on the meaning of the American Dream.  Explain to them that they will be choosing interview subjects who represent particular decades from the 1950’s to the present.
  6. Pass out The American Dream Project assignment sheet and read it aloud with students.  Note in particular the three stages of the paper: interview summary, conclusions on a decade, and personal reflection.
  7. Discuss the idea of coming of age (i.e. the time when a person becomes independent of his/her parents) to make sure that students understand the concept.
  8. For homework, ask students to make a brief list of people they know who came of age in each particular decade (1950’s to the present).  These should be people they would be able to interview, preferably in person though possibly in a phone conversation.  Students may not be able to come up with a person(s) for each decade; however, this list will help to expedite student choices in the next class session.

Session Three

  1. Choose decade groups, using the lists of potential interviewees which students created for homework.  This works best if students have input into choosing which decade they will interview a person from.  Remind students that they do not have to know their interviewee well, and that in fact, in most interview situations, the interviewer does not know the interviewee.   Be sure to have an equal number of people in each decade group so that they all have roughly the same amount of material to work with.
  2. Brainstorm a short list of possible interview questions (see attached sample list), and discuss strengths and weakness of potential questions.  (Note:  Remind students that, when interviewing, they should not follow the list precisely but instead allow the interview to “take on a life of its own.”  This is a reason for creating a fairly short list of questions so that students have to take the initiative to come up with questions suitable for their particular subject.)
  3. If necessary, suggest that students refer back to “The New American Dreamers” to see questions Sidel asked interviewees and how questions built upon one another.
  4. Review with students general guidelines for conducting an interview (i.e. courtesy, concerns about confidentiality/anonymity, use of tape recorders, etc.).  If necessary, allow students to “practice” mock interviews with one another.  Addtionally, you may choose to share the sample student interview (audio) with the class so that students have a better understanding.
  5. Remind students of the specific date when the two-page interview must be completed and brought to class (see assignment sheet).  Emphasize the importance of having the paper in class on that day since students will be sharing their data.

Session Four

  1. Ask students to sit in small groups according to decade (i.e. the 1950’s group includes those students who interviewed someone who came of age in the 1950’s).
  2. Ask each student to read the interview portion of the paper aloud to the group while other group members take notes on what they hear.  After each group member has read his/her interview, students may decide that they need to hear parts of the papers again.  Allow sufficient time for this reading and for students to ask questions of one another.
  3. When all interviews have been presented, tell students to discuss the data and begin to draw conclusions about the meaning of the American Dream for that particular decade.  Encourage lively and thoughtful discussion, and remind students to not settle for easy conclusions but to think deeply about the data.  Students may find the Venn Diagram tool helpful to use to see similarities and differences in their subjects’ responses.
  4. Explain to students that not everyone in the group will necessarily draw the same conclusions, and that that is a function of interpretation of data.  Depending on the size of the groups, note that students may focus their conclusions on different “sub-groups” (i.e. gender, class, region, etc.) within their larger group.
  5. While students are working in groups, circulate the classroom to help guide student discussion and to assure that the interview pieces are written in the correct style and format.
  6. If, at the conclusion of class, students feel they need more data, allow time for them to reconnect with their interviewees and then share that additional material with their group during another class session.
  7. Remind students of the due date for the entire paper (all three sections) as noted on the assignment sheet.

Session Five

(Note: This is the session during which the students will hand in their completed papers, so this session might be a week or so after Session Four.)

  1. Ask students to again meet in their small groups according to decade and share their final conclusions as presented in their papers.
  2. Give each group a piece of chart/poster paper on which to list the key points they agree on that would define the meaning of the American Dream for their particular decade.
  3. Hang the posters and ask each group to present their findings to the entire class. Encourage them to support their findings with data from their interviews.
  4. Conduct a class discussion on how the American Dream has or has not changed throughout the decades from 1950 to the present. Ask students to consider the Time Magazine questions: “Is It Real?”
  5. Encourage students to share their own definition of the American Dream as expressed in the final page of their papers.  Ask them to compare and contrast their responses.
  6. At the conclusion of the class discussion, collect all student papers (all three parts).



  • If time and technology allows, students may be interested in viewing the powerful 1988 documentary American Dream at Groton which focuses on the challenges eighteen-year-old Jo Vega faces as a scholarship student at Groton Academy, a Massachusetts prep school. Vega was born in Spanish Harlem and struggles in her pursuit of the American Dream in a very different social milieu.
  • Students interested in music might want to explore music that focuses on the American Dream.  An excellent selection of songs can be found on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website.
  • In an abbreviated form, this lesson might be used in connection with literature that explores the American Dream such as The Great Gatsby, A Raisin in the Sun, and Death of a Salesman.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • The complete, three-part paper can be graded as any other research type paper.  The requirements for each section are outlined in the assignment sheet and can be graded accordingly.  (A teacher might choose to weight the three sections as follows: Interview - 40%, Conclusions drawn from data - 40%, Personal statement on the American Dream – 20%.)  Emphasis should be placed on use of solid and specific data that support the writer’s conclusions.
  • Students might also write a short reflection discussing their reaction to the design of the project in terms of conducting interviews, collaborating in small groups, and using authentic research to draw conclusions.

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