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Multiple Perspectives on “The Harness”

by Rebecca Gerik, South High, Anchorage, Alaska, 2007

“The Harness,” found in Steinbeck’s The Long Valley, can be taught to high school students grades 9 to 12 for an American literature class, an elective, or an AP Literature class. The complexity of the results will vary with the time allowed and the maturity of the group. The Long Valley was written about the area around the Salinas River which is ninety miles long, up to fifteen miles wide, and grows eighty percent of the nation’s vegetables. This lesson demonstrates that literature reflects place and people, applies to life now, and can be understood in many ways.

Overview

This multi-faceted lesson divides students into four groups to perform a dramatic reading and to demonstrate a perspective of the short story through either discussion of ways Steinbeck constructed his story, a walk through the school to look at plants and setting, a dramatic interpretation of a scene, or an eating experience, all tied directly to text. The range of experiences will encourage highly academic and reluctant students to engage with the text.

Procedures

This lesson requires at least four class periods or halves of four block periods. Spacing this lesson out over many days allows students to develop their presentations more fully.

Assign “The Harness” for students to read individually as homework or out loud in class.

Divide the students into four groups of equal number, typically seven per group.

  • Aesthetics: How does formal structure lead to tone which appeals to an audience? Consider the beginning, middle, and end of the story, or note the use of diction, sentences, imagery and language for the purposes of this story. Arrange the information on chart, poster, power point, or some other graphic display. Post-its may be used by the group to allow the class be participate in the process.
  • Plants and People, Crops and Characters: Does your school use the natural environment to encourage learning? How does the school use constraints to harness students? Use photos of the school environment or a quick school tour to show the class how place affects people. Connect this to Steinbeck’s ideas of plants and place in “The Harness” by showing how crops and environment influence characters in this story.
  • To Have and to Hold: Explain the symbol of the harness in this story by creating a conversation the morning after the last scene between Peter and the ghost of his wife, Emma. He chooses to put in electricity as if she could benefit, yet he still claims to wish to escape her boundaries. Why do people select the partners they do? Does the selection of a partner change the person?
  • Sensory and Sensual: Steinbeck uses the senses to explain Peter Randall’s character. Create a sensory experience that incorporates all five senses based on some passage in the text. Students will arrange food, provide music (typically with a guitar) and present this sensory experience in a visually pleasing way. How do the senses relate to passion in one’s life and in “The Harness”? This portion of the lesson encourages reluctant students to participate fully.

Have each group choose a passage of ½ to 1 page from “The Harness” to read aloud to the class twice, once before and once after their presentation. From this passage the students will find a way to interpret this passage to the class in a ten minute presentation. The teacher should wander between the groups, listening and asking questions to encourage further thought. The teacher will allow groups to work in the classroom, in the hallway, or in some nearby available space depending on the maturity of the students and the necessary level of supervision.

Each student will write a one page paper explaining the plan for the presentation, the individual’s part in the project, and the connection between the presentation and the passage chosen. The teacher can provide an inexpensive white paper plate which the students divide into three parts to record this information instead of using a sheet of paper.

Students will discuss their dramatic readings, rehearse sitting and again in whatever format they choose to perform. Each person in the group needs a copy of the page they have chosen as well as whatever materials are necessary for presentation.

On presentation day, arrange groups in order of where their passages fall in the story, probably letting the aesthetics group go first to discuss the beginning and end and provide a framework to give the story coherence. Each group should take ten to fifteen minutes to present, first reading the passage, then expanding their portion of the interpretation, and reading the passage again. Commentary will occur after the entire performance. Presenters receive credit for answering interpretive questions which require the audience to listen carefully to be able to ask the necessary questions.

Assessment

Students are assessed on their individual one page papers (or paper plates) which demonstrate their group plan, their individual contribution, and their understanding of the connection to the text.

The presentation is also assessed on the effectiveness of the dramatic reading, the interpretation given in the project, the connection of the project to the text, and the ability to address interpretative questions from the audience. Additional credit may be offered for complexity, superior effort, effective group interaction, or simply the ability to amaze the students and teacher.

Word to the Wise

The teacher will assist in the group placements by letting students list their top two choices and then making the final decision to ensure groups reflect a balance of students and their strengths.

For the dramatic reading, students may use one person’s voice, many voices for characters and narration, or layered voices for a choral reading where some parts are read by several or repeated by another person. The possibilities are endless, but should be used to enhance not detract from the meaning of the text. Guidance from the teacher will encourage students to try a variety of methods before choosing the most useful.

References

Steinbeck, John. “The Harness” from The Long Valley. Penguin Books: New York, New York, 1995.