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Teaching Guide

Teaching Death of a Salesman

Spoiler alert: the salesman dies.

GO TO STUDENT LEARNING GUIDE

Great works of literature and drama never die…unlike Willy Loman. (Sorry, Willy.)

Even so, your students might need help connecting to a main character who isn't just an old man, but an old man from generations ago. No sales pitch here—just the facts on how we can help.

In this guide you will find

  • quizzes to be sure students are reading and not just watching the play with Brian Dennehy…because you know how much teens love that hunky Brian Dennehy.
  • other modern resources like an indie rock song based on the play and a version of Death of a Salesman staged with an all African-American cast.
  • activities that challenge students to become salesmen themselves (and do it without dying).

With our teaching guide, Death of a Salesman won't be the death of you.

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Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop’s teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

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Instructions for You

Objective: That's the way we spell success, all right, but how do we define it? That's what your students will be considering—in the context of Death of a Salesman, of course.

They'll watch a TED talk concerning the nature of success in this modern world, participate in a class discussion of the video, and then work to create their own definitions of success. Once they have their definitions, they'll use them to determine which characters in Death of a Salesman achieve a measure of success according to both traditional definitions and their own. 

Length of Lesson: 1 class period + homework

Materials Needed:

Step 1: First things first. Yes, you're going to play a video for your students, but first you have to prep them. Mr. de Botton talks a great deal about careers in this video, so it's important to remind your students that even though they probably don't have full-time paying jobs at the moment, they do have careers: they are students. They may also be athletes, video gamers, members of the chess club, musicians, or any one of a million other things. These pursuits are their "careers" at present, and as such offer many opportunities for them to experience and measure both success and failure. 

Step 2: Cue the video and watch Alain de Botton's TED talk, "A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success" with your students. 

Step 3: Follow up the video with a class discussion. Here are some questions you can use to guide the discussion. 

  1. According to Botton, what purpose does the question "What do you do?" serve when people ask it of strangers at parties?
  2. How does the question "What do you do?" translate into your life? What is the equivalent question people your age may ask when trying to get to know someone? Is there a similar judging process going on as this question is answered? 
  3. Why does Botton say we don't envy the Queen of England? Who do we envy? What examples of envy do we see in Death of a Salesman
  4. Along with envy, what are some of the other reasons de Botton believes our lives are "regularly punctuated with career crisis"? Do any of these reasons seem to contribute to Willy Loman's career crisis? 
  5. Why does de Botton think a pure meritocracy is an impossibility?
  6. De Botton identifies something he thinks offers solace and consolation when we feel we've failed in our modern society. What is it and in what way can it help? (We're going for tragic art here.) Could either of these things have helped Willy Loman? Why or why not?
  7. According to de Botton, what do people in modern society worship? (There are two possible answers here: themselves and nature. Both are worth discussing.) Do you agree?
  8. What advice does de Botton give in terms of defining success? 

Step 4: We think de Botton's advice is sound, and that it is indeed important that we "make sure that our ideas of success are our own." So now it's time for your students to see if they can come up with their own definitions of success and put them to work analyzing the characters in Death of a Salesman. Here's a prompt:

De Botton says that we should "make sure that our ideas of success are our own," and we think that's pretty good advice. So... what's your definition of success? Take some time to brainstorm, freewrite, or do whatever you need to do to figure it out. Then write a succinct paragraph explaining your definition of success. 

Once you have your definition down, get ready to write one more paragraph, this time explaining how you think your definition of success compares with your society's traditional definition of success. Are you pretty much in sync with the world around you, or do you think your definition may be a little left or right of center? Explain. 

NOTE: With both of these paragraphs, be sure to edit and revise as necessary so that they are clear, concise, and as error free as possible. Once that's done, you're ready for your final step. 

Using your definition of success (and your perception of society's definition), fill out this chart in order to analyze just how successful—or unsuccessful—the characters in Death of a Salesman are. 

Step 5: When students have finished their paragraphs and charts, take some time to debrief in class. First, have student volunteers share their definitions of success and allow others to ask questions or offer feedback. Then, discuss each of the characters on the chart and see which characters students found successful (or unsuccessful) and why. 

Instructions for Your Students

That's the way we spell success, all right, but how do we define it? Better yet, how do you define it? And does anyone in Death of a Salesman actually achieve it? At all? 

That's what you're going to be considering as you watch a TED talk about success, come up with your own definition of success, and then scrutinize the Lomans and their neighbors to see how they measure up. 

And hey, when you tackle this assignment? We know you'll be successful. 

Step 1: First things first. Yes, you're going to watch a video, but first we want to make sure you're clear on something. Mr. de Botton talks a great deal about careers in this video, which might make you think it doesn't relate to you. Wrong! 

While it's probably true that you don't have a full-time paying job at the moment, you do have a career: you're a student. You may also be an athlete, a video gamer, a member of the chess club, a musician, or any one of a million other things. The point is, these pursuits are your "career" at present, and they offer just as many opportunities for you to experience and measure both success and failure as any career that involves a full-time paying job. 

Step 2: Now that we're clear, cue the video and watch Alain de Botton's TED talk, "A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success" with your students. 

Step 3: Follow up the video with a class discussion. Hey look—here are some questions that could come in handy. Feel free to ask and answer them.

  1. According to Botton, what purpose does the question "What do you do?" serve when people ask it of strangers at parties?
  2. How does the question "What do you do?" translate into your life? What is the equivalent question people your age may ask when trying to get to know someone? Is there a similar judging process going on as this question is answered? 
  3. Why does Botton say we don't envy the Queen of England? Who do we envy? What examples of envy do we see in Death of a Salesman
  4. Along with envy, what are some of the other reasons de Botton believes our lives are "regularly punctuated with career crisis"? Do any of these reasons seem to contribute to Willy Loman's career crisis? 
  5. Why does de Botton think a pure meritocracy is an impossibility?
  6. De Botton identifies something he thinks offers solace and consolation when we feel we've failed in our modern society. What is it and in what way can it help? (We're going for tragic art here.) Could either of these things have helped Willy Loman? Why or why not?
  7. According to de Botton, what do people in modern society worship? (There are two possible answers here: themselves and nature. Both are worth discussing.) Do you agree?
  8. What advice does de Botton give in terms of defining success? 

Step 4: Assignment time!

De Botton says that we should "make sure that our ideas of success are our own," and we think that's pretty good advice. So... what's your definition of success? Take some time to brainstorm, freewrite, or do whatever you need to do to figure it out. Then write a succinct paragraph explaining your definition of success. 

Once you have your definition down, get ready to write one more paragraph, this time explaining how you think your definition of success compares with your society's traditional definition of success. Are you pretty much in sync with the world around you, or do you think your definition may be a little left or right of center? Explain. 

NOTE: With both of these paragraphs, be sure to edit and revise as necessary so that they are clear, concise, and as error free as possible. Once that's done, you're ready for your final step. 

Using your definition of success (and your perception of society's definition), fill out this chart in order to analyze just how successful—or unsuccessful—the characters in Death of a Salesman are. 

Step 5: When everyone has finished their paragraphs and charts, you'll get a chance to debrief in class. Share your definition of success and listen to what your classmates have come up with. Then, discuss each of the characters on the chart and see which characters people found successful (or unsuccessful) and why. 

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Common Core Standards  

The following standards are covered in this course:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.6

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