The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

Contributed by Andrew Kenen and Diane Seskes, Kenston High School, Bainbridge Township, OH


Dreams, goals, plans. Every person envisions a particular future filled with success. These dreams are products of upbringing, background, history, place, personality, and experiences. For most people, many of these dreams will be realized while others will not come to fruition. The American Dream has changed over the years. What the first immigrants envisioned no longer holds true for modern day Americans. But the basic goals still remain—love, happiness, success, freedom—these constitute the lasting American Dream. Students will define their specific dreams and goals more readily by studying contemporary music and writing.

Objectives: The students will be able to:

  1. Build a three-dimensional metaphorm of their American Dream and explain it;
  2. Define the stereotypical American Dream;
  3. Identify their own American Dream;
  4. Interview people about their American Dream(s) and present their results as oral history;
  5. Match songs to the student’s own American Dream as well as other people’s perspectives;
  6. Compare and contrast the American Dreams of different people;
  7. Write a paper analyzing and defining the American Dream;
  8. Analyze selected songs and writing for elements of the American Dream.


Suggested for secondary English or social studies students. This may also work well within an interdisciplinary unit incorporating American literature, American history, speech, foreign languages, and music.

Time Frame

This unit will take approximately 5-10 class periods depending upon the number of songs analyzed in class, the amount of class time allowed for the writing process, and the amount of time required for the presentations based upon class size.


A variety of materials are required for this unit. Paper, markers, magazines, tag board, glue, scissors, straws, paper clips, rubberbands, tape and construction paper are necessary for the building of the three-dimensional metaphorms. CD’s/tapes/records of selected songs; copies of the lyrics and sound system. A VCR and tape recorder are necessary for the presentations.


Although it is not necessary to provide background for every recording artist and every song, this information often helps. Students may be asked to select one of the songs and research the time period, the recording artist, and any historical background. This could then be shared with the class.


  1. Listen to the song “America” by Neil Diamond. Distribute copies of the lyrics.
  2. Discuss the song “America” focusing upon the stereotypical American Dream. What is it? What did the first immigrants want? What does the American Dream promise? The “dream” is mentioned several times within this song. Students should be guided to see the references to the American Dream within this song. Point out the lines such as “Free, only want to be free,” and “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.” This would be an appropriate time to review with students some of the historical reasons for immigrants to flock to America.
  3. Divide students into groups of 3-5. Ask each group to build a three-dimensional metaphorm of their own American Dream. Allow one class period for students to build these concrete symbols. Provide construction paper, magazines, glue, tape, scissors, cardboard, rubberbands, paper clips, and straws for this activity. Give the students freedom. Do not provide help or advice. Let the students solve this problem on their own.
  4. During the next class session, go around the room allowing 5 minutes for each group to unpack the symbols in their metaphorms. The instructor guides the explanations by asking some of the following questions:
    • What are the elements of your American Dream?
    • What symbols have you included to represent these elements?
    • Why have you included these specific items?
    • Why did you place each object/visual in that particular place?
    • What is the relationship of that particular object/visual to the rest of your metaphorm?
    • Who put this particular object/visual here and why?
    • How did you decide on the components of your metaphorm?
    • What did you leave out and why?
    • How does your American Dream compare to the stereotypical one? To other metaphorms within this classroom?
  5. Watch a portion of the movie An American Tale where the mice break into song on the boat ride over to America. This is in the first part of the film. The chorus includes the lines “There are not cats in America and the streets are paved with cheese. There are not cats in American so set your mind at ease.”
  6. Then listen to the next two songs--"The Great American Dream” by David Massengill and “The American Dream” from Miss Saigon. Provide lyrics for the students.
  7. Discuss the American Dream as portrayed in each of these songs. Focus the discussion upon how the American Dream seems to change with background, situation, historical setting, and perspective. Some of the following points should be stressed:
    • An American Tale shows the Russian immigrants’ perspective and the stereotypical American Dream during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. This song is positive and hopeful.
    • “The Great American Dream” shows four differing American Dreams--the foreigner’s,. the prostitute’s, the carpenter’s, and the Indian’s. The last stanza focuses upon Everyman. This song takes on a cynical tone in pointing out some of the differing situations and interpretations of the American Dream.
    • The song from Miss Saigon shows yet another side of the American Dream gone wrong in many ways. There is a direct comparison here to the 2nd stanza of David Massengill’s song.
  8. Assign students to go out and interview two different people about their American Dream. Suggest interviewing parents, grandparents, college students, people who have immigrated to the United States, and graduates five years out of high school. The purpose of this assignment is for students to discover differing perspectives. Brainstorm possible questions to ask in class. From their recommendations, provide a list of guiding questions for them to use.
  9. Listen to two songs by Bruce Springsteen “Glory Days” and “The River.” Provide lyrics for the students.
  10. Discussion should focus upon the American Dream gone wrong. Which dreams are realistic and which are unrealistic? What happens when a dream is not realized? What determines whether or not a dream is fulfilled? How does a person cope with dreams that are not achieved? Students should first analyze the ideas in each of the songs, and then refer to their own experiences to answer these questions.
  11. Ask students to take part in a goal setting activity. In their journals have them date eight individual pages with the present date. Each page will have a separate heading: physical, social, intellectual, creative, emotional, financial, environment, spiritual. Students will write where they are at the present time in each of these areas. They should describe their present situations as realistically and in as much detail as possible. They may write in paragraph form, phrases, or in lists. Allow at least 5 minutes for each category in class.
    Then students are to date eight additional pages with the date six months ahead. Each page will have the same eight headings. Students will write where they want to be six months in the future in each of the eight areas. Allow at least 5 minutes for each category in class.
  12. After the students have interviewed two other people about their American Dreams, have the students write a definition paper. The paper should include the following:
    • A definition of the individual student’s own American Dream
    • A summary of the two interviews explaining each person’s American Dream
  13. Assign the students to select a song or songs to complete at least one of the following:
    • Select a song to match your individual American Dream
    • Select a song to match one or both of the people you interviewed and their American Dream(s)
  14. Each student needs to make an oral presentation based upon their definition paper. They may play the song(s) they selected and read an excerpt of their paper. They may decide to share a copy of the lyrics and explain the song to the class.


