Mini-lesson Monday: the Power of a Word

GOW_dustjacketI have loved teaching Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath since the beginning of my career. What I’m about to present as a lesson with this text continues to plague me with ambivalence, for reasons you will quickly observe, not the least of which is the novel’s apparent limited focus on the experience of poor whites. The other ambivalence about “teaching” this text is its length: the ubiquitous reading schedule that for teachers is an exercise in futility and for students can be a setup for failure (or Sparknotes). The lesson plan I’m about to present is meant to be widely adaptable, which is the only way it can work in a reading-writing workshop classroom. So, you are invited to take what sounds valuable, improve upon it based on your knowledge of your own students and their goals, and pass on the rest. Some version of this process is how this lesson came to be.

Steinbeck’s novel is made up of alternating chapters: some trace the narrative of the Joad family as they migrate from Oklahoma to California in search of some shred of the Dream; others read as lyrical, prose-poetic text expressing the generic experience of various stakeholders in the lifestyle shifts in the aftermath of the Great Depression. As students examine the non-linear, prose-poetic text of what many call the “intercalary” chapters of Steinbeck’s text, which focus on the human impact of the industrialization of farming and the corporatization of private interests, they have an opportunity to experience Steinbeck’s phalanx theory in a way that is immediate: What does it mean when the struggle of the “I” shifts to encompass the struggle of the “we”?

Students’ initial invitation into Steinbeck’s “intercalary” chapters is an activity that is not my own but I have lost its source. I’ve heard it named “text rendering.” Prior to the activity, we spend time discussing the various definitions of “render,” which leads to an understanding of our objective: to “deliver” or “represent” the message of a text — in this case Steinbeck’s message in these lyrical chapters — through a collective voice. The lesson goes like this:

  1. Read the chapter aloud. As students read along, they should choose an “essential” sentence from the passage, one that might capture the broader meaning or intention of the text.
  2. Students read aloud their chosen “essential” sentence one at a time, working around the room, without any discussion. Repetition of choices is not only allowed, but can turn out to be instructive.
  3. Next round, students read a pared-down phrase from their chosen sentence, one after another student, again without any discussion.
  4. Final round, students in turn recite one word from their essential phrase to capture something about the passage.

The activity could come to a close with a writing prompt that invites students to reflect on the experience itself. Most likely, the power of the passage will speak to students through the recited and often repeated words and phrases of their classmates. I have used the writing that results from this prompt as a springboard for discussion of the power of voices joined toward a singular purpose.

IBecomesWeOne of the values of isolating Steinbeck’s “intercalary” chapters is to underscore the power of lyrical prose to express the human experience of oppression. The text rendering requires of the whole class a critical skill for understanding each other: listening. Students listen not only for their “turn” to recite their sentence / phrase / word, but also for what others have chosen. When key sentences are repeated — as they inevitably will be — the language only gains in its power. Taken as a whole, the experience tends to join the distinct voices together in shared understanding: the “I” vividly and immediately becomes “We.”

Follow-Up: I make use of this technique throughout the year, as an opening activity to a discussion of text or even as an end in itself. All students can participate with the same (low) degree of risk, yet each voice is necessary for constructing meaning.




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