Ask any student to find an image on a certain topic and chances are he or she will go to one of two sites:
. Both are a great source of images, or tools to get to images, but are not the end to the search for images on any given subject. A Google image search on "The Dust Bowl," for example, turns up nearly two million images in under half a second. There are some fabulous images here, but little information on them: where they came from, who took them, etc. Students gathering images from this site are doing little to further their knowledge on a topic if they are simply cutting and pasting.
entry for "The Great Dust Bowl" also provides an extensive write up on the Dust Bowl and includes images and subheadings on several related topics. Again, students are tempted to simply cut and paste from this site, but there is much more to
than first meets the eye. At the time of the writing of this unit, there were twenty-five references associated with the entry, nine bibliographical entries and twelve external links. Wikipedia is a great place to start a search for images.
Teachers with smartboards in their classroom can use them to illustrate this point before letting students get started. If you don't have a smartboard, there are other ways to project your computer screen in the classroom. If it comes down to it, ask students to come and gather around your computer so they can see what you are talking about. Encourage students to seek out sites that are not only appealing to the eye, but are informative as well.
For Dorothea Lange images have students check the Oakland Museum of California's site at http://museumca.org/global/art/collections_dorothea_lange.html. The museum boasts the largest collection of Lange photos in the country and has thousands on line. Another interesting site for students to browse is www.thehistoryplace.com. The large collection of Lange photos on this page is accompanied by narrative, as are the images at
Images from the Dust Bowl are plentiful on the internet. Have students look at www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s for not only photos of the Great Dust Bowl, but also videoed narratives from people who lived through the drought. Students can listen as farmers explain what it was like to be alive during those difficult times. A PBS collection found at www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/dustbowl/ not only contains a photo gallery, but it also has a film that can be watched on line as well.
As with the Dust Bowl, images of Hoovervilles are also plentiful on the internet. A search on the Library of Congress website (www.loc.gov/pictures) located over one hundred images of Hoovervilles in the collection. The Library of Congress also holds a collection from the Farm Security Administration that could be browsed for Lange photos.
Visit www.history1900s.about.com/od/photographs/tp/greatdepressionpictures for a host of images and information on the Great Depression. Use these sites and others like them to show students what is available to them if they take the time to search.
Widely read amongst high school students,
Of Mice and Men
is a classic tale of love and friendship and the life and death of the American Dream. The work is often used in ninth- grade English, partially because it is one of Steinbeck's shorter and simpler works, but also because it is a classic tale in American literature. The protagonists in the story, Lenny and George, are the quintessential American heroes, the underdogs in search of their piece of the pie, their piece of the American Dream. George is the caretaker, the brains of the duo, while Lenny is an innocent workhorse of a man whose mental handicaps make him seem childlike
Like the story of American settlement itself, the novel focuses on the journey of the two men. At the beginning of the novel, George and Lenny are on their way to a ranch to find work, having been chased out of the last town after Lenny is accused of attacking a woman there. Lenny's fondness for soft things (he carries a dead mouse around in his pocket, stroking it like a baby's blanket) has led to trouble in the past, and, Steinbeck hints early on, it will lead to more trouble in the future.
Always in the back of the pair's minds, the motivation for their hard work, what keeps them going, is the hope that someday they will be able to settle down with their own place, with their own ranch and their own land and "live off the fat of the land." The pair is in search of the American Dream, a dream that students will quickly realize was not easy to come by during the 1930's.
Part of what makes this unit unique is that it is designed to be implemented before the actual reading of the novel takes place. The focus of the unit is not so much on literature, but on the process of gathering images that will serve as tools before, during and after the reading of
Of Mice and Men
. The process itself--the search for images, the use of the internet sources and technology, the group work--is the most important part of this unit. The images and the search for images will not only bring the literature into focus, but will also bring the class together and help build a classroom community as students spend time working in pairs and small groups to assemble images into a whole-class display.
In fact, this brief, five-day unit features very little direct instruction as students will be expected to explore their topics at first individually and then in their respective groups. The work on this unit should take place before the actual reading of the novel is undertaken, but can be referred to throughout the reading. Students are expected to explore Steinbeck's world through a host of images and nonlinguistic information that will provide them with both a substantial background on the novel and the world from which it came, while also providing a sort of living reference point that students can refer to throughout the actual reading of the novel. I try to provide teachers with ideas and information in this unit which will assist in the building of background knowledge. For my students themselves, however, I will provide little more than topics to explore and ideas on how to effectively display their findings. In other words the information gathered here will be gathered and displayed by the students. The teacher is on the sidelines, coaching, encouraging, and guiding students in their own discoveries. The end product here, which is really just the beginning of your own
Of Mice and Men
unit, will be a room or area of a room displaying images in print, photography, computer graphics, maps, recordings, and other forms in what becomes a sort of mini museum on Steinbeck's world.
