Closer Readings Commentary

John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath": An Exemplar Text for the Common Core

This week the EDSITEment calendar signals John Steinbeck’s birthday, February 27. Celebrate this American icon and his literary masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath.

Texts mentioned in the Common Core Standards are not required, unless your particular school board or administrator makes them mandatory. The books listed in the CCSS Appendix B are “exemplar texts,” or examples of good choices of books.

One such “good choice” is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which appears on the list of Exemplar Texts for Grades 9–10 (p. 105). Evidence shows that the complexity of texts students are reading today does not match what is demanded in college and the workplace, creating a gap between what high school students can do and what they need to be able to do. The Common Core State Standards create a staircase of increasing text complexity, so that students are expected to both develop their skills and apply them to more and more complex texts.

EDSITEment’s new suite of Steinbeck resources provide teachers with direct applications for the English Language Arts Standards » Standard 10: Range, Quality, & Complexity » Texts Illustrating the Complexity, Quality, & Range of Student Reading 6-12.

The following Steinbeck lessons on the The Grapes of Wrath provide applications for CCSS anchor standards and serve as entry points into this exemplary complex text.

Steinbeck’s Use of Nonfiction Sources in The Grapes of Wrath

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work.

John Steinbeck drew upon and transformed Tom Collins’s Arvin Migrant Camp reports into narrative elements such as setting, plot, characters, and dialog in The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck frankly admitted mining information from the reports to write the novel. This lesson details the relationship between the two and shows how Steinbeck’s commitment to write the novel evolved out of experiences “on the road” with Tom Collins, especially their harrowing attempts to rescue thousands of squatter camp families during the floods of February 1938.

Students analyze how Steinbeck masterfully integrates nonfiction source material into a fictional narrative, thereby affecting the reader’s perception of the novel’s authenticity. They are then grouped and given excerpts from the Collins reports, with which they must find matching passages in The Grapes of Wrath and give explanatory “labels” to the paired excerpts, describing how Steinbeck treated the nonfiction material.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: Verbal Pictures

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7 Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment.

John Steinbeck translated his impressions of 1930s Farm Security Administration photographs into the artistic mediums of journalistic and then literary pictorial prose. The similarity between Steinbeck’s descriptive style of prose and the style of photography found in FSA photographs, including Dorothea Lange’s images, reflects the author’s “sharp, detailed focus upon ‘the little picture’ ‘within’ the large picture.” Steinbeck developed a pictorial prose style that matched the photographic images from the newspaper articles of the day, which were already becoming lodged in the minds of the American reader.

For this lesson, students perform a visual and textual analysis of an FSA photographic image taken by Dorothea Lange that underlies a specific passage of Steinbeck’s novel, illustrating two men squatting in conference. Students trace the evolution of this image from the original photo, to Steinbeck’s journal entries, and then to its final form as a major literary symbol in The Grapes of Wrath. Students identify what is added and what is subtracted in this key image as it moves through different mediums and stages of development to complete its metamorphosis.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: The Inner Chapters

Craft & Structure CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.

The Grapes of Wrath is two books in one. One half tells the story of the Joads, while the other half tells the story of nameless people. John Steinbeck employed inner chapters and placed them intermittently between the narrative Joad chapters in The Grapes of Wrath—as well as the development of Steinbeck’s world view.

In this lesson, students first analyze how the image-filled opening (“inner”) chapter of The Grapes of Wrath conveys the intensity of the problems faced by Dust Bowl farmers. Students then identify the purpose of each inner chapter and reflect upon its effectiveness. They examine the relationship between the inner chapter and the Joad chapter that follows it in order to analyze how Steinbeck masterfully integrates this nonfiction source material into a fictional narrative. Groups are assigned one or more of the Joad chapters, then review the information in the preceding inner chapter and take notes on the content of that chapter to discuss the relationship between the two.

CCSS's requirement to use multimedia and technology in order to deepen attention to evidence and texts is also answered by EDSITEment’s Steinbeck suite of lessons, which are designed to complement the NEH-funded film by Ken Burns, The Dust Bowl. This two-part PBS documentary is rich in film clips and lesson resources that underline the impact of that Depression-era ecological disaster on the U.S. Used along with the EDSITEment's Steinbeck resources, the film will add greater depth to students' understanding that it was the Dust Bowl that served as the catalyst for Steinbeck’s writing of The Grapes of Wrath.