by Marg Blake, Sulphur High School, Sulphur, OK, 2009
“E Pluribus Unum” found in Steinbeck’s America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction can be taught as a parallel text for the opening pages of Holt’s Elements of Literature “Encounters and Foundations to 1800.” Both pieces explore the creation of America and what it means to be American.
Appropriate for both Pre-AP and junior level English, this lesson culminates in students writing an essay which addresses their own regionalism. The lesson could easily be used to introduce place in any fictional Steinbeck work. It is an excellent lesson for teaching/exploring tone. (Example: Students like to use negative and positive in describing tone, yet as teachers we know those distinctions are only the beginning.) And, in a rural high school setting with limited diversity, it generates meaningful student dialogue; the echoing sentiment is the discovery of a “new” way to think of America.
Students read individually, discuss in small group, and share in large group. This lesson involves dividing students into small groups of four with each member selecting a specific role. These “job descriptions” are passed out as half sheet forms and provide writing space. (I would credit the author of them if only I could remember the source.) They then write an essay which answers the question “What does it mean to be an Oklahoman?” The question, of course, will depend on students’ origins and can be personalized as they choose. (Example: What does it mean to be a Northeasterner? What does it mean to be second generation Taiwanese?)
Having read and reviewed the Holt pages in class, students complete a free-write for the prompt “What does it mean to be American?” After reading through them, the teacher shares some points with the class anonymously. The writes are then returned to the students, and they are given a copy of Steinbeck’s “E Pluribus Unum.” They are instructed to read the essay, marking any unfamiliar word usage, particularly interesting passages, questions about “meaning,” and so forth. They are then placed in groups of four with the following roles as guided purpose:
Literary Luminary: Your job is to locate a few special sections or quotations in the text for your group to discuss. The idea is to help group members return to some especially interesting, powerful, funny, puzzling, or important sections of the reading. As you select these passages, make notes about why you selected them.
Researcher: Your job is to find background information on any topic related to your reading. This might include geography, weather, culture, history of the reading’s setting, information about the author, other works, pictures, objects, or materials that illustrate elements of the piece, and so forth. This is not formal research; you are simply adding interesting information.
Word Wizard: The words a writer chooses are an important ingredient of the author’s craft and help to establish his or her tone. Your job is to look up the definitions for unfamiliar words. You may also discover words that stand out somehow in the reading—words that are repeated, used in an unusual way, or key to the meaning of the text. Mark these special words too and be ready to discuss their possible functions with the group.
Summarizer: Your job is to prepare a brief summary of today’s reading. You need a one or two minute statement that conveys the gist—the key points, the main highlights, the essence of the piece.
Once all students have contributed, each group shares in large group. They are asked to go back and read their free-writes again. They are encouraged to reflect, to determine if their concept of “being American” has changed during this process. Then, with Steinbeck as a model, they write their own essays portraying themselves as part of their region.
Sample student notes from small groups
“Uses many negative words when describing how America was created ‘he ripped it (the land), raped it, . . . and destroyed it’ pg. 20” “Describes America as a positive thing, in a way, yet uses many negative words.”
“p. 320, par. 3: He tells about how man treated the land as they first found it. We should discuss why men did this and if they knew it was bad, and did they try to fix it.”
“On the internet I found out that in The Wizard of Oz, the Wizard never calls the United States by name but calls it ‘the land of E pluribus unum.’”
“p. 320. ‘We built America and the process made us Americans’—we found this thought interesting. As a group none of us could think of anything you build that you could become a part of.”
“Will we ever stop becoming America?”
“Steinbeck says what E Pluribus Unum means and how America does what it can to hold it true. He speaks of the many different languages brought to America and how Americans have turned it into slang words and an unclear vision of the beautiful language it once was. The story tells us what it means to be an American.”
“Words to look up: polyglot, parochial, super-reality, savage, Nisei, Patsies”
“What is Elizabethan English?”
Steinbeck, John. “E Pluribus Unum” from America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction. Penguin Books: New York, New York, 2002.