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
3) To develop skills in web-based research, using images,
text, music and oral testimony.
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
d) a Mexican-American father in his 50s, who has labored
on California farms since his arrival from Mexico in the
e) a Mexican-American boy of 16, his son, who works in the
f) a young white man from Oklahoma, who is living and traveling
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
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