The definition papers and the oral presentations will be the culminating evaluative activity. The focus areas may include a clear definition of the individual American Dream, a clear summary of the two interviews, and logical connections between the songs selected.

Selected Recordings

“America” recorded by Neil Diamond (12 Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, Columbia, 1982), lyrics and music by Neil Diamond.

“Great American Dream” recorded by David Massengill (The Return, Plump Records), lyrics and music by David Massengill

“The American Dream” performed by Original London Cast (Miss Saigon, Geffen Records, 1990), lyrics and music by Schonberg--Maltby, Jr.--Boublil.

“Glory Days” recorded by Bruce Springsteen (Born in the USA, Columbia, 1984), lyrics and music by Bruce Springsteen.

“The River” recorded by Bruce Springsteen (The River, Columbia, 1980), lyrics and music by Bruce Springsteen.

Enrichment/Additional Resources

An American Tale, Steven Spielberg, Robert Wise, Producer, Universal Pictures, 1986.

A more challenging and creative activity could be included in this unit. Students would be required to write, create, produce, and record TV or radio commercial advertising their personal American Dreams. They would be required to sell their dreams to the class. This activity would incorporate many focus areas: a clear definition of their American Dream, selection of appropriate music and songs, visuals which may include the metaphorm from an earlier activity, as well as organizational skills and the use of media.

Additional songs that could be used in the unit include:

  • “America" recorded by Simon and Garfunkel (Bookends, Columbia, 1968), lyrics and music by Paul Simon.
  • “American Tune” recorded by Simon and Garfunkel (Concert in Central Park, Warner Bros., 1982), lyrics and music by Paul Simon.
  • “The Boxer” recorded by Simon and Garfunkel (Bridge Over Troubled Water, Columbia, 1970), lyrics and music by Paul Simon.
  • “American Dream” recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (American Dream, Atlantic, 1988), lyrics and music by Neil Young.
  • “Rusty Old American Dream” recorded by David Wilcox (How Did You Find Me Here?, A&M), lyrics and music by David Wilcox.
  • “Young Americans” recorded by David Bowie (Bowie: The Singles 1969-1993, Rykodisc, 1993), lyrics and music by David Bowie.
  • “America" recorded by the original cast (West Side Story Soundtrack, Sony, 1962), lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein.