Of Mice and Men Historical Context: Viewing and Completing a Study Guide for Riding the Rails

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SWBAT cite evidence in a film in order write diary entries from the perspective of a migrant worker or homeless person in the 1930s

Big Idea

What was John Steinbeck’s historical context when writing Of Mice and Men?

Unit Introduction

5 minutes

Of Mice and Men's universal themes such as bullying, racism, actualizing one's dreams, and compassion for another is very relevant for all students. I chose this relatively short novella because John Steinbeck wrote of lessons that teach students what it is to be a human being with compassion for his fellow humans and to have a social conscience.  Because all my students are repeating this ELA 9 course, many of them are familiar with the plot but have spent little or no time analyzing the story by going beneath the surface of basic understanding.  My teaching goals of this unit include creating lessons that encourage critical thinking skills and the ability to analyze and predict during engaged reading of the text.

My Common Core Standard goals for this unit include:

  • RL.9-10.1 and RI.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
  • RL.9-10.3 Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
  • RL.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).
  • RL.9-10.10 By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9-10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.
  • SL.9-10.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9-10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • W.9-10.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.


15 minutes

Positive Reinforcement

At this time of the year when the weather is getting warm and many students are already looking towards the summer months,  I decide to add an extra positive reinforcer for engaged on-task classwork. I call the reinforcer "Khalsa Bucks."  I give students a "Khalsa Buck" or play money with my image on it at anytime during the class and explain that they are to hold on to the money which they can use to purchase an item at the "Khalsa store."   I tell them questions concerning what can be purchased and when will the Khalsa store be open,  will be answered at another time.

During this lesson I will be showing part of the PBS documentary Riding the Rails which depicts homeless teenagers during the time of the Great Depression.  I begin the lesson's activator by asking students to answer the following questions which are projected on a screen. These are questions that I found on the PBS site under the teacher's guide. 

In their journals students answer the following questions (W.9-10.10)

1. What do you know about homelessness today?  What are some of the reasons for   homelessness?  Why do you think people were homeless in the 1930s?  Would teenagers have different reasons for being homeless than adults, both in the past and today?

2. What do you think of when you hear the word “hobo”?  How do you define "hobo"?  Are there still hobos today?.  

As students answer the questions I circulate among them checking for understanding and giving a "Khalsa Buck" to those who are on task.


Building Knowledge

20 minutes

I begin this section by asking students to read their answers to the journal questions above as I write their comments on a white board.  I then facilitate a group discussions SL.9-10.1a on their comments.

Next I read this description of the PBS video documentary, Riding the Rails, that they will be seeing and depicts homelessness in the 1930's:

At the height of the Great Depression, more than a quarter million teenagers were living on the road in America, many criss-crossing the country by illegally hopping freight trains. This film tells the story of ten of these teenage hobos -- from the reasons they left home to what they experienced -- all within the context of depression-era America.

I then define the word novella by saying a novella is a written, fictional narrative normally longer than a short story but shorter than a novel (L.9-10.6).  I explain that they will be reading the novella, Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck which takes place during the 1930's Great Depression. Because my students are repeating grade 9 ELA, at this point I'll probably hear a few comments such as "I read it last year" or "I know Lennie gets shot in the end."   My response will be something like, "I know some of you have read parts of the novella, but I also know many of you did not read it and all of you can benefit from the engaging lessons I have planned for you."

I then ask what does the term migrant worker mean?  After getting a few answers I explain that a migrant worker is someone who "migrates" or moves from place to place, often performing seasonal work. I tell students that the characters in Of Mice and Men were migrant workers and that was during a period in our country of economic hardship.  These hard workers were often poorly educated and worked on farms and ranches.

Student Learning Activity

30 minutes

I then pass out and review the questions on the Riding the Rails Viewing Guide.  To increase their background knowledge, I tell my students that they will be watching a segment of the PBS documentary and that I will pause the video at certain times for us to discuss and clarify any questions that they may have about what they are seeing.  I find integrating visual media such as this informative video with the expectation of writing about what was seen can increase the engagement in the topics being taught.

Students then view the 14 min. segment of Riding the Rails  

and take notes on the study guide provided .

After we watch the video I give them some time to complete their notes giving them the option of comparing notes with a learning partner.  Next I facilitate a reporting out of their answers.

Diary Entry

After the reporting out I ask students to write a diary entry or letter from the point of view of a teenager during the 1930's who has run away to ride the rails W.9-10.10. I project on a screen the following directions while I read them out loud:

In your diary entry you are to explain why you left home and what you are experiencing. What are your hopes? What are your fears?

Wrap Up

10 minutes

Group Share

For the wrap up activity, I facilitate a group sharing of their diary entrees.  Knowing that I will not have enough time to give every student an opportunity to share their diary I ask them to first exchange their entries with a learning partner SL.9-10.1a and then ask for a few volunteers to share their letters with the class.