Something as simple as a class-designed bulletin board or as complex as a Web site will provide students and teachers with easy access to the material that they have gathered. Students will build their background knowledge on Steinbeck and his characters through the gathering and sharing of images and ideas, including photos, maps, artwork, and text, and audio that come from researching the material from the unit. The following subtopics serve as mini-research topics for students in this unit and can be added to or eliminated as teachers see fit.
Steinbeck and His Work
John Steinbeck is one of the most successful and widely read authors of the twentieth century. Born in Salinas, California in 1902, Steinbeck used his boyhood home as one of the major settings of most of his novels, becoming one of the leading regional American writers of our times. He attended Stanford University and began his publication career with the
. His years at Stanford were marked by a noticeable uneasiness in which he dropped in and out of his studies, eventually leaving Stanford without a degree. A series of manual labor jobs during this period of time allowed him to study the common man who came to be the hero of many of his novels. His first novel,
Cup of Gold
, was published in 1929, and so began an illustrious career for the author that led to the publication of scores of pieces, short stories, plays and novels, one of which
The Grapes of Wrath
, won him the Pulitzer prize in 1940.
Many of Steinbeck's novels deal with the plight of the common man at the height of Depression Era America and the plight of the migrant worker. This focus seems to stem directly from the author's work reporting on migrant conditions in a series of articles for
The San Francisco News
in 1936. The resulting series, entitled "The Harvest Gypsies," detailed the desperate situation that the migrants faced as they followed the crops, racing to eke out a living in desperate times.
Steinbeck became a voice for workers as his literature became more popular and his message was related more widely through print and film.
East of Eden
The Grapes of Wrath
Of Mice and Men
explore the journey his characters undertake and utilize the Salinas Valley in California as a sort of Mecca where dreams are sometimes fulfilled and other times defiled.
f Mice and Men
is one of Steinbeck's most widely read masterpieces. Set in Salinas Valley, California during the 1930s, the novella really reaches back to an era now long gone in America. It was a time of ranch hands and migrant workers, of hard work and hard times. Lenny and George have come west like so many other migrants before them, to the land of golden opportunity and the rich "salad bowl" of California and the nation.
The Salinas Valley
Steinbeck's boyhood home shows up in many of his novels and becomes an important recurring symbol of the American dream. This vast area of California, stretching over 90 miles and encompassing over a dozen towns, is the promised land, the destination of many of Steinbeck's characters, including Lenny and George from
Of Mice and Men
. There are moments in many of his books that the author seems to pause, sit back and observe the wonder of the "salad bowl" of California. It is the destination of the Joads in
The Grapes of Wrath
, the promised land in
East of Eden,
and it is the setting for the rise and fall of Lenny and George in
Of Mice and Men
. The valley always remained a special place for Steinbeck, and it shows up throughout his many of his novels. It is the land of dreams and hopes. George tells Lenny about the place they will someday share in
Of Mice and Men
, "Got a little win'mill. Got a little shack on it, an a chicken run. Got a kitchen, orchard, cherries, apples, peaches. cots, nuts, got a few berries. They's a place for alfalfa, and plenty water to flood it."
Lenny and George are on a journey in pursuit of the American Dream and the Salinas Valley is as close as they ever get to it. R.W. B. Lewis comments in
John Steinbeck: The Fitful Daemon
But in seeing his native Salinas Valley in California as a new Eden, the scene of a new chance for man and for men, and in transporting his heroes thither from an exhausted East, Steinbeck is not only continuing in an American tradition, enacting again an old American dream. He is also suggesting that the dream itself has moved west and has settled there, that it is now California which stimulates in its inhabitants the intoxicating sense of fresh beginnings and untroubled potentialities which the eastern scene once stimulated in Emerson, in Thoreau, in Whitman.
The Salinas Valley has surely earned a place in the collection of images that will make up the end product of this unit and will begin students on their exploration of the writing of one of America's best authors.
Of Mice and Men and the Great Depression
Any study of the Great Depression and its impact on American society and the culture of our country will surely include references to John Steinbeck. As Dorothea Lange became the purveyor of visual representation, and FDR the political icon of the era, John Steinbeck became the literal voice of the people throughout his novels and articles. From as early on as the publication of the "Harvest Gypsies" to the writing of
The Grapes of Wrath
East of Eden
, Steinbeck's response to the crumbling of the American dream under the pressure of economic and political elements resounded throughout his writing. He became the voice of the many that he had labored side by side with during his teen and college years. And although Steinbeck does not speak directly about the Depression Era in
Of Mice and Men
, it is clear that Lenny and George are byproducts of that event. Their journey really began, like so many others at that time, as a search for employment in Depression Era America. Lenny and George set out to capture the American dream. They move from ranch to ranch as so many other laborers and migrant workers did at that time, going from farm to farm, job to job just trying to make an honest living and put some food on the table. These hard times shaped American culture, politics, and literature like no other since those of the Civil War.
