The Great Gatsby and Community Research

Teacher: Judy Bebelaar


As a language arts teacher, I must cover required texts.  I also want student learning to be connected to the world outside the school doors.  That connection seemed even more important after September 11. 

I listened to KCAC teachers describe their students’ community research projects at the American Studies conference in Washington, DC in November 2001. I began to think about ways I could connect the reading of a novel with a student community research project. Since my school, International Studies Academy, requires a senior project and a research paper on an international topic for graduation, I also hoped the lesson I designed would help students succeed at that task.

An interview is one of the possible sources for senior project research material. Most students, I learned after scoring the projects, did not know how to conduct a meaningful interview. Nor did they know how to incorporate such material into their papers.

Even after I had set up the “perfect” interview for one of my students, whose topic was controversy about Piaget’s theories, with an adolescent therapist at U.C. San Francisco's Langley Porter Institute, the interview didn’t work.  My student never made the appointment—which would have made her project so much richer. Sharonna, who wanted to become a psychologist, would have had the chance to meet a woman therapist.

From reviewing the senior projects with our staff, it also became clear that students had trouble citing sources correctly and embedding quotes into their text, a problem our language arts teachers have noted and tried to address.  These particular skills appeared as some of those aligned with questions our students missed on California’s recently required high school exit exam.  So there were many reasons for wanting to make this lesson work.

Incorporating the “Where I'm From” lesson described earlier will, I hope, help students learn to interview someone in a meaningful way—perhaps someone who can teach the students in this American literature class something about the ‘20s.  In the process of the lesson, we will hear model “Where I'm From” poems by previous students as well as several of their own poems, in first, middle and final draft forms.

Students will look closely at the images and structure of the original “Where I'm From.” When Lyons’ poem’s schema is familiar to students and they have seen the many and very different forms the poem can take, I will ask them to take a copy of the questions I pose to them in order to stimulate first drafts. They will find someone interesting to interview: a parent or grandparent, a teacher or former teacher, a neighbor or a community hero. 

The Chronicle article, “A Roaring Decade, a Glorious New City, a Rival to the South,” (San Francisco Chronicle, April 25, 1999, front page “Sunday”" section, part of the California Century series) has some leads for San Franciscans who lived here in the 1920s. One of the poets who has come to the school through Writerscorps (a national program, part of Americorps) knows one of the people quoted there.

Students will explain to the person they interview, after introducing themselves by reading their own poems, that they will write a poem in the voice of the person interviewed, using the details gathered in the interview.  They will send a final draft, along with a letter asking for permission to share the poem with classmates. 

I had usually, when teaching The Great Gatsby, divided students into “committees” which were responsible for making reports on such background material for the novel as the Black Sox Scandal, the Harlem Renaissance, Women in the ‘20s, Prohibition and the Great Depression.  I decided to ask those committees to choose as well a neighborhood in San Francisco to research.  The idea would be to find out about what that neighborhood was like in the 1920s, and perhaps to interview someone who lived in the neighborhood at that time, as outlined above, or at least to try to arrange for one such person to speak to the class.

In preparation for students choosing a neighborhood to research, we visited a local arts organization, Intersection for the Arts. My goal was to acquaint students with the Mission District, a largely Latino neighborhood which includes San Francisco's Mission Dolores.  There, many California Indians were brought to live and work, and where a tragic number died of tuberculosis and other diseases.

Intersection for the Arts has set up a gallery of political posters and photographs, as well as a model of the Mission District, which visitors to the project help create, along with their visions for the future, The People’s Plan.  There has been much local concern about gentrification since many “dot-commies” have moved into the neighborhood, creating “live-work” spaces and driving up property prices and rents. Visitors also complete a survey after a presentation about how the neighborhood has changed over the years since the Gold Rush. 

The end result of the project is a report incorporating the model and the results of the survey to the City Planning Commission.  We are going back for a more in-depth presentation on the neighborhood in the 1920s after students have viewed a video based on the newspaper series, produced by the San Francisco Chronicle and TV station KRON, and perhaps the movie Chinatown.

The neighborhood our school is in, the Potrero Hill District, has a community historical archive, The Potrero Hill Historical Archives Project, at the neighborhood library, which we will visit. The San Francisco African American Historical Society can provide students with resources to learn about neighborhoods called “Hunter's Point” and “The Fillmore”. There are many other organizations and projects which can give students ways to learn about the many different neighborhoods in the city: Chinatown, “The Avenues,” “Noe Valley,” “North Beach” and “Japantown,” to name a few.  (Angel Island Immigration Station, 415-561-2160,; Chinese Historical Society of America Museum, 415-391-1188,; National Archives and Records Administration, 650-876-9294,; National Japanese American Historical Society, 415-921-5007,

The student committees will present ongoing reports about the progress of their research on both topics as they present what they are learning about the novel.  Each committee also has an assignment to look at one literary aspect of the novel: light and heat as symbols in the novel; green (and other colors) as symbols; women in the novel; the automobile and accidents; and Gatsby as a character. 

