Identifying Themes and Analyzing the Complex Characters in Steinbeck's Short Story "Johnny Bear"

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SWBAT read John Steinbeck's “Johnny Bear” and demonstrate comprehension of character development and themes by taking a quiz and charting passages dealing with themes common to Of Mice and Men.

Big Idea

Is Johnny Bear another one of Steinbeck's complex characters? Yes, and there are many similarities to Lennie in Of Mice and Men as well.


10 minutes

As students sit in their seats students read the activating question that is projected on a screen from my power point, Johnny Bear by John Steinbeck. I ask them to take out their journals for some reflective writing W.9-10.10.  In their journals students answer the following questions:

  • “Write about a time when you were unkind to someone mentally or physically disabled, or you witnessed someone else being unkind to a mentally or physically disabled person. Describe what happened, and how you felt at that time.”

I ask them to respond to this question because Steinbeck included several characters in his writings that had mental disabilities, such as Johnny Bear and Lennie in the novella Of mice and Men.  This question was asked to support relevance for my students when reading Johnny Bear. To keep them focused on the assignment I circulate among students checking for understanding. After giving them 5 minutes to write down their experiences I ask for a few volunteers to share what they wrote. 

Building Knowledge

20 minutes

I begin by giving a brief  background of “Johnny Bear” (i.e., Steinbeck’s inspiration) and tell students that this short story was a precursor to Of Mice and Men and was written in first person.

Johnny Bear and Of Mice and Men

I now pass out the short story Johnny Bear, and the novella Of Mice and Men.  I then explain to students that there are similarities between  and Of Mice and Men.

I then facilitate a quick textual exploration to compare the description of Johnny Bear and Lennie in Of Mice and Men.  I point students to p. 2 of Johnny Bear where the author describes the character as a “great, stupid, smiling bear”.  Next I ask students to find the description of Lennie in the novella (p. 4) and discuss the similarities between both with a partner.  The description of Lennie reads, “Behind him walked his opposite, a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws.”   I then facilitate a short discussion on how they were both described.  I want my students to understand that in both texts, Lennie and Johnny Bear paired with the animalistic nature of a bear.

To create further engagement,  I next  tell my students that they will find out that both Lennie and Johnny Bear become outsiders and unwelcomed characters in their environments because of their abilities and mental challenges. 

Now I  project slide #4 which shows two themes of Johnny Bear: Theme 1: friendship and moral responsibility, and Theme 2: power vs powerlessness.  Students are asked to annotate as they read this story citing examples RL.9-10.1 of these themes by underlining evidence of themes as well as writing in the margins RL.9-10.2.  

Student Learning Activity

35 minutes

I begin this activity by passing out the Johnny Bear Quiz and ask students to spend a few minutes familiarizing themselves with the questions.  For my students I think the qualitative aspect of this story is complex in the themes and main idea.  Therefore to support engagement students listen to and read along to a reading of "Johnny Bear" (slide #5). I tell students that this is a real opportunity because they will be silently be reading along with the author, John Steinbeck.  I pause the reading at specific times to discuss setting, characterization, plot, and examples of theme.  

After students complete the reading they answer the evidence based questions, RL.9-10.1, on the Johnny Bear Quiz


Wrap Up

10 minutes

Lastly, I pair students up with a learning partner and ask them identify and chart the examples of themes they cited in “Johnny Bear” on their Theme organizer after which I facilitate a group share of examples of the themes.