1. On a piece of paper, ask students to draw a quick sketch of the neighborhood in which they live. Ask for volunteers to share their sketches. Then discuss briefly:
- Is your neighborhood crowded, or is it spread out?
- What kinds of buildings are most common (free-standing houses, tall apartment buildings, etc.)?
- If you had to describe your neighborhood as one of the following, which would it be? Urban, rural, or suburban?
2. Show students two photographs: one of downtown New York City in the 1950s and the other of Levittown, a suburban housing development in Long Island, New York, which was built between 1947 and 1951.
3. Ask students how their drawing compares to the two pictures. Does either photo remind them of where they live?
4. Briefly discuss with students what they think the pros and cons might be of living in one of the houses in the second picture. How might it compare with life in the city pictured in the first photo?
1. Write the words “urban,” “rural,” and “suburban” on the board, and ask students to define. (Make sure that in their definition, they note that “urban” connotes city, “rural” connotes country, and “suburban” means an area outside of a city, often serving as a residence for people who work in that city.)
2. Explain to students that in this lesson, they will be exploring the rise of suburbia in postwar America and its influence on popular music and youth culture.
3. Display the following graphs using a projector or Smartboard:
4. Discuss with students the trend the graph is depicting. Be sure to note that according to the U.S. Census, by the year 2000, 50 percent of the US population lived in areas defined as “suburban.” Note also that a good deal of the shift from urban to suburban living took place during the postwar years, beginning in the late 1940s.
5. Distribute Handout 1, “The Rise of Levittown.” Ask for a volunteer to read the handout aloud.
6. Briefly discuss with students:
- How does the author describe the homes in Levittown? Were they luxurious?
- Why does the author compare the homes to the Ford Model T car?
- What was the appeal of the homes in Levittown, according to the author? Why did people want to live there?
- If you had lived at that time, do you think you would have wanted to buy a home in Levittown? Why or why not?
7. Explain to students that the GI Bill, passed in 1944, was designed to ease the transition back to civilian life for returning World War II veterans. An important provision of the bill was low-cost, government-backed mortgages that made home ownership attainable for many who otherwise might not have been able to afford a house. Explain that this was a significant factor in the rise of suburban developments such as Levittown.
8. Play the In the Suburbs. Discuss with the students:
- Where does the family in the film live before they move? How is that environment depicted?
- Where do they move to? How is that environment depicted?
- What do the suburbs appear to offer young families?
- Why might these elements appeal particular to a returning war veteran?
9. Display the image of the album cover of a Beach Boys anthology, depicting their hometown of Hawthorne, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. Tell students this is the image the album’s designer chose to illustrate a modern collection of classic Beach Boys recordings, and visually represent the Beach Boys’ music.
10. Briefly discuss with students the impression the picture gives them about life in the suburbs. Do they imagine this is a place they would have liked to live? Why or why not?
11. Ask students to identify the central image on the album cover (i.e., the car). Explain to them that the more Americans moved away from urban centers and into the suburbs, the greater role automobiles came to play in American life. Explain also that the postwar years were a time when many roads and highways were built and expanded, especially after the passage of the 1956 act creating the Interstate Highway System.
12. Explain to students that in 1963, the Beach Boys released a single called “Be True to Your School,” with the song “In My Room” on the B-side.
13. Distribute Handout 2, lyrics to the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” and play the song “” for the class. Explain that Brian Wilson co-wrote the song based on his childhood room at the family home in the suburban town of Hawthorne, California.
14. Discuss with students:
- What is the overall mood/tone of the song? How do the vocals sound (rough, smooth, heavy, laid-back)? How do the vocals match the mood of the lyrics?
- What is special about his room?
- How does this song connect to the attraction suburban developments held for many Americans in the 1950s and 60s?
- Why might this song have resonated with teenagers living in the suburbs in this time period?
Play for the students the Beach Boys song “,” and ask them to compare it to “,” addressing both the songs’ lyrics and their mood. Discuss these questions, having the students reflect back on the issues raised in the lesson: What images does “Fun Fun Fun” bring to mind? What is the girl in the song doing? What images does “In My Room” bring to mind? In what ways do these two very different songs reflect aspects of suburban life?
In the postwar years, suburban developments such as Levittown were promoted as the fulfillment of the “American Dream.” Why might owning a home in the suburbs be considered the realization of a dream? Do you agree with that assessment? Why or why not? What might be the positives and negatives of life in such an environment? Use details and evidence from the classwork to support your answer.
- Have students watch the video clip , a short film about life in Santa Monica, California. Explain to them that like the Beach Boys’ hometown of Hawthorne, Santa Monica lies within the greater Los Angeles area. Have students write a short paper addressing these questions: How does the video depict life in Southern California? Does it seem appealing? Why? Who is the man who’s decided to move there with his family at the beginning of the clip? Why has he decided to live there? Where has he just been? Why might a place like Southern California seem especially appealing to someone like him?
- Have students research the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill. Have them write a short paper about the bill that addresses these questions: What was the purpose of the bill? What did the bill offer to returning veterans? In particular, what were the provisions of the bill related to home buying and education? What impact did this have on rates of college enrollment and home ownership in the postwar years? In what ways is the G.I. Bill credited with playing a role in the prosperity of the postwar period and the rise of the suburbs in the United States?