Library visits, assignments to do research outside of class, committee planning meetings and literary “fishbowls” will serve as preludes to the culminating activities: a literary essay, and a committee presentation on the group's background research and their selected San Francisco neighborhood.

Instructional sequence

1.  Introduce the idea of a community-based research project focused on the 1920s and in conjunction with reading The Great Gatsby.  Tell students about the end product: two group research projects, one based on a topic relevant to the novel (the Harlem Renaissance, Women in the Twenties, the Black Sox Scandal, Automobiles in the Twenties, Prohibition and the Great Depression) based on a neighborhood in San Francisco in the ‘20s  (Potrero  Hill, the Mission District, Hunters Point, the Fillmore, Japantown, and Chinatown and North Beach). 

The project will include a poem, an essay about the time/place, and a discussion of the connection to the novel.   Students will also write a literary essay on the novel using at least five quotes, supporting a theme/thesis (accidents and cars; women in the ‘20s; light and heat as symbols; green as a symbol). Click for handout.

2.  Have students write a “Where I'm From” poem (George Ella Lyons).  Discussion of where Gatsby is “from.”

3.  Take students to Intersection for the Arts interactive presentation, The People’s Plan, about the Mission District: model of the neighborhood that visitors make; presentation on how the area has changed since 1900; gallery show of posters, news articles, protest of gentrification slogans and signs; survey which will be used in a presentation to the San Francisco City Planning Commission.

4.  Review with students the interviewing process and the interview sheet for writing a “Where I'm From” poem for a person whom they admire, who lives in the neighborhood the student has targeted, and who may know something about the 1920s in that neighborhood.

5.  Take students to the school and Potrero Hill library to research the period, the neighborhood  (Internet, periodicals, books).

6.  Watch “San Francisco in the ‘20s,” video of “Gatsby” (Redford), and video about Fitzgerald’s life, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great American Dreamer (Arts and Education Biography).

7.  Make second visit to Intersection for the Arts: the Mission District in the 1920s.

8.  Students participate in “fishbowls” on literary themes/ topics/neighborhoods.  One of the groups is selected to have a discussion while the rest of the class watches.  Protocol: Each student in the group shares a quotation from the book or an interesting fact/photograph/passage from a book, article or Internet site on one of the group’s research topics, and makes a commentary.  Then the group discusses the theme or topic, their progress so far, and plans to continue.

9.  Give lesson on citations and embedding quotes.  (ISA's guidelines for senior project.)

10.  Students find quotes that fit one of 5 themes, compete for which group can find the most (relevant and correctly copied, cited) quotes.

11.  Read models of student essays, show posters for presentations.  Go over rubrics for each.

12. Essays submitted, Presentations made.  Each group will choose one of the two presentations (topic, neighborhood) to present during finals week.

13.  Evaluation

Necessary handouts

Interview Note-taking Sheet for a “Where I'm From” Poem

Name of person interviewed:

Birth date:

Appointment made on (date):

Date and time of interview:

First, explain the assignment:

Thank you for taking the time for this interview.  As I explained when I made the appointment with you, I am doing a project for my American literature class at International Studies Academy which includes learning to interview someone in order to write a poem about that person's life, and doing some research on periods in American history. 

My teacher's name is Judy Bebelaar, and you can call her at school if you have any questions, at 415-695-5866.  I’ll take some notes as I ask you questions, and use those notes to help write a poem modeled after one by American poet George Ella Lyons.  I’ll read you the poem I wrote about myself by way of introduction and to show you what I mean by a “Where I'm From” poem. 

Feel free to ask me questions and please let me know if anything I ask is too personal.  I hope to learn something about you and what America, or another part of the world, was like when you were my age or younger.  I’m not going to ask you about historical events so much as about concrete details which often give a deeper, truer picture of someone's life than fact and figure do.

Then read your poem, and begin to ask the questions below. 

The numbers with no questions are for you to write answers to questions that seem interesting to ask as the interview proceeds.  But remember, always be polite.  Write your answers on a separate sheet of paper so you'll have room for surprises.  If a question has many parts, pause after each part long enough to give the person time to think.  Make a check by ones you’d like to come back to later.

