Teaching John Steinbeck

By Natanya Silverman

The novels of John Steinbeck inhabit many bookshelves in classrooms across the United States. High school English classes spend weeks exploring the details of Steinbeck”s novels; the complex relationships, the labyrinthine conflicts, and the characters and their ghosts, amid his strong, yet luxuriant language. However, beyond the standard psychological analysis of George’s relationship with Lennie in Of Mice and Men, or the literary irony of Mack and the boys being called the Virtues, the Graces, and the Beauties in Cannery Row, there lies often overlooked images of America’s history and the American landscape. In fact, many teachers incorporate Steinbeck’s works into their curriculum as a springboard for lessons on the Great Depression, World War II, or on Californian geography.

For example, Colleen Conrad, a 7th Grade teacher in Fort Collins, Colorado uses Steinbeck’s texts for literary, historic, and civic exploration. In her integrated lesson, student groups research the history of the Great Depression, the migrant workers, the Dust Bowl, Franklin Roosevelt, and the New Deal. Students then read both The Pearl and Of Mice and Men, evaluate the conflicts within each text, the influence the historical period had on each story, and incorporate what they have learned into a mock reconciliation for the conflicting characters. Conrad’s students also explore the colloquialisms used in Of Mice and Men, and compile a vocabulary list of terms that illustrate the language of the migrant workers. This lesson gives students not only an understanding of the dynamics of power and conflict, but also provides a glimpse into the trials the Great Depression brought to impoverished farmers and workers.

No other Steinbeck novel, however, brings students closer to understanding the impact of the Great Depression on the farming community, than Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath. The Library of Congress has created a lesson plan for the 10th or 11th grade, which provides sound recordings, music, as well as photographs of migrant workers to be researched in connection with a class reading of Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning text. Students use their reading and research to compile a migrant workers scrapbook, full of the voice of the migrant worker out from Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl, through their trials of hunger, death, and powerlessness as they sought a better life in the West.

There are a multitude of lessons John Steinbeck has to teach us about the impoverished characters and the environment of American history. Other teachers use Cannery Row to illustrate the life that was in California’s Monterey Bay; its geography and its growth from a poor fishing community to a thriving society after the migration in the 1930s. The National Steinbeck Center in Monterey also provides resources for many lessons related to Steinbeck. For lessons concerning World War II or Vietnam, the Center offers photographs of Steinbeck when he was a war correspondent in connection with his works The Moon is Down or Once There Was a War. The Center also coordinates the Steinbeck Alive! Program, wherein actors from the Western Stage perform as characters from Steinbeck”s works, or as people from his life. Programs such as these make Steinbeck, his writings, and his truth about American history a reality for all learners.

John Steinbeck’s writings and characters are a window into the essential aspects of humanity: conflict, grief, fear, and the struggle that humanity has with itself. When students research Steinbeck”s version of history and humanity, geography and politics, they see where America came from, who the people were, and how they have grown, what in the world has changed, and what remains. Very few pictures in American literature, are as vivid as those depicted by John Steinbeck. History is no longer diluted with simple facts and dates, but rather becomes an intimate, uncertain journey full of neglected characters, their harrowing experiences, and the future’s promise that urges them onward. In fact, Steinbeck has taken on, what he called in his essay “On Teaching,” the greatest of the arts. For under his influence, the horizons sprung wide and fear went away and the unknown became knowable. “But most important of all, the truth, that dangerous stuff, became beautiful and precious.”

Natanya Silverman is a freelance writer, actor, and singer who hails from Providence, Rhode Island, and is currently earning her teaching credential in the Lake Tahoe area.


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