Designed for Learning - LaGuardia Center for Teaching and Learning

Voices From The Grapes of Wrath


Summary: Your class is reading Steinbeck's classic 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the story of Depression-era migrants to California and their striving for justice and community. To deepen your understanding of the story and its implications, your professor has asked you to use the Web to explore the lives of Dust Bowl migrants--and to put yourselves in their shoes, through a research-based role play.

Scenario: It is the late 1930s, and you are a group of migrant farmers temporarily living in a government-run camp in California, working on nearby farms. A strike has started on one local farm, where some of you work. A rumor has spread that vigilantes affiliated with the Associated Farmers plan to attack the camp and punish strike leaders. You meet to discuss what should be done. Should you: a) mobilize the camp to fight back? b) tell the strike leaders to call off the strike? c) gather your family belongings and flee? You must debate strategies and vote for a course of action.


    1) To gain a deeper understanding of a powerful novel and its links to a key era in history;
    2) To personalize that understanding, through a role play process;
    3) To develop skills in web-based research, using images, text, music and oral testimony.

Resources: A set of web-based resources, including: the digitized archives of the Library of Congress (particularly "Voices of the Dust Bowl" and the photographs of the Farm Security Administration); the New Deal Network; and The John Steinbeck Page, which offers reviews of the novel and biographical information on the author.

Activity: (60 min., total)
Step I. (10 min.) Identifying Key Themes in the Novel. After reviewing these instructions, meet briefly with your group to quickly refresh your memories of The Grapes of Wrath and brainstorm its key issues. Based on what you know, what are its major themes? What might be good key words or questions to guide a search? Share your knowledge to prepare for your research (and to substitute for the reading that would be going on in an actual class.)

Step II. (5 min.) Choosing a character. With the role play outlined above in mind, each member of the group should select a different character from the list below (or invent a character). Then, do the research you need to prepare yourself for the role play.

a) a middle-aged white woman who came from Oklahoma with her family & her children;
b) a middle-aged white man with a family from Kansas, beaten in previous labor disputes;
c) a girl of 14, his daughter, who takes care of the younger children;
d) a Mexican-American father in his 50s, who has labored on California farms since his arrival from Mexico in the early 1920s;
e) a Mexican-American boy of 16, his son, who works in the fields;
f) a young white man from Oklahoma, who is living and traveling alone;
g) a white minister from Oklahoma who lives and preaches in the camp;
h) a white school teacher from a nearby town, who teaches the children of the camp;
i) a resident of the camp who secretly passes information to local police & farm owners.

Step III. Entering the World of The Grapes of Wrath (30 min.) Working individually (or with a partner), use the links on the Resources page to explore the world of the Dust Bowl migrants, deepen your understanding of Steinbeck's novel, and gather information to help you define your character in the role play.

As you read, remember that you are not searching to find your exact character. Rather, you're feeding your historical and literary imagination, preparing yourself to construct your character, based on a range of historical sources and your knowledge of The Grapes of Wrath. It might help to recall the themes and questions your group identified at the beginning of the activity.

Step IV. (10 min.) Building Your Character(!) Stop your research and gather your thoughts. Give yourself a few minutes to think (and make some notes) about your character. Draw on your knowledge of the novel, your research, and your broader experience to flesh out your character: what experiences, fears, and strengths they might bring to this situation. How would they speak? Who would they listen to? What would they value? What might they say and do in this difficult situation? How might their thoughts and actions change, as the scene unrolls?

Small Group Discussion (45 minutes): Gather with the rest of your group and do your role play (for yourselves). Stay in character for 5-10 minutes. Then reflect on and discuss this activity with your small group, using the following sequence of questions as prompts. At the end of this time, prepare one group member to share some thoughts with the larger group. Questions for group discussion:

a) What could students learn from this activity? How might it help them understand The Grapes of Wrath? Depression-era America? The relation of literature and history? What additional kinds of learning could this activity support?

b) What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the activity? Is it a good vehicle for developing student skills in inquiry, the exploration of primary sources, and the construction of meaning? How could it be strengthened? Extended?

c) How would you describe the pedagogy that informs this activity? What aspects of the activity help to make it effective? What skills and modes of thinking does this activity support? Do the electronic materials being engaged suit the assignment's pedagogy and methodological goals? What can we learn from this activity about the kinds of inquiry assignments that work best when using new media resources?

d) How does the inquiry approach used in this activity compare with inquiry approaches you have used in your classes? What is similar? Different? What are the advantages and disadvantages of inquiry learning, in your experience? Where does it fit in the repertoire of teaching in your field?

Developed by Bret Eynon

LaGuardia Community College/CUNY, 31-10 Thomson Ave, Room M414, New York, NY11101