John Steinbeck and Migrant Workers of the Great Depression

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SWBAT view a short biography of John Steinbeck and discuss the author’s beliefs which inspired his writing. SWBAT identify and understand the lifestyle of migrant farm workers of the Great Depression and relate a literary work to information about its setting by watching a video of the Great Depression and analyzing Salinas Valley migrant workers in the 1930’s.

Big Idea

Making the connection between John Steinbeck's interest in migrant workers and the economic effects of the Great Depression is important to do before delving into the text.


10 minutes

I begin the activator by using a power point presentation, John Steinbeck, The Great Depression, and Setting.  I want students to analyze a quote by John Steinbeck.  I project the quote (slide #2) which students first read to themselves and then I read out loud.  I then ask them to write in their journals a response to the following questions : 

“Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope.” 

  • What do you think the writer is saying here?  
  • How is this statement true or relevant to our world today?

After students answer the questions in their journals,  I select a few students to read their responses out loud.  I then explain that the reason I begin with this quote is to give students a deeper insight into the author's beliefs about mankind and the human condition.  I tell students that this quote preceded the quote they just responded to:  "Having taken Godlike power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have"  I then ask what Godlike powers do they think he is referring to?  i want students to understand his strong belief that man can solve the problems they have created.


Building Knowledge

20 minutes

After discussing the meaning(s) of the quote, I let them know it was a line from John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech.  I then ask the question,  "What does this tell you about John Steinbeck and his thoughts about our society?"  I use the Think-Pair-Share strategy to check for understanding because checking for understanding is a process or systematic approach to formative assessment - a planned process in which student responses help me determine the need for adjustment in my teaching or for my students to adjust the way they are approaching the learning task.

After a short discussion on student responses to Steinbeck's character I pass out a  John Steinbeck QUICK FACTS from BIO sheet for them to take notes while they watch a short biographical video of the author on slide #3.

After watching this short video students write a few sentences in their journals summarizing his life and his reason for writing citing evidence from the video to support their responses RI.9-10.1.


Student Learning Activity

35 minutes

In this part of the lesson I want to continue to provide background knowledge by explaining that Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men took place at a time when many people were looking for work.  I tell them that George and Lennie, the main characters in Of Mice and Men were migrant workers during the Great Depression. I explain that the Depression Era itinerant farm workers like George and Lennie, mostly single men, traveled by boxcar from farm to farm in search of work not unlike the people in the video Riding the Rails. I tell my students that this lesson explores the various representations of depression era migrant farm workers.

Students then are given The Great Depression Video Notes to use while viewing a short video on the Stories of the Great Depression, slide #4.

After watching the video they finish answering questions on their Video Notes sheets while working independently or with a partner. I then facilitate a reporting out of student answers by going down a list of names, and asking them to share their answers with the class.

The last part of this activity is looking at pictures depicting the setting of the novella.  I first show slides #5 and 6 and ask students to describe what they see by writing in their journals W.9-10.10.  I then show a map of the Salinas Valley on slide #7. I explain that Steinbeck used this area, his home town, for Of Mice and Men. I explain that the characters George and Lennie had a dream of owning their own farm in this valley.  I tell students that it's also a place of refuge for times when Lennie get into trouble.  I give this information to set the stage for the reading in which most students are familiar with.

I then ask students to continue to describe in their journals what they see in slides #8-13.

Wrap Up

10 minutes

Group Share:

For the wrap up activity I ask students to discuss their descriptive notes with a partner SL.9-10.1c.  I then ask the question, "What do the photos tell you about the lives of migrant workers during this era and why?"  I then facilitate a short group discussion asking students to refer back to their notes as evidence to support their answers.