Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

"A Raisin in the Sun": The Quest for the American Dream

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Harlem street scene in the 1950s

Harlem street scene in the 1950s

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory

People of all backgrounds live in America and come to America dreaming of social, educational, economical opportunities as well as political and religious freedoms. Consequently, the notion of "The American Dream" has appeal and meaning to most of your students. Ask them to define "The American Dream" and you will probably become engaged in a lively discussion.

Read the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry with your students and you can enhance your discussion of "The American Dream" even while you and your students explore how the social, educational, economical and political climate of the 1950s affected African Americans' quest for "The American Dream."

In this lesson, the critical reading and analysis of the play is complemented with a close examination of biographical and historical documents that students use as the basis for creating speeches, essays and scripts.

This lesson can be taught as part of a unit on American Literature and the Civil Rights Movement. It works especially well as an introduction to the EDSITEment lessons "Let Freedom Ring: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King," "Dr. King's Dream," and "Ordinary People, Ordinary Places: The Civil Rights Movement."

Guiding Questions

How does the play A Raisin in the Sun mirror the social, educational, political, and economical climate of the 1950s and how does the play illustrate the impact this climate had on African Americans' quest for "The American Dream?"

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • Develop a definition of "The American Dream"
  • Recognize the historical setting of the play A Raisin in the Sun
  • Identify various forms of discrimination against African Americans in the Jim Crow era
  • Identify and analyze specific biographical and historical documents
  • Read and compare two poems by Langston Hughes
  • Engage in a literary analysis of the play A Raisin in the Sun by analyzing characterization, plot, setting, figurative language, theme, and symbolism
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the play's themes by engaging in various writing tasks

Preparation Instructions

Review the following websites which will be used to provide contextual background to the African American experience depicted in the play:

Read the excerpts of To Be Young Gifted and Black, the autobiographical work by Lorraine Hansberry, and make copies of the chapter titled "To Be Young Gifted and Black"(about 6 pages) to distribute to the class.

Download and review the following items:

Each of the following documents are located on the same page of African American Odyssey:The Civil Rights Era from American Memory Collection

Worksheets for this lesson (downloadable as PDFs)

Teachers may access this radio interview with iconic radio host Studs Terkel engaging in a fascinating conversation with the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. In it, she offers a firsthand account of her intentions behind writing A Raisin in the Sun, as she articulates her broader artistic philosophy. “Make New Sounds: Studs Terkel Interviews Lorraine Hansberry.”  (WFMT Radio, Chicago, Illinois, broadcast May 12, 1959)

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What is the American Dream?

Lead students in a succession of questions that engages them in a discussion about the concept of "The American Dream." Record students' responses on a board or on large display paper and categorize them according to social, educational, economical, political and religious reasons. If there are students from other countries in the class, allow them to discuss their stories of immigration if they choose. Ask students:

  1. Why do people from other countries immigrate to America?
  2. When we talk about "The American Dream", what do we mean? What are some of the obstacles to achieving the American Dream?
  3. Which groups of people have had trouble attaining "The American Dream"? There are a variety of acceptable responses to this question. (i.e., Native Americans, Irish Americans, African Americans, Chinese Americans, and Japanese Americans, as well as the poor and women.)
  4. Given the obstacles that some Americans have to overcome, what makes the American Dream appealing?

Have students write out their definition of "The American Dream". Allow students to read their definitions aloud and elaborate on them as they see fit.

Tell students that they will examine various documents and read and analyze the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry to understand how the quest for "The American Dream" affected African Americans during the 1950’s.

Activity 2. Understanding the Playwright

Remind students that writers do not write in a vacuum, but that much of their creativity has its roots in personal experiences. Lorraine Hansberry is no exception. The daughter of Carl and Nannie Hansberry, Lorraine grew up in a successful black family where both of her parents were political activists campaigning against Jim Crow laws.

Have students read the excerpts "To Be Young Gifted and Black", complete the Written Document Analysis Worksheet and respond to the following questions:

  1. What was Lorraine's life like growing up?
  2. Based on the excerpt, what was important to Hansberry. If she were alive today, what causes might she support and what causes might she oppose?
  3. According to Hansberry, what is the value of the play A Raisin in the Sun?

Discuss students' responses and add any other details that you deem important based on your reading of To Be Young Gifted and Black.

Activity 3. Why a Dream Deferred?