Several factors can be cited as having some influence on our understanding of the Great Depression and therefore on our understanding of the life and work of John Steinbeck. These other aspects of the Great Depression need to be explored by the students in order to really understand the age that Steinbeck was writing about. I have briefly mentioned some of them here.
The Dust Bowl
The Dust Bowl was one of the contributing factors to the migration that accompanied the Great Depression. A drought that hit the Midwest left many farms useless and sent farm families searching for better times. Robert McElvaine comments in
The Great Depression
, "The drought may have helped raise farm prices, but that was small consolidation to the roughly one million 'Okies' who were driven off their land by the dry weather and farm mechanization."
Although the event itself is not mentioned in
Of Mice and Men
, images of the Dust Bowl showing homes and machinery buried in a dark, all-encompassing dust, like snow mounds of the northeast, give students a behind-the-scenes look at what farmers and ranchers in the Midwest were dealing with. The Dust Bowl and farm takeovers sent millions of Americans westward in search of a better life and a way to make a living. Lenny and George are a part of that migration, part of that desperate journey that sent so many to the West, to California, to the Promised Land.
Much as Steinbeck became the voice of the migrant worker during the depression, so too did Dorothea Lange come to represent the face of the Great Depression as she took to the road to document the people who were suffering throughout those years. Anyone searching for images of the era is certain to come up with famous photos taken by Lange. With a career in photography that lasted more than four decades, Lange, much like Steinbeck, focused her lens on what was happening to the American people in those incredibly hard times. Much like Steinbeck's words, Lange's photography revealed both the struggle and the spirit of the common man in America. Keith Davis in
The Photographs of Dorothea Lange
comments on the power of Lange's photography:
Motivated by the social turmoil around her, Lange took her camera from the studio into the streets, tentatively at first and then compulsively. She recorded the despair and uncertainty of the urban unemployed and the grinding poverty of migrant families living in crude roadside camps. Her photographs are at once bluntly factual and deeply sympathetic. While Lange recorded innumerable scenes of destitution, she consistently evoked the resilience, faith, and determination of her subjects. As a result, her photographs celebrate the basic strength of the American character--the strength required to carry millions of people through this long, frightening chapter in the nation's history.
Lange's photographs complement the writing of John Steinbeck perfectly. Students reading
Of Mice and Men
need look no further than the photo entitled
Hardeman County, Texas, 1937
to see the ranch hands whom George and Lenny join at the beginning of the novel.
Wearing tattered jeans and sideways hats, the group of five men standing in front of what could be a bunk house much like the one that Steinbeck's characters called their home during the novel, epitomize the hard-working American worker: hard, tough as nails and looking as destitute as his surroundings. Lange's most famous photo,
Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, March 1936
shows a woman with a look of anxiety and despair on her face as her children huddle around her. This is the Lange image most associated with the Great Depression. Much as Tom Joad from
The Grapes of Wrath
became the voice of the depression in literature, Florence Thompson from the Lange photo became the face of the era. Other images from Lange's photography that will work well in this unit include
Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, November 1940,
showing the weathered hands and face of a cotton picker, sunburned and tired even in the black-and-white photo.
White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933
is another Depression-era image that reveals the desperation of the times. In it one man stands alone, his back towards the breadline, hands clasped and hat over his eyes, revealing only a frown on his face. There are numerous other Lange photos that will be useful to look back on once the reading of the novel has begun.
Studs Terkel and
Studs Terkel was one of our nation's first to document the Great Depression through the eyes of the common man. He traveled the country interviewing hundreds of Americans from all backgrounds about their situations during the Depression. Terkel's interviewing process allowed history to be recorded and remembered (he recorded most of his interviews) through the eyes of a wide array of Americans. Students can benefit greatly by reading or hearing the words of real people who lived through or have some personal connection to that era. In his book
, Terkel divides his narratives into several chapters (The March, The Song, Hard Travelin, etc.) which focus on different aspects of the era. Many of the narratives are just a few pages and will make great parallel reading for students as they prepare themselves to read the novel. Emma Tiller, whom Terkel describes only as a woman who "worked in Western Texas as a cook"
is great example of the first-hand narrative that is used in the book. Speaking of how she and her colleagues tried to help the migrants coming through town, Emma comments, "We would gather stuff out in the field, pull our corn, roastin' ears, and put 'em in a cloth bag, because a paper bag would tear. When they get hungry, they can stop and build a fire and roast this corn. We did this ourselves, we loved it like that. And give them salt and stuff we figured would last 'em until he gets to the next place."
