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Looking West: Steinbeck’s Red Pony Stories

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by Chuck Nowland, Westlake High School, Austin Texas, 2007

  1. The main focus of this lesson is on the impact of a particular landscape ecology and history on character. The collection of stories found in Steinbeck’s Red Pony cycle invites students to connect with the land and history of Steinbeck’s West and provides opportunities for comparative readings, dialogic discussion, performance, as well as ways for students to examine their own sense of place and how place shapes character.
  2. Activities:
    • Assign class reading of The Red Pony. (I would have entire class read the collection of stories, then assign groups to become “scholars” of a particular story on their second reading.)
    • Use “Searching for Steinbeck,” images from Rt. 66, Salinas Valley and the Wallace Ranch, and other Steinbeck sacred places to introduce idea of author’s connection to American and a particular region in the case of The Red Pony
    • Reading Groups: Create four groups, one group to specialize in each of the four stories within the cycle:
      1. “The Gift”
      2. “The Great Mountains”
      3. “The Promise”
      4. “The Leader of the People”
  3. Group Activities:
    1. Read and notate each story…collecting references to the land/setting.
      (Ask students to compare characters’ attitude toward the land and discuss: Jody’s father, Gitano, Jody, Jody’s grandfather.)
    2. Choose one scene to act out. Discuss the process and revelations. Discuss the questions that come to the surface.
    3. Each group leads discussions and presents relevant background material.
    4. Final discussion of whole cycle and results of dramatic interpretations.
      • Enrichment activity #1: Assign “The Colt” by Wallace Stegner. Discuss and assign a comparative essay that explores setting, character, and themes in Steinbeck’s and Stegner’s stories.
      • Enrichment activity #2: Encourage students to find literary classics of their own region. For example, in Texas, students could read “A Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter. Study the use of landscape of these authors from various regions of the United States.
      • Enrichment Activity #3: Use these reading to inspire an awareness of the native trees, plants, and animal/bird species found on the school campus or surrounding community. Take a “tree tour” and note how regional writers name these trees in works. Setting is specific and based on deep knowledge. Also, study how the landscape has changed over time.
      • Enrichment Activity #4: Encourage students to “paint their own setting.” Use photography, painting, sculpture, poetry…any art form to interpret landscape and setting. The life and works of Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and Robinson Jeffers might be a good place to start looking for inspiration.
  4. Short Story: Write an original story using a familiar setting as a major component of the plot and character development. This might be the culminating project of a long-term dedication to the theme of land and character. As they conceive and write their stories, encourage students to incorporate descriptions of specific native species, land formations, trees, and other distinct features of the regional environment and landscape.

    Other Steinbeck stories from The Long Valley could be used to show Steinbeck’s range of tales found within his Salinas country.

    Share and publish all stories. Make a big, fun festival of it!