Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

The Grapes of Wrath: Teaching literature as a vehicle for social change

Main content start

by Marc Vickers, Okemos High School, Okemos, MI, 2009

American Literature (11th grade)


The goal of this lesson plan is to have my students gain a more in-depth, extensive and engaging introduction to this important American writer. I want them to appreciate that writing doesn’t just comment on society; it impacts it.


This lesson plan will be a week-long introductory unit on Steinbeck as part of my American Lit course. Previously, I have taught chapter 3 (the turtle episode) from The Grapes of Wrath, which is in our existing textbook. I don’t think this is a sufficient exposure to Steinbeck’s ideas, and so I am going to replace this with more extensive readings from the novel so that students have a deeper appreciation of him as a writer. Some of my students will have read the novel for AP US History over the summer so this will give them an opportunity to extend their understanding of the book. I am hoping that this unit will inspire the other students to read it on their own. I am also hoping that I will be able to teach the novel whole class the following school year, so this unit will act as a pilot.


  1. I will begin by finding out what students already know about Steinbeck from their experiences with Of Mice and Men during their sophomore year. I will lead them to discussion of censorship by giving them the banned books list. We will have already talked about this issue to a considerable extent through their reading of Huckleberry Finn and A Prayer for Owen Meany, both previously challenged texts in our district. We will then read and discuss Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech, focusing on Steinbeck’s view of writing.
  2. During the second lesson students will watch, analyze and evaluate The Plow that Broke the Plains. They will also listen to The Battle Hymn of the Republic. I will come up with some questions for small group and then whole-class discussion which focus both on the 1930s and today. I will explain the structure of the novel (the inter-chapters) and for homework students will contribute to the class blog that evening after they have had time to reflect further on their own.
  3. The third, fourth and fifth lessons will consist of reading some or all of the following chapters from The Grapes of Wrath, following the journey using Google Earth (Google Lit Trips) .
  4. to give them an overview of the novel’s plot: Chapter 1 (description of the Dust Bowl); Chapter 5 (the tractors destroy the farms); Chapter 12 (the migrants pile up on Route 66); Chapter 15 (Mae and Al’s coffee shop); Chapter 20 (Knowles challenges contractor); Chapter 22 (the Utopian description of the Weedpatch camp); Chapter 24 (the union march in Akron); Chapter 25 (the juxtaposition of the rotting crops and the starving people).

Possible Extensions

The novel could be linked to clips from recent movies such as BabelFrozen River and The Visitor to explore the issues facing immigrants.

A “Found Poetry” activity could be used to get the students thinking about the key ideas and images in some of the chapters, such as 1, 5, 12 and 25 (where students write a poem only using Steinbeck’s words from the selected text – this can be done individually or in pairs.)

A “Chamber Theatre” activity could be used for some of the chapters that contain considerable amount of dialogue, such as chapters 15 and 20. In this activity students perform a scene blending narration with dialogue. The class then reflects on the interpretations created by the performance.

Students could work in groups to produce and publish a creative media project on a current issue, such a movie or podcast which could be shown in class or published on the class blog or youtube. Issues could include unemployment, green energy, healthcare reform and outsourcing.