Tell students that the title Hansberry selected for A Raisin in the Sun is drawn from a line in a Langston Hughes poem, "Harlem," found within a longer poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred published in 1951. In "Harlem" Hughes asks readers to consider: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”

In this activity students will begin an analysis of the poem to see how the poet packs into 11 potent lines some possible responses—frustration, anger, resignation—a minority community exhibits when treated with indifference, neglect, and cruelty at the hands of its wider society.

Begin by viewing the first several minutes of this documentary found within the Spotlight on Voices and Visions entry: Langston Hughes  which includes a reading of the poem 3:30 minutes into the video.  (You can also have student view this video clip on Yale University's exhibition: "Langston Hughes at 100" scroll down to the thrid entry "Langston Hughes reading "Harlem.") 

After listening to the poem, have students think about why might have chosen this poem as a title for Raisin as they read the poem silently to themselves ,  (The text of "Harlem" by Langston Hughes can be found by scrolling down this Library of Congress transcript of "Langston Hughes and His Poetry" till you see these words: "From the "Lenox Avenue Mural" section, to find the poem called "Harlem")

Place the definition of the following vocabulary words from the poem on the board or on large display paper: defer, fester.

Ask students to think about what central question does the poem ask?

Tell students that rather than present his audience with the answer to the poem's central question, Hughes develops the poem using a series of questions.

Use the Figurative Language Chart (available here as a downloadable PDF) to analyze the similes and metaphors in the poem. Then have students discuss their responses to the Figurative Language Chart.

Explain to students that although the poem is phrased as a list of questions, Hughes is making a statement. Ask students:

  1. What is Hughes' message about dreams deferred?
  2. How do "dreams deferred" relate to the American Dream?

To better understand this message about dreams deferred, have students work in groups analyzing another one of this poet's signature poems, "Let America Be America Again," by Langston Hughes available from The Academy of American Poets. Have each group respond to one or two of the following questions:

  1. According to stanza 1, what does the poet want?
  2. What do stanza's 2, 4, 6, 12, and 16 have in common?
  3. Who are the dreamers in this poem?
  4. What is the dream?
  5. What specific things have interfered with the dream?
  6. Which lines or ideas in the poem "Let America Be America Again" compare to the poem "Harlem"?

Complete the activity by asking the class the following questions:

  1. How does this poem help us to understand "Harlem"?
  2. Why do you think Hansberry decided to use this line from "Harlem" to title her play, A Raisin in the Sun?
  3. According to Hughes two poems, what is the major obstacle that has interfered with African Americans' quest for the American Dream?

 

Activity 4. Jim Crow Defies the Dream

Begin the lesson by asking students how Hughes' poems "Harlem" and Let America Be America Again, implicitly reveal the role that segregation and racism played in preventing African Americans from attaining the American Dream.

Tell students that Jim Crow is the race based legislation that epitomized the era of segregation in America.

Hand students the photo "Jim Crow Close-Up" along with a Photo Analysis Worksheet. Have students complete the Photo Analysis Worksheet and answer the following questions:

  1. Who was Jim Crow?
  2. What attitude towards African Americans is being expressed?
  3. What psychological effect do you think this type of image had on African Americans?

Engage students in a discussion based on their responses to the photo analysis worksheet and the questions.

To further enhance students understanding of Jim Crow law as a race-based legislation, have students conduct internet research in groups on one of the following documents:

  • "The Black Laws" B.W. Arnett (American Memory Collection/African American Perspectives: The Progress of a People)
  • "Lynch Laws in Georgia" Ida B. Wells (American Memory Collection/African American Perspectives: The Progress of a People)

Each of the following documents are located on the same page at American Memory Collection: African American Odyssey/Civil Rights Era:

Direct each group to complete the Written Document Analysis Worksheet and answer the following questions:

  1. What problem does the document highlight?
  2. How does the document help us to understand the effect of Jim Crow on African Americans and on Americans in general?

Allow each group to present their findings to the entire class.

Activity 5. Brown Defies Jim Crow

Begin this lesson by introducing students to background information on Brown v. Board of Education. Tell students that the legal battle known as Brown V. Board of Education represented many years of social and legal battles against institutionalized racism in America. This is an ideal lesson for using an overhead projector.

Download and give students a copy of "Dissenting Opinion of Judge Waites Waring in Harry Briggs, Jr. et al. V. R.W. Elliot, Chairman et. al." Ask students to read pages 8, 9, and 10 and respond to the following questions:

  1. According to Judge Waites Waring, What was the purpose of amendments 13, 14, and 15?
  2. What point does Judge Waring make about race and ancestry?
  3. What is Waring's point about the society's method for determining race?
  4. How had thoughts about race affected the attitude of Blacks and Whites in Southern states?

