As a teacher, I am curious--what do students really think of this play? I know the party line my students give me...but what can I do to make it more accessible to students in high school?
Since the heart of the play concerns a father/son conflict, I find most of my students can relate to it. Family dynamics make engaging stories. Perhaps with the economy the way it is, it might be time to revisit Miller's take on the American Dream. Students now more than ever may be able to understand the coldness of corporations, the desperation to make it big, and the regret of choosing the wrong path. I've only taught it in AP and IB classes, but my students were quite empathetic toward Willy and even more toward Biff.
My students don't like it, and neither do I. I've probably taught it seven or eight times in twenty-eight years, and it's never been a pleasant experience. I'm a slow learner, I guess, because I generally get to choose what I teach, and I'm well aware of the fact that students react to the passion--or lack thereof--of the teacher. I suppose I always kept hoping I'd like it better the next time, but I didn't. One unpleasant element for me, since I taught in a private, faith-based school, was the language. A little goes a long way, especially if another story is available. I appreciate Death of a Salesman, but I don't like it and I no longer teach it.
I have always found that students do better with it if I show the movie version -- the Dustin Hoffman version is excellent. I frame the enture unit around the traditional definition of tragedy and then we discuss how Miller is approaching those traditions with a modern sensibility. That gives the students a set of constructs that they then evaluate. I have more success with Advanced Placement students in term of empathy ofr Willy, but with enough help, most of my students are able to draw some connections and do that "meta-critical" thinking about tragedy as a genre.
I've only taught this once. It seemed the kids had a hard time empathizingwith Willie's issues. The structure of the economy and the way jobs are not considered permanent today may have had something to do with it. They seemed bewildered by a lot of that, although they did relate very much to the Willie/Biff hero worship and fall from grace.
I agree with the above posts. I teach Death of a Salesman in my AP Language class, and there it gets mixed reviews. I think the largest problem is that students don't feel any connection to Willy and his views of the American dream. As a result, many students just think that he's a loser. If I have a class that is bent on viewing him this way, I approach the text more from an analytical and evaluative perspective and have the students come up with ways to help Willy fix his situation. They like doing this.
For the most part, my students have always enjoyed Death of a Salesman. The shifts in time and the importance of the stage directions indicating when characters are walking through walls, etc. are essential in helping students follow the plot. I've always found it helpful to show the film version of Act I after we have finished reading Act I and before reading the rest of the play. Actually seeing the play helps students better imagine what transpires.
I have reading groups in my advanced drama class, so only about 5 or 6 students a class read it at a time. I prep them for it, telling them it's a bit obscure and the time shifts a bit, but it's considered a classic American play. I suppose my approach is to heighten their curiosity.
I get mixed reviews from it. I suppose my advanced actors may appreciate it more than an English class, perhaps. They act out scenes, develop sets, interpret themes, etc. as well. We also watch the movie in class, and the class enjoys it. We discuss why it's so popular, if it can be considered a "true tragedy" according to Aristotle, etc. Year after year about half of the students like it.
Would I teach it to an English class, though? Probably not. I'd probably stick with The Crucible if it's an option.
I taught Death of a Salesman a grand total of once in 11 years of high school classroom teaching. I wouldn't even inflict this on an AP class if I were back in a classroom.
I agree with accessteacher that there are other, more accessible Miller plays for high school students. The Crucible is a much more exciting drama and appeals to all levels of students, boys and girls alike. It also ties in well with history and social studies for cross-curricular teaching and assignments.
Interesting, crucker, because I have found that this play only really "works" well with my AP Lit classes - teaching it in mainstream school doesn't seem to work. I have managed to get through it alright, but there was no "connection" that the kids had with it. Can you swap to another Miller play such as The Crucible or View from a Bridge? Both of those always seem to be great successes.