A Fresh Take in the Classroom: "Death of a Salesman"

Nearly every American teacher has either had to read or teach Death of a Salesman in their lifetime. It’s a classic! Ford’s Theatre collaborated with Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) to devise a fresh, cross-disciplinary lesson plan to tackle the theme the American dream. In the following conversation, Ford’s Theatre Arts Programs Coordinator Jennie Eng and SAAM Teacher Programs Coordinator Elizabeth Dale-Deines discuss.

Thomas Keegan (Biff), Kimberly Schraf (Linda), Craig Wallace (Willy Loman), Danny Gavigan (Happy) and Frederick Strother (Ben) in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Death of a Salesman,” directed by Stephen Rayne. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Identifying a Universal Theme

Elizabeth: Jennie and I started by talking through the theme of the American dream (with me reading Death of a Salesman for the first time!). We settled on exploring artworks as evidence of how other creative types were grappling with the American dream at the same time.

Jennie: I wanted students to begin to see how artists address issues across different media. I wondered if, instead of telling students what the American dream is, they could read passages of Death of a Salesman and look at art from the period to decide for themselves what it meant. Maybe they’d even be able to tell us what it means to them now.

Elizabeth: The idea is for students to better understand the nuances of the American dream, as well as larger themes of capitalism, family and manhood. 

Jennie: We tested the lesson plan with teachers at our fall Teacher Preview Workshop. Elizabeth gave teachers some tools for how to look at art with students.

How to Look at Art with Students

Using this painting, I employed SAAM’s close-looking strategy:

Step 1: Look Closely

Here I had teachers look over the painting for a full minute, letting their eyes move over every part of the painting.

Educators compare Mid-Century artworks to scenes from "Death of A Salesman" at the Ford's fall Teacher Preview Workshop. Some created their own artworks to illustrate themes. Photo by Elizabeth Dale-Deines.
Step 2: See-Think-Wonder

I asked teachers…

What do you see?

These observations were strictly factual. For example, “I see stalls.” I wrote down their observations.

What do you think about what you see?

These observations were more qualitative. For example, “I think it’s winter because there are coats.” I wrote these down in a column beside the first ones.

What does it make you wonder?

These became subjective to the viewer.  Example, “I wonder what they’re waiting for to happen.”

Step 3: Step inside

Which three figures do you notice first? Step into the minds and bodies of these people.

Step 4: Synthesize

What message is the artist sending, when you put those details together from our “See” list? 

Lastly, I gave teachers information about the artist (which can be found on this link). This helped give them context to the artist, his worldview and message.

Workshop photo by Elizabeth Dale-Deines.

Jennie: Next, we put teachers into partners for the lesson plan activity. Teachers read scene selections from Death of a Salesman aloud with their partners. They analyzed the text for theme, action and emotion. Finally, they used their See-Think-Wonder strategy to compare the scene with a corresponding artwork that we had preassigned. The ensuing discussion showed us teachers had identified a universal idea communicated across two media, and they had gained a more personal connection to the play.

Elizabeth: Teachers were highly engaged, and reported they planned to accompany a text with period artworks, including a fourth-grade teacher who wanted to do this with Treasure Island! 

Jennie: By analyzing art of the period in which authors wrote, students gain a broader understanding of why Death of a Salesman resonated when it first was published and staged and why it matters now. 

You can try the lesson plan too! Let us know how you incorporate art into your classroom.

Jennie Eng is the Arts Education Coordinator at Ford’s Theatre. Tweet her @FordsEdu on Twitter!

Elizabeth Dale-Deines is the Coordinator of Teacher Programs at Smithsonian American Art Museum.