Travels with Charley - Writing Prompts

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Language Arts, History

Grade Level

6 – 12

Type of Activity

Small Group, Individual, Ongoing, Sharing Work, Brief Research, Writing


  • Students will have ongoing practice writing various papers (from short ones of 150-200 words, and longer ones of 500 words or more, and in different styles) on a variety of topics about Travels with Charley.
  • Students will learn to share their writing with others.
  • Students will gain a deeper understanding of the many themes in Travels with Charley.


Short writing prompts (150-200 words) should be given throughout the unit. The prompts can be both broad and specific. Students should be made to feel comfortable with these prompts, even though (time permitting) some will read them out loud. The student audience will be encouraged to respond and take notes. Once students are comfortable, longer papers can be assigned.

NOTE TO TEACHERS: Any of the writing topics in this section can be expanded into full-length essays (word length and completion time at the discretion of teachers).

Types of essays can include:

  • Critical Analysis. This is generally a high-level paper which examines a particular aspect of the novel (for example, a major theme throughout the book is discovering and defining America). This type of essay can be first encountered in shorter forms before assigning a longer paper.
  • Compare/Contrast. (For example, students can compare/contrast Steinbeck’s experiences in different regions, or with different people.)
  • Descriptive. Students can emulate/evaluate Steinbeck’s descriptive writing. (Also see Sentence Fluency.)
  • Narrative. This type of essay is generally written in first person and recounts a personal experience.
  • Persuasive/Argumentative. This type of essay asks students to convince others of their opinion. (For example, Steinbeck is right about governments and bureaucracy.)

NOTE: As with any essay, regardless of length and subject, it is important that students provide specific supporting examples, including, as appropriate, quoted passages from Travels with Charley.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Copies of Travels with Charley.
  • Teachers should emphasize that each short prompt should be concise and contain specific examples from the novel or from personal experiences.
  • Arrange time in the computer lab (if available), so students can start their assignments and teachers can assist students.
  • For unfinished assignments, students may email themselves the document or place it on a USB flash drive. 

Estimated Time

Each short writing prompt can be assigned and completed in one or two homework assignments. Longer papers will take additional time (up to the discretion of individual teachers).


Provide some ideas and ask students to write about some (as much as can be covered during the unit) of these topics:

Ongoing (before or during the reading of the book):

  • What is America? What does it mean to be an American?
  • How does your own perspective affect your experiences? How does Steinbeck’s perspective affect his experiences?
  • Why is setting important to Steinbeck? Consider why he often describes the areas he stopped at or visited.
  • What methods does Steinbeck use to help readers understand the personalities of the people he meets along the way?
  • There any many themes in the book. However, what is the major theme in this particular part of the book being discussed? (See Plot and Theme.) Think about how theme affects plot and vice versa.
  • What figurative language does Steinbeck use in the scene being discussed and why? (See Literary Terms.)
  • What are the motifs used in the section being discussed? (See Literary Terms.)
  • Discuss, and provide examples of, the literary devices Steinbeck has introduced. (See Literary Terms.)
  • Discuss/analyze Steinbeck’s use of symbols in the section being discussed. (See Symbolism.)

Part One (3-13)

Part One is focused on the purpose of Steinbeck’s journey and how he prepared for it. This discussion will carry over into Part Two.

  • Why does Steinbeck decide to set out on a journey across the United States?
  • How does a journey have a life of its own?
  • If you were going on a cross country trip, what would you bring and why?
  • Do you think that it is possible for Steinbeck to truly “see” America during his journey?
  • What kinds of preparations does Steinbeck make? Don’t forget Rocinante!
  • Why does Steinbeck bring Charley? What kind of companion do you think he will make along the way?
  • “I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation – a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here….Nearly every American hungers to move” (9). Do you agree with Steinbeck? Why/why not?

Part Two (17-92)

Part Two records the journey of Steinbeck and Charley in the eastern states such as Maine, Connecticut, and Vermont. Steinbeck encounters local people and discusses various topics with them. His impressions tell much about how he feels about modernization, urbanization, and commercialization.

