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East of Eden Family History Project

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by Colleen Harnett, Tesoro High School, Las Flores, CA, 2009


Students taking AP Literature this year were assigned to read East of Eden for summer reading. They will arrive on the first day of school having written a short analytical paper on the topic of their choice. The first part of this lesson is for the first day of school to engage students in close reading and annotation, to introduce AP prompts, and to acquire a timed writing sample. The second part of this lesson is for the first block day we meet to discuss the novel, to practice formulating discussion questions, and to assess discussion skills. The third part of this lesson is to connect the novel to each student's life by researching their own family history, creating a short piece of fiction based on this history, and offering a brief power point presentation including photographs, characters, plot structure, and theme.


  1. Students will demonstrate skills in annotation, close reading, and analytical writing.
  2. Students will demonstrate skills in formulating questions and participating in discussion.
  3. Students will demonstrate skills in research, creative writing, and technology.


Day 1

Students arrive the first day of school and turn in their annotated books and short papers from summer reading. They listen to a brief introduction to AP Literature prompts and get out a few sheets of paper for a timed write. Students receive the prompt: In chapter one of East of Eden, consider the role of the land. Describe how John Steinbeck uses language to introduce the meaning of the work as a whole. Students will have an excerpt for textual evidence and 40 minutes to complete. Student timed writes are assessed using the 9-point AP rubric. Homework: Review the Three Levels of Questions (Recollection, Analysis/Inference, Synthesis) and write five discussion questions for each level. (15 total).

Day 2

Students arrive with discussion questions. They listen to a brief introduction of how discussion works and break into small groups of four or five for 20 minutes. At the end of this time, one student from each group writes one or two major questions or issues on the whiteboard they would like to address so they can practice figuring out what is important without immediate guidance. Students then participate in a class discussion based on these questions and ideas for 30 minutes. At the end of this time, students listen to a brief presentation on John Steinbeck, place, and East of Eden and continue the discussion based on this presentation. Homework: Begin research on family history project.

Students will have six weeks to complete the family history project, which will include: a family tree, photos of people and places, three or more anecdotes, and a short piece of fiction based on one side of the student's family. This can be a short story, a rough outline of a novel with some chapter sketches, or a short, thoughtful film.

Day 3

Six weeks later, students will present all their family information on a powerpoint and share their work of fiction or film. The idea here is to deepen their appreciation of Steinbeck's construction of what he called his greatest work and to envision their own East of Eden.

Some questions for discussion:
  1. What makes this a quintessentially American book? What are archetypically American qualities in these characters?
  2. What comes with Sam and his wife Liza from the “old country”? How does living in America change them and their children? What opportunities does America provide for the clan, and what challenges?
  3. Does Adam have a good life? What hinders him? Would you characterize his life as successful in the end?
  4. Why does Lee speak in pidgin, as he explains it to Sam Hamilton? How does his character change over the course of the novel?
  5. What motivates Cathy? Is she truly evil or does Steinbeck allow some traces of humanity in his characterization of her?
  6. What is the significance of sibling rivalry? Consider the title.
  7. Compare Abra to some of the other women in the book and identify some of the qualities that set her apart. Do you think she might embody the kind of “modern” woman that emerged in postwar America? Why or why not?
  8. How does Steinbeck address American diversity?
  9. What constitutes true wealth in the book?
  10. What is the significance of family inheritance?
  11. What does Cal come to understand about his relationship to his past and to each member of his family? The last scene between Adam and Cal is momentous; what exactly happens between them, and how hopeful a note is this profound ending?
  12. Why does Steinbeck include himself in the narration?
Some questions for the project:
  1. What is your family's history? Where did they come from? Why? What does it mean to be from somewhere? What is Steinbeck saying about the notion of home?
  2. Why does Steinbeck choose the Hamiltons on his mother's side? Why not the Steinbeck's on his father's side? Which side will you choose to write on? Why?
  3. Consider the importance of setting. Where will you set your story? Why? What year will you set your story? Why?
  4. Consider character development. Which family members will be major characters? Why? Which will not?
  5. Consider thematic elements. What are your overarching themes? How will you introduce them? How will you develop them throughout the text?

Note: This is the first time I will be teaching East of Eden and I've never tried this project before. I would be most grateful for any comments, suggestions, or ideas on how to improve it. I am still working on fine tuning the project explanation and requirements and will post that soon. Next year, I am hoping to teach East of Eden during the school year so I can work on more fully developed lessons.