Reading Graphs and Economic Trends: The “Great Gatsby Curve”

When I spotted the following preview of a discussion thread on NCTE Connects, I had to read more:

Vermont educator Donald Tinney was looking for short companion texts to teach in conversation with The Great Gatsby. I had just finished reading Fitzgerald’s novel with my 10th grade students, and was curious to learn how other educators help students relate its themes to present day.

In the discussion that followed, several educators shared texts and tips (including P.L. Thomas’ post, “The ‘Vast Carelessness’ of White America”).

Among the many treasures shared was a page of resources compiled by Susan Chenelle and Audrey Fisch. Their 2017 NCTE presentation referenced an article on “The Great Gatsby Curve,” an economic trend that shows a relationship between parental economic mobility and income distribution. Posted on an archived page of Obama’s WhiteHouse.gov blog, the article features an animated graphic posted on Tumblr with a graphical representation of the curve. Here is a screenshot of the Tumblr graphic:

While I await a copy of Fisch and Chenelle’s upcoming book on teaching Gatsby with informational texts, I created my own lesson around “The Great Gatsby Curve” to prompt students to think about these contemporary economic issues.

Considering “The Great Gatsby Curve” Lesson: Parental Income and Economic Mobility

First, I asked students to analyze their first impressions of the website itself (obamawhitehouse.archives.gov). The following note appears at the top of the website: “This is historical material “frozen in time”. The website is no longer updated and links to external websites and some internal pages may not work.”

Then, I invited students to watch and read the animated graphic on “The Great Gatsby Curve.” The animation progresses quickly, so students watched it once or twice before writing down their interpretations of the graph. Eventually, I captured the screenshot image above.

After students wrote an interpretation of the graph in their own words, I asked them to write responses to a series of questions I raised aloud:

  • What is your opinion about this economic trend?
  • What does this economic trend mean for you? How might it apply to your life?
  • Does this trend hold true in your family? For example, did your grandparents’ income determine your parents’?
  • Shift your perspective. How would you feel if your parents had significantly lower or higher incomes?
  • What factors do you think contribute to this economic trend?

These prompts kept students engaged and writing for over twenty minutes. We easily filled the remainder of the class period discussing their reflections.

Follow-Up Activities: TED-Talks on Economic Inequality

I followed up the activity the next day by showing a TED-Talk also suggested by Fisch and Chenelle: Paul Piff’s “Does Money Make You Mean?” Instead of just watching the talk, I introduced the concept of visual notetaking, and asked students to take their own visual notes while we watched the video. I watched the video alongside them, taking my own visual notes in pen on lined paper. Stay tuned for my next post on visual notetaking, a.k.a. sketchnoting.

Full video available on TED.com

When Piff’s talk piqued students’ interest in the harmful effects of inequality, I located a related TED-talk by Richard Wilkinson, “How Economic Inequality Harms Societies.” Wilkinson’s talk, chock full of line graphs and visualizations, provided further opportunities for students to interpret informational texts. (Note: The Wilkinson video was a bit data-heavy and required more scaffolding from me than Piff’s talk, which students seemed to prefer.)

Full video available at TED.com

While Gatsby remains one of my favorite novels to teach, it was a refreshing change of pace to go from analyzing Fitzgerald’s prose to reading numerical graphs. And most importantly, these three nonfiction companion pieces helped students consider the ongoing relevance of some of Fitzgerald’s key themes.

Please comment with additional recommendations: What are your favorite companion pieces to teach alongside The Great Gatsby? Which other informational texts do you use in conjunction with fiction?


Thanks to Donald Tinney for raising the question, and to Audrey Fisch (@audreyfisch) and Susan Chenelle (@srcnwk) for sharing your resources. I look forward to reading your upcoming book!

 

3 thoughts on “Reading Graphs and Economic Trends: The “Great Gatsby Curve”

    1. Thanks for raising such important questions via NCTE Connects. I am curious which resources you adopted in your classes.

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