Focus Question: How do historical events affect individuals and the society in which they live? [IS.16 - ELL Students]
Demonstrate the power of current events by asking students to brainstorm what is significant about the time in which they live. [IS.17 - Struggling Learners] Ask “If people in the future are researching this time period, what will they discover?” Ask students to focus on important events, people, inventions, and communication. Record responses on the board/interactive whiteboard. For responses that are markedly distinctive, you might ask students to justify the significance of that particular person, place, or thing. “What effects are these events having on society?” Allow students to respond in their response journals.
Have students read Act One of Our Town by Thornton Wilder. (You may wish to divide the reading assignment into two or three parts). [IS.18 - Struggling Learners] [IS.19 - ELL Students]
Before reading, review the element of setting: where and when a story takes place. Then say, “Think about the setting of this play as you read. Look for clues to the time and place in which the events happen. Also examine whether the characters do or say certain things because of the time in which they live.” You may wish to point out the stage directions at the beginning and explain that stage directions are parts of the play included by the author to give specific details about setting, character, actions, or attitudes not stated within character dialogue. They are usually italicized or otherwise differentiated from dialogue.)
After reading, begin a general discussion of the play by asking students to describe the setting. [IS.20 - All Students] “What is Grover’s Corners like?” (Possible responses: a small New England town; a town in which everyone seems to know everyone else; a town with many churches; a town that seems friendly and safe; a town that seems boring) Ask students to give specific references within the play that describe the setting. [IS.21 - All Students]
Point out the role of the Stage Manager. Explain that the traditional role of a stage manager is to oversee all aspects of a stage production and that the stage manager is usually offstage. Guide students to see that the Stage Manager gives many of the details about the setting (for example, the date, the town’s geography, the locations of people’s homes, etc.).
Ask students to determine the historical time period of the play (it begins in 1901 and covers the early years of the twentieth century, as revealed by different parts of the stage manager’s monologues).
Divide students into small groups and give each student a copy of the Historical Setting Comparison Chart (L-L-2-3_Historical Setting Comparison Chart and KEY.docx). Say, “Each time period in history has significant events and cultural clues that are unique to it. We’ve identified that the setting of Our Town is the early part of the twentieth century. Look for clues in the play that show how this time period is different. Record these clues in the ‘What is different’ section of the chart. Next, think about how life is the same in Grover’s Corners of 1901 as it is today. Record these responses in the ‘What is the same’ section of the chart.” Give students time to complete the chart and to discuss their results within each group. Monitor the groups to make sure that both sections of the chart are being completed. [IS.22 - All Students] If students are having a difficult time finding similarities, ask them to look at family relationships, routines, attitudes expressed by the characters, etc.
After individual group discussion, review group results as a class. You may wish to use an overhead to record the overall results. [IS.23 - Struggling Learners] Allow students to revise their charts or add to them based on the large-group discussion. Guide students to see that many human behaviors, desires, and attitudes, while influenced by their temporal surroundings, transcend time: Parents care for children, children grow and learn, and people desire accomplishment, approval, and love.
To finalize the discussion, reread the stage directions at the very beginning of the play. Ask students, “Why does the play begin in this way? What is the significance of having no curtain or scenery and few props?” Help students to see that the lack of specific details gives the play a sense of timelessness, even though we learn that it actually takes place in a remote time. The reader can identify with the characters’ emotions and desires. This is what makes a work of literature universal.
Assign students to read selected excerpts of Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck; the first two chapters work well. [IS.24 - Struggling Learners] (Note: The chapters are not numbered, but the novella is divided into six sections, which effectively serve as chapters). The fourth chapter is also a good choice, as it focuses on what the American dream means to several characters, but students will need to have a summary of previous events to understand what is going on.
Before reading, it is essential that students receive sufficient background information on the historical context of the novella, which was published in 1937, near the end of the Great Depression.
Introduce the novella. Say, “John Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men in 1937, near the end of the Great Depression. By this time, people all over the country had lost their jobs and were still struggling to find enough work to survive. In the West, migrant workers went from one area to another to get work on farms and ranches. This novella is about the lives of these workers during that difficult time.” Before students begin reading, give each student an Of Mice and Men Character/Setting worksheet (L-L-2-3_Of Mice and Men Character-Setting Worksheet and KEY.docx). [IS.25 - ELL Students] Ask students to think about the characters and settings as they read.
After students have read the assigned excerpts, allow them to complete the worksheet. (This will take some time, as many characters are introduced in the first two sections.) Ask volunteers to share what they have discovered about the characters and settings and discuss their responses as a class. Ask, “What kind of life do George and Lennie have?” (Possible responses: George and Lennie are wanderers, carrying everything they own with them, and they are dependent on others for their lodging and food.) Then ask, “What is the main reason they are on the move?” (They left the previous ranch because Lennie got in trouble there.)
Ask students to identify what conflicts are suggested in these chapters. (Possible responses: the challenges of survival, the troublesome and unpredictable actions of Lennie, the competition among ranch hands, the jealousy of a husband) Help students see that Steinbeck relates substantial information about character, setting, and conflict in a very short time.