Tiller's narrative, as well as the hundreds of others documented in this and other Terkel books, becomes a valuable tool in helping students piece together images that they gather. Students might want to play the role of the narrator, making recordings of the narratives or make up their own characters and narratives that might mimic Terkel's nonfiction pieces as well as Steinbeck's fictional ones. Soundbites made through
can be set to images in a display that will peak students' interest on the narratives.
"Hoovervilles" were small ramshackle settlements that sprouted up across the trail of the migrant workers heading west as they searched for work. Workers used any means possible to build shelters for themselves, and as they followed the crops, they left the settlements behind them. The settlements began being called "Hoovervilles" after President Herbert Hoover who, having served from 1929 to 1933, was blamed for much of the policies that led the country to the Great Depression.
Although Lenny and George did not live in a "Hooverville" during the time period covered in
Of Mice and Men
, many thousands of their contemporaries would have. Images of Hoovervilles are available on the web, and much like the photos of the Great Dust Bowl, they will serve as a reminder to students as to the conditions many lived in at the time of the Great Depression.
I start my students out by letting them choose from the topics listed above. I actually cut the topics out and allow the students to choose them as if they are taking a card from a deck during a card trick. Students are given a few minutes to trade if they want to, and then we converge as a class to discuss how we will go about beginning the research that will make up the body of images for our classroom display. Students are required to create both a written "mini-research paper" and a visual representation of the topic.
All students, in all schools should be able to write a two-page mini-research paper on their topic and find an image that can accompany it. Doing a "dry run" of the project this year, my students were able to utilize the school library to do the research for the papers and find images that accompanied their projects. Some students created time lines on the life of John Steinbeck, others simply framed black-and-white images from the Dust Bowl, another reproduced the seal of Stanford University, and made a mini poster displaying information on the university that Steinbeck attended. Still another student created a newspaper front page on the stock market crash and the start of the Great Depression. Maps of Salinas valley or of the area devastated by the Great Dust Bowl, and another tracing the migration route of the migrant workers all adorned my walls at the beginning of this unit. All the students needed was a library, pens, pencils markers, rulers and construction paper, and they were able to put together a fabulous display on Steinbeck and his world.
But this display would have been quite different if it had been in my classroom two years ago in one of New Haven's most successful middle schools. In that setting students had access to eight classroom computers that lined the back of the room. In that setting my approach to the building of the background knowledge would have included more technology: recordings, slide shows, web designs, etc. While the unit will work without an abundance of technology, when students have access to the technology, especially in the classroom, of course teachers should utilize it.
Start out with a classroom blog. Sites like
allow you to create a site for free where students can communicate, post photos, comment on each other's work, etc. The site could become a sort of virtual meeting place for students to share their findings as they begin putting their projects together. The site allows you to personalize your blog so that everyone in the world is not viewing your students' work, and the site also monitors what goes onto the site so that students are not exposed to what can be inappropriate material. Nevertheless, if you decide to use the
site or a similar internet workspace site, you will still have to monitor the exchanges your students partake in.
With the technology available, I would also allow students to create slide shows or PowerPoint presentations utilizing the computers available. If you have not worked with students using PowerPoint before, don't be dissuaded. Students usually can pick up on how to make a presentation quite easily. I ask students to plan their slides before using the computers. Students can import photos and images from the internet and can add sound as well. There is really quite a bit you can do with PowerPoint alone: arranging slides of images, adding animation, sound, narration, creating a show or a photo album. Take some time before beginning the unit to explore PowerPoint and its functions, even creating your own show as a sample for students of what you expect them to achieve.
Another program worth exploring is
for Mac users). These programs will allow you and your students to experiment with audio that can accompany the images you have discovered. The programs allow you to record several layers of audio, manipulating tone and pitch and adding sound effects to make soundtracks that would complement the images and research your students have done. Recordings can be imported to a PowerPoint presentation or slide show. Students might consider recording their original mini reports and setting the recordings to images. A dramatic reading on the Dust Bowl with sound effects and accompanying images is sure to peak students' interest in the subject. Once again, explore the programs, make your own recordings and demonstrate how you might use
in your presentation.
There are numerous other ways to utilize technology in this pre-reading unit. Students may want to create a fictitious
page for John Steinbeck, Dorothea Lange's subjects or a migrant worker. Websites such as
guide teachers in the production of free class websites. Create a class website early in the year and use it to document the work you do in this unit.
Once again, it is up to the teacher and his or her limitations as far as classroom technology and resources goes as to how far this pre-reading session develops. Whether your students make a simple bulletin board with markers, construction paper and scissors, or they delve into the ever-expanding world of technological wonders, the results will hopefully be the same: students will enjoy working together to create something that not only builds background information and will help them better understand the novel at hand, but will also lead to a new understanding as to how many aspects of life and history are connected and intertwined.