Tell students that as a consequence of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, nine students from Little Rock Arkansas were chosen to integrate Little Rock High School.

Give students a copy of the Daisy Bates and Little Rock Nine Letter and complete the Written Document Analysis Worksheet. Engage students in a discussion about their responses to the document analysis worksheet. Ask students "How does this letter illustrate African Americans' quest for the American Dream?"

Tell the students to take the position of a student attending Little Rock Central High School at the time that the Little Rock Nine are scheduled to integrate the school. Write a speech speaking out against the opposition facing the Little Rock Nine. In your speech seek to convince the adults in your school and community to accept the Little Rock Nine.

Have students read their speeches aloud.

Activity 6. The Younger's Quest for the American Dream

Given what we have learned about Hansberry, Jim Crow, and the African American Experience between 1850 and 1954, why do you think Hansberry chose to use a play to illustrate African Americans' quest for the American Dream?

At this point the teacher might want to distribute “Dramatic Elements” (downloadable as a PDF) to the students.

Engage students in a dramatic reading of the play by assigning parts to each student. Be sure to rotate so that all students have a chance to read a part.

At the end of each Act, have students work in groups of four analyzing the play using the following focus questions and activities:

Characterization. Use the “Character Analysis” handout (downloadable as a PDF) to record important information about each member of the Younger family.

  • How is the American Dream expressed in each member of the Younger family: Walter, Ruth, Lena (Mama), and Beneatha?
  • Describe each member of the Younger family. What type of man was Mr. Younger? What type of man is Walter? What types of women are Lena, Ruth, and Beneatha? Which of these characters are static? Which of these characters are dynamic?
  • How do the supporting characters, George Murchinson and Joseph Assaigai, add to our understanding of the Younger family members?

Plot/Conflict. Use the “Plot Outline” handout (downloadable as a PDF) to map the dramatic structure of the central conflict.

  • Explain the existing conflicts between the Younger family members, Mama and Walter, Walter & Ruth, and Walter and Beneatha. How are these conflicts associated with the American Dream?
  • What is the central conflict around which the play revolves? How does this central conflict relate to the notion of the American Dream?

Symbolism. Use the “Analyzing Symbols Chart” handout (downloadable as a PDF) to analyze the symbolic elements below.

  • Joseph Assaigai, George Murchinson, Ruth's Pregnancy, Beneatha's hair, Mr. Lindner, the new house, the money from the insurance policy, and Lena's plant. In what sense are these people, events, and/or objects symbolic? How do they further our understanding of the play?

Allusion

  • Explain George's allusion to Walter as Prometheus. Have students go online to EDSITEment-reviewed The Perseus Project and use the Greek and Roman Materials Perseus Encyclopedia to refresh their knowledge of Greek Mythology and the figure of Prometheus. According to Greek mythology, who is Prometheus? What does Walter have in common with Prometheus? How does this allusion help us to understand Walter's role in the family? How does this allusion help us to understand Walter's conflict with Mama and the rest of the family? How does this allusion help us understand Walter and the Younger family's quest for the American Dream?

Theme

  • Analyze the following quotes: "We ain't no business people Ruth, we just plain working folks,"
  • "Once upon a time freedom used to be life now money is life," What important issues do they raise? How do these issues help us to understand the American Dream? How do these quotes help us to understand the Younger’s quest for the American Dream?

Assessment

Have students present their answers to the above activities. Summarize the unit by having students engage in a class discussion in which they answer the unit's guiding questions:

  • How does the play A Raisin in the Sun mirror the social, educational, political, and economical climate of the 1950s.
  • How does the play illustrate the impact this climate had on African Americans' quest for "The American Dream"?

Have students demonstrate their understanding of the play's themes by responding to one of the following writing tasks:

  1. Many people believe that the Younger family made a mistake in not taking Linder's money. In a well developed essay, explain why not taking Lindner's money was the right decision or explain why the better decision would have been to let Lindner buy back the house. Connect your response to your definition of the American Dream.
  2. Rewrite the last scene of the play changing Walter's decision or add one more scene to the play. In this scene show the audience what happens to the Younger family six months after moving into the new house. Was the American Dream fulfilled, was it still deferred, or is it a work in progress.
  3. In a well developed essay, explain how Hansberry's play is an extension of the Civil Rights Movement. In what sense is the Civil Rights Movement an extension of the American Dream?

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1–2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Drama
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Creative writing
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Essay writing
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Using primary sources
Authors
  • Angela Miller (AL)