Remind students about the historical period during which the novella takes place. Ask, “What clues in the text tell you that the men live in a different time period?” (George mentions the need for work cards. He also suggests that he “could live so easy” on a salary of fifty dollars a month. There is a wood burning stove in the bunk house, horses or mules are pulling the grain harvesting machinery, and the men will be filling grain bags. George also mentions that they would only need a few dollars to go away and “pan for gold,” where they might make a few dollars a day.)
Have students reread George’s description of their dream near the end of the first section. Use the following questions to guide class discussion: [IS.26 - All Students]
- “Earlier we identified several conflicts. Which conflict is most relevant to the Great Depression?” (The struggle for survival was part of most people’s lives at that time.)
- “Why is the narration of George and Lennie’s dream significant, especially in light of the Great Depression?” (The dream is referred to a number of times throughout the book, especially in section four, where other characters offer their own descriptions of their dreams.)
- “What does it mean to ‘live off the fat of the land’?” (Possible responses: to be able to have a garden or farm, to have cattle or other animals, to have land that is rich and sustaining, etc.)
Write the sentence, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray,” on the board. Explain that the book’s title comes from a poem called “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns. Divide students into groups and ask them to discuss how the title might be related to the historical setting of the novella. Say, “Discuss who or what the ‘mice’ in the title refers to and what the ‘best laid plans’ might be.” (Mice are tiny and often at the mercy of their elements, and the people during the Great Depression were at the mercy of circumstances far out of their control. George and Lennie’s ‘best laid plan’ was to have their own land and live off its richness, but like helpless mice they were unable to overcome their circumstances.)
To finalize the discussion, point out that the ranch setting of this novella may be far removed from city life, but the challenge of keeping food on the table and making compromises in lifestyles was a common thread for people during the Great Depression. Today’s readers can identify with these characters and their dreams.
Have students view the PBS video Surviving the Dust Bowl (http://video.pbs.org/video/1311363860/ ) OR [IS.27 - ELL Students]
Show pictures of migrant workers by Dorothea Lange (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fachap03.html). Ask students, “What can you tell about the people in these photographs? What kind of lives do they lead?” (Possible responses: the people are poor, they have a hard life, the elements have taken a toll on their bodies, they seem sad or resigned, the landscape is barren) Say, “These are the kinds of people John Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath. He visited the Dust Bowl and traveled with migrant workers. We will read excerpts from the novel to learn how one family, the Joads, try to survive during the Dust Bowl.”
Have students read Chapters 1, 2, and 3 of The Grapes of Wrath. [IS.28 - Struggling Learners] Say, “Pay particular attention to the setting and characters in each chapter and to the turtle in Chapter 3. Think about why Steinbeck begins the novel in this way.” Give each student a copy of the Grapes of Wrath Chapter Notes worksheet (L-L-2-3_Grapes of Wrath Chapter Notes and KEY.docx). Place students in small groups and have them discuss the focus questions on the worksheet. Monitor the discussions by visiting each group, making sure that students understand that the chapters introduce the dust storm and the main character, Tom Joad, who is returning home from prison for killing a man.
Discuss the small group results with the entire class. Use the following questions to guide discussion:
- “What happens during the dust storm?” (Possible responses: The land was so dry that the winds blew the soil away. The dust was so heavy it was like smoke. There was so much dust that the sky became black. People stayed in their houses and tied handkerchiefs over their faces to keep out the dust. The dust blanketed everything.)
- “How do the people respond at the end of the first chapter?” (At first, the people are puzzled and concerned by the event, the men then become angry and determined. The women feel safe because the men are in charge. They know “it was all right.” There is still a sense at the end of the chapter that while the situation is unknown, the men will figure it out.)
Responses to the focus question for the first chapter may vary, but Steinbeck begins the novel by telling real-life events as an outside observer, initiating a third person objective point of view. (If necessary, review point of view: third person objective, third person limited.) Explain that although Steinbeck follows a single family throughout the novel, the first chapter indicates that they are representative of a large group.
Continue, in the same manner, to discuss chapters 2 and 3. Use the Grapes of Wrath Chapter Notes Worksheet to guide the discussion.
Remind students that theme is a major idea or message that an author conveys in a literary work. Say, “Steinbeck portrays how ordinary people respond to extraordinary events. Several major themes run throughout this novel. [IS.29 - Level 1] Based on what you have discovered about events and characters so far, what possible themes might The Grapes of Wrath explore?” (the resiliency of human nature, the power of nature, the inherent kindness of people, the pursuit of the American Dream)
- Students who may be going beyond the standards can use materials listed under Related Resources to further research how American literature and culture reflect historical perspective.
- Students who need an additional opportunity for learning may find a news story of a major event, such as an earthquake or flood. Have them create a fictional story about someone experiencing the event, using facts from the news story as the basis for the plot. Explain that this is similar to Steinbeck’s technique.
- Students interested in drama could rewrite parts of Our Town without the stage manager character. Ask them to dramatize how the play would evolve differently.