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Teaching Guide

Teaching Postwar Suburbia

Rockin' the suburbs.

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Suburbia used to be more utopia and less "Disturbia." Students might have a hard time believing that people could live the American dream without Rihanna, but with our help, you can convince them otherwise.

In this guide you will find

  • an activity on how the American dream was sold: 1950s advertising.
  • lessons about Levittown, the quintessential American suburb.
  • related historical resources, like info on the 1950s, the Cold War, and the Home Front during WWII.

Our teaching guide won't leave you stuck in the suburbs…not that there's anything wrong with that.

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Shmoop is a labor of love from folks who love to teach. Our teaching guides will help you supplement in-classroom learning with fun, engaging, and relatable learning materials that bring history to life.

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:

  • 3-5 Common Core-aligned activities (including quotation, image, and document analysis) to complete in class with your students, with detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes to be sure students are looking at the material through various lenses.
  • Resources to help make the topic feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop's teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the topic and how you can overcome the hurdles.

Instructions for You

Objective: Mm hm. Your students are too young for the reference in this activity's title, but they may enjoy this hipster-ish version of the '70s hit. Feel free to share it with them. Or not. 

The Levitts' approach to building led to a boom in suburban housing development. As a result, homeownership became far more possible for many Americans. But, many critics complained, this came with a price. 

Homes in places like Levittown, they said, were cookie-cutter designs with neither character nor charm. In this activity, your students will explore Levittown and decide: Is this place the embodiment of the American Dream, or a new kind of nightmare?

Length of Lesson: 1-2 class periods.

Materials Needed:

Step One: Briefly introduce Levittown, the landmark postwar suburb built on New York's Long Island, and show your students these images of the community:

As you view these images, ask students to describe what they see. Keep track of any descriptive words or phrases that they offer on the board.

Step Two: Direct your students to the State Museum of Pennsylvania's Building the Suburban Dream exhibit, where they can tour Levittown, see more photos, and learn more about the design and production process.

As they explore, have them seek out answers to the following questions for future discussion:

  1. What design features were dictated by cultural considerations or aesthetics?
  2. What design features were dictated by economy?
  3. Where did the Levitts learn their production techniques?
  4. In what sense were these houses assembled rather than built?
  5. To what extent were they built by laborers rather than craftsmen?
  6. Why did the living room face the rear of the house?
  7. What understanding of suburban life did this reflect?

Step Three: To supplement their exploration of the SMoP exhibit, have students examine the six different home styles offered to families moving to Levittown. As they look at these descriptions, have them determine which design they would choose and why.

Step Four: Once students have finished exploring the two websites and making their housing choices, lead a class discussion using the following questions as a guide. (The first seven are from Step Two, above, so your students should be prepared with ideas for the discussion.)

  1. What design features were dictated by cultural considerations or aesthetics?
  2. What design features were dictated by economy?
  3. Where did the Levitts learn their production techniques?
  4. In what sense were these houses assembled rather than built?
  5. To what extent were they built by laborers rather than craftsmen?
  6. Why did the living room face the rear of the house?
  7. What understanding of suburban life did this reflect?
  8. How did these communities affect the American landscape?
    • Did they enhance the "look" of America?
    • Is this a fair way to assess these developments? Why or why not?
  9. Would you have bought one of these homes? Why or why not?
  10. If you had to choose one of the Levittown designs for your own home, which one would you choose and why?

Step Five: Revisit the students' initial reactions to the images of Levittown (the words and phrases you recorded in Step One) and ask them if they would make any additions or deletions. Then tell them it's time to make the final judgment...at least for today. Poll your students to see how many believe planned communities like Levittown are an embodiment of the American Dream. Encourage students on both sides to explain their views.

Instructions for Your Students

Imagine houses being constructed assembly-line style, like the cars that came out of Henry Ford's manufacturing plants. That's the approach to home building that the Levitts employed, and it led to a boom in suburban housing after World War II. 

As a result, homeownership became far more possible for many Americans. But, many critics complained, this came with a price. Homes in places like Levittown, they said, were cookie-cutter designs with neither character nor charm. 

  • Hey—what's wrong with cookie-cutters? They make for some great cookies...

Of course, the pros and cons of suburban developments are regularly debated today. That's why you're going explore Levittown today and decide: Is this place the embodiment of the American Dream, or a new kind of nightmare?

Step One: Briefly discuss Levittown, the landmark postwar suburb built on New York's Long Island, with your teacher and classmates and take a look at these images of the community:

As you view these images, describe what you see. Your teacher will keep track of any descriptive words or phrases you and your classmates offer on the board.

Step Two: Head over to the State Museum of Pennsylvania's Building the Suburban Dream exhibit, where you can tour Levittown, see more photos, and learn more about the design and production process.

As you explore, seek out answers to the following questions for future discussion:

  1. What design features were dictated by cultural considerations or aesthetics?
  2. What design features were dictated by economy?
  3. Where did the Levitts learn their production techniques?
  4. In what sense were these houses assembled rather than built?
  5. To what extent were they built by laborers rather than craftsmen?
  6. Why did the living room face the rear of the house?
  7. What understanding of suburban life did this reflect?

Step Three: To supplement your exploration of the SMoP exhibit, examine the six different home styles offered to families moving to Levittown. As you look at these descriptions, determine which design you would choose for your home and why.

Step Four: Once everyone has finished exploring the two websites and making housing choices, have a class discussion using the following questions as a guide. (The first seven are from Step Two, above, so you should be prepared with ideas for the discussion.)

  1. What design features were dictated by cultural considerations or aesthetics?
  2. What design features were dictated by economy?
  3. Where did the Levitts learn their production techniques?
  4. In what sense were these houses assembled rather than built?
  5. To what extent were they built by laborers rather than craftsmen?
  6. Why did the living room face the rear of the house?
  7. What understanding of suburban life did this reflect?
  8. How did these communities affect the American landscape?
    • Did they enhance the "look" of America?
    • Is this a fair way to assess these developments? Why or why not?
  9. Would you have bought one of these homes? Why or why not?
  10. If you had to choose one of the Levittown designs for your own home, which one would you choose and why?

Step Five: Revisit your initial reactions to the images of Levittown (the words and phrases your teacher recorded in Step One). Would you like to make any additions or deletions?

Once you're done with that, it's time to make the final judgment...at least for today. Take a class poll to see how many people believe planned communities like Levittown are an embodiment of the American Dream. Once you've weighed in, explain your view and listen to what your classmates have to say.

WANT MORE HELP TEACHING POSTWAR SUBURBIA?

Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

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