What is an American?

definition/narrative - 2 paragraph essay 

In this unit, students will consider the meaning of "American" and then write two paragraphs in which they define the word and explain whether they themselves fit this identity.  Steps include reflecting on relevant quotes and considering how other multimedia texts have defined "American."

INSTRUCTIONAL NOTE:  The following are suggested steps to make use of relevant resources.  These should be organized into multiple class activities, discussions, and/or homework according to the instructor’s style and the needs of the class.  This lesson is also available as a Google Doc

ASSIGNMENT:  While only a “citizen” is eligible to vote, an “American” could be a much broader--or narrower--idea.  What are our shared ideals? Who represents those ideals? Do you identify as an American according to those ideals?  What is an American?  Are you an American?  For this introductory assignment, you will write two paragraphs.  In the first paragraph, you will provide a definition of what it means to be an American.  In the second paragraph, you will explain whether you are an American.  We will take guided steps to prepare for this essay.  Following the pre-writing process we use in class, you will compose and revise two well-written paragraphs.

 

GUIDING QUESTIONS:  What is an American?  Are you an American?

PURPOSE AND AUDIENCE: To define an American identity and your own corresponding identity to your classmates, professor, and the community

SOURCES:  No outside sources required

LENGTH:  2 paragraphs

 

STEPS:

  1. QUOTE ON CITIZENS AND AMERICANS:  Consider this quote from Guardian of Democracy:  The Civic Mission of Schools:  “America as a new nation was not created out of devotion to a motherland, a royal family, or a national religion. Americans are instead defined by our fidelity to certain ideals, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments. While citizenship is formally acquired through either birth or naturalization, all of us must learn to become Americans. Peoples from diverse cultural, religious, and racial backgrounds can fully join the American community by sharing its defining commitments. If Americans are not bound together by common values, we will become fragmented and turn on one another.”  https://www.carnegie.org/media/filer_public/ab/dd/abdda62e-6e84-47a4-a043-348d2f2085ae/ccny_grantee_2011_guardian.pdf

    1. According to this quote, what is the difference between a citizen and an American?

    2. Do you agree or disagree?  Why?

  2. TWO APPROACHES TO DEFINING “AMERICANS”:  We will explore two approaches to answering these questions.

    1. Read the New York Times project “On Being American” in which journalists Damien Cave and Todd Heisler asked individuals “What does it mean to be American?”    https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/us/the-way-north.html?_r=0#p/39

      1. Freewrite and discuss:  How would you answer the question:  “What does it mean to be an American?”

      2. Brainstorm some keywords that stand out from from the responses.

      3. What do the answers have in common?  

      4. Are there any contradictions between the different answers?

      5. Do you agree or disagree with any of the responses?  Explain.

    2. Watch the Facing History video in which individuals around the world are asked to select three words that define America.  https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/video/american-id-three-words  Consider the following questions:

      1. Freewrite and discuss:  What are your three words that characterize “America”?

      2. Brainstorm some keywords that stand out from from the responses.  Do they have positive or negative connotations?

      3. What do the answers have in common?  

      4. Are there any contradictions between the different answers?

      5. Freewrite and discuss:  What are your three words that characterize America?

      6. Do you think the idea of what it means to be “American” is different inside and outside the United States?

      7. Do you agree or disagree with any of the responses given in the video?  Explain.

      8. Your assignment for this project is slightly different from the video.  You are talking about “Americans” not “America.” Freewrite and discuss:  What are your three words that characterize “Americans”? Are these different from the words you used to describe “America”?  Why? How?

  3. SELECT two of the qualities that you think define an “American.”  You will develop these in more detail in your essay. (Hint:  It might help you to think of the contrast--what is the opposite of “American”?

  4. WRITE THE ASSIGNMENT:

    1. Write a paragraph answering the question:  “What is an American?”

      1. Use a clear topic sentence that summarizes two elements of being an American. These two elements will be your subpoints.

      2. Provide examples to illustrate your definition.  

      3. Use a clear transition between your two subpoints.

    2. Write another paragraphs answering the question:  “Am I an American according to my own definition?”

      1. Use a clear topic sentence that explains why you are or are not an American.

      2. Provide examples to illustrate your definition.  

      3. Use a clear transition between your two subpoints.


 

RELATED RESOURCES:

  1. Read “I, Too” by Langston Hughes:  https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/i-too

    1. What is the difference between “America” and “American” according to Hughes’ poem?

    2. Do you think he considers himself an American?

  2. Watch Creed:  https://www.americancreed.org/the-film

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