Introduce yourself and thank the person for his/her time.  Explain what school you attend, who your teacher is, and that this is part of an assignment on poems about place.  Read the model poem and your own poem, or one by another student you think is especially good (with that person's permission) aloud.  Then read the questions below to the person you're interviewing.  Add your own questions too if you like.  These questions represent only part of what may be important and interesting details about this person's childhood history.  Set a time limit before you begin, asking the person how much time he or she has to spare.  Make a time for a second appointment if necessary.  Take a tape recorder, or jot your notes down quickly, being sure to include specific details you might want to use.  Don't write complete sentences - just the really important words.

1.  Where did you grow up?  Where was your home? (city, town, or part of San Francisco; in an apartment  building, outside of town, on a farm, etc.)

2.  When you think of that place, what comes to mind, such as the color of your house, or whether it was small or large, or made of brick or stone, or a tree that grew there, or what was planted in your garden, or what the front porch or the view was like?

3.  What was your mother's name?  Your father's? Do you have brothers or sisters?  What are there names?  Is there another relative, an uncle or grandmother who was important to you?  What specific activities do you associate with her, or remember doing with her?

4.  What is an object or activity that reminds you of one or more of those people?  For example, did you cook with your mother, or work in the garden or somewhere else with one of those people?  What utensils or tools or dishes or other specific things come to mind, like woks or cookie sheets or wrenches or shovels or ink pens?  What I write will be better if you can be very specific.  The names of things are often interesting, especially if they are in another language.

5.  What foods did you love as a child that your mother or grandmother made?

6.  Do you remember tasting something you weren't really supposed to eat - or plants children taste, like honeysuckle or lemon grass?

7.  What games did you play?  (Ask for an explanation too, if it's a game not familiar            to you.)

8.  What songs did you sing at home or in church or temple?   Do you remember any sayings or verses from a song or a holy book?  They can be in a language other than English.

9.  What sayings, funny, or wise, or scolding, do you remember - things your mother or grandmother, father or grandfather, an aunt or uncle might say to you?  If they were said in a language other than English, could you help me write them down in that language and translate them to English?

10.  What movies did you like?  Who were your favorite singers/ radio stations/ actors?

11.  What were some of your favorite possessions - a doll, a toy, a pet, something in your parents' house or your room?

12.  What are some names of near-by towns, rivers, creeks, mountains, etc.

13.  What were your favorite holidays?

14.  What were some events that are important in your life?  The events might be personal, like the birth or death of someone close to you, or historical, like strikes or protest marches or wars.

15.  What's something you would have seen every day, which I may not - perhaps think of how people went to work, or what a particular street looked like.

16.  If you had to choose one moment or object or event that summed up your childhood, what would that be?

17 Have all these questions reminded you of anything else you'd like to share with me?

Thank you so much for your time.  I'll give you a copy of what I write from your answers, and let you make any corrections or additions.  Then, if I have your written permission, I'll share what I wrote with my class.  Please sign below if my teacher has your permission to share your poem with a group of teachers who are writing a book about teaching and community research.

Rubric for Group Presentations  (possible score of 1 to 6 for each requirement)

Essay approximately one and one half pages, proofread and edited, typed, double-spaced.  The thesis should be clear, and the paper should show a careful reading of the text or texts.  Quotations, examples, or facts (at least five) should support the thesis.  The writing should be clear and concise.  Make at least one connection with the novel (For example, quote a passage from Gatsby that relates to the Black Sox scandal, or relate something that occurred in your neighborhood in the 1920s to a part of the novel.).  The essay should be copied and distributed to the class, or put on an overhead.

Graphic Piece (poster) should be neatly, artistically, thoughtfully done.  The piece should be artistic as well as informative, and should be large enough so the class can view it as it is explained.  For the topic report (Harlem Renaissance, etc.) there should be a definition or explanation, brief autobiographies, poems, photographs, selections from texts read by the group, important facts or figures.  For the neighborhood report, there should be a brief written description of the neighborhood in the 1920s, one of the “Where I'm From” poems, photographs, selections from texts, facts and figures.

Presentation Skills: Group members should be articulate (Ideas are clearly spoken, written.); informed (Presentation shows you did your research homework.); enthusiastic (The group is excited about the ideas.); educational (The class learns from the presentation.); and organized (Time was obviously spent preparing well.)

Student artifact

“Where I’m From”

I am from the country of the goddess

I am from two smart workers, who gave me life.

I am from the blue soft sky, with an escort of angels

I am from corn, because it gives me my identity of Latina

I am from the green fields where

Every single morning I woke up to pick tomatoes and corn

I am from the city where the butterflies were born,

In each one of them, one dream to follow

I am from a little town, where the sun touched the fields

Every morning, giving the energy that my parents needed

To continue with their routine

I am from the wind, because

You can feel me even if you cannot see me.

I am from las tortillas cooked of corn

I am from my family,

From the Virgen de Guadalupe

From my country Mexico, where I was born

-- Laura Melgarejo

“Where I’m From”

I am from the racism and the time of segregation

I am from the Fillmore District in 1934, from a small, tight apartment

I am from working hard every day to send el dinero to Beatriz my wife in Mexico

I was eighteen when we married, and twenty when I left for San Francisco

I am from horrible sounds coming from the machines

I am from enormous buildings with dark-colored rooms

I am from old beautiful black cars, from my old bicycle

I am from the beach, from small boats

I am from Dona Sara y Don Gabriel

I am from three brothers and four sisters

From Jesus, Alberto and Ramira and my sisters

Amalia, Beatriz, Tereza and Guadalupe

I am from Saturday and Sunday church,

From sunny days playing soccer and having a good time

I am from ice cream and chicken mole with tortillas,

From the fresh water flavor of Guallava and

The essential flavor, el chile

I am from American food, from sandwiches

Milky Ways and lollypops

I am from Mexican songs, from Cielito Lindo

Sigo Siende el Rey, Mexico Lindo y Querida

I am from Spanish books

I am from superstitions, from the priest’s advice

From “Brothers and Sisters, love your fellows as I love you.”

I am from losing my job

And moving to Fresno to working there in the fields

I am from poverty and hard times

And from happiness too

I am from talking to you, mi ja,

And remembering the old days

-- Ramon Medina (Laura’s grandfather)

Teacher reflection

This lesson surprised me in several ways.  Students, rather than being reluctant to interview people seemed to enjoy the process.  Several found people who had lived in San Francisco in the 1920’s.

 One student, Laura, came to class the day after she had interviewed her grandfather.  “Ms. Bebelaar! Guess what?  I never knew my grandfather lived in San Francisco in those years!  I always thought he came from Mexico to Fresno.  He told me all about it ­ and he even might come talk to our class!” 

Another student interviewed a woman for whom the local middle school had been renamed, honoring her for her decades of work with children in the Potrero Hill neighborhood.  Perhaps the interview project worked well because students had a model of their own, a poem they liked, the “Where I’m From” poem. 

Perhaps the focus on the 1920’s intrigued them because of the parallels between then and now.  My student teacher found an article in the New York Times, “Jay Gatsby, Dreamer, Criminal, Jazz Age Rogue, Is a Man for Our Times.”  Adam Cohen says, “if Gatsby were around today, he would probably be in the upper echelons of Enron….But it is the elusive Gatsby, the cynical idealist, who embodies America in all its messy glory…In today’s increasingly disturbing world, home to Al Qaeda cells and suicide bombers, offshore sham partnerships and document-shredding auditors, the grim backdrop against which Gatsby’s life plays out feels depressingly right.”

The era came alive through the video as students saw San Francisco in the 1920’s. They learned that many local landmarks, including most of the high schools, were built in the prosperous Twenties.  They also got to know Sunny Jim Rolph, the flamboyant, cowboy-boot wearing mayor

The people who interacted with the students helped students develop meaningful schema for reading.  The interviews and the resulting poems connected history and literature for students.  They were not just the consumers of literature but the producers as well, taking on the role of writer. 

Although Leo Sapienza, one of the gentlemen in the article about San Francisco in the Twenties, could not come to our class, I sent him some student poems and interviewed him over the phone.  Students helped me create his “Where I’m From” poem. So his life became part of the project too. The author of the Chronicle piece, Carl Nolte, came to class.  Students met the interviewees through him, and in the process they got to know someone who has made writing a career.

Cross Curricular

Judy’s well-conceived and thoroughly prepared lesson reminds me that one needn’t abandon community-based projects in order to embark on a close reading of classic American novels.  Rather than competing with each other, the two pursuits can instead complement each other famously. 

The idea that The Great Gatsby might serve as a springboard for research in and about San Francisco makes that text come alive and at the same time integrates the KCAC approach to researching and writing into the literature curriculum.  It makes me wonder what connections I might make with 20th-century literary texts and the surrounding Atlanta landscape.  How might Alice Walker, or Flannery O’Connor, or William Faulkner lead to KCAC discoveries?  This outstanding lesson excites the mind.

-- Dave Winter


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