  • How does Steinbeck feel about growing old (17-18)? Do you think that Steinbeck’s age affects how he sees the world? Does it affect how you see the world?
  • A major theme in Part Two is the new, consumer culture. Discuss the different ways consumer culture is shown in this part of the book. According to Steinbeck, what kind of affect was this having on the world?
    • Extension: compare/contrast this with the consumer world today and its effects.
  • The Cold War is a smaller theme that appears several times in Part Two. What impact did the Cold War have on the people Steinbeck met? How did it affect the country as a whole?
  • On the ferry, Steinbeck meets a sailor in the Navy who works on board a submarine. This brings back memories of World War II for Steinbeck (18-20). How does Steinbeck feel about submarines?
    • As an extension, tie in a discussion about Steinbeck’s time as a war correspondent during WW II.
    • See “Front Line to Front Pages” for more on this subject.
  • What is Steinbeck’s opinion on the growth of cities? Do you agree with him? What other ways have growing cities affected the country and the environment since Steinbeck’s writing?
  • On page 22, Steinbeck drives through Hartford and Providence. How does he feel about the growth of cities? Note what figurative language he uses in his descriptions.
    • This can be discussed again in Maine (56).
  • Steinbeck learned a great deal from his friend, Ed Ricketts. Ricketts was an early environmentalist and one of the first people to examine the natural world as a system rather than as separate, disconnected parts. How does Steinbeck feel about the effects urbanization has on the natural environment (22)?
    • This is a recurring theme throughout the book, not just in part one.
    • Compare what he says on page 22 with what he says on page 24 regarding the “…many modern designs for easy living.” Do these two passages seem in conflict?
  • Steinbeck discusses Russia and Khrushchev’s speech at the U.N. with a man in Vermont. Based on what you know about the Cold War, what can you determine about Steinbeck’s attitudes towards Russia and the current Cold War policies (24-27)?
  • What can you learn about Steinbeck’s description of himself on pages 30-32? Point out specific descriptive words and phrases that support your impressions.
  • Near Bangor, Maine Steinbeck made a stop for the night at an auto court (motel). This is one of the first descriptions of food and a restaurant/diner environment that he gives. How does Steinbeck feel about the new, modern approach to sanitation and cleanliness (36-38)?
    • Find examples of figurative language that support your thoughts.
    • What kind of mood does Steinbeck create in his description of his time at the auto court? How does he do this?
    • Sanitation, plastic, sterile environments are a recurring theme throughout the book.
  • Between pages 36 and 46 Steinbeck makes several references to “…planned obsolescence” (36). What is planned obsolescence? Discuss planned obsolescence in a modern industry or product that did not exist during Steinbeck’s day.
  • What affect does seeing the Aurora Borealis have on Steinbeck (38-39)? What does this tell you about his feelings towards nature and its effects on people?
  • What are Steinbeck’s feelings about hunting and gun culture in America (44-46)?
    •  Compare this to his later discussion of guns and hunting and his personal experience with guns and hunting (In Montana: 121-122; in the Mojave Desert: 161-162).
  • Read the first paragraph on page 47 where Steinbeck describes Maine. What kind of mood does he create? How does he do this?
  • What affect does the darkness and the unknown have on Steinbeck while he was parked on the side of the road in Maine (47-49)? How does he react? What kind of language does he use to describe his experience?
    • Compare this with his description in the Bad Lands (117-120).
  • Steinbeck wrote often about the common person, particularly farmers and migrant farm workers. In Maine he meets migrant workers who came over the border from Canada (50-54). What are Steinbeck’s feelings towards migrant workers? What does he think about the use of migrant work in the United States?
  • What does Steinbeck mean when he says “I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style” (60)?
    • This is a recurring theme throughout the book: how accurate is Steinbeck’s account of what he experienced?
  • What does Steinbeck mean when he says “…it does make for suspicion of history as a record of reality” (63)?
    • Steinbeck addresses the conflict between history and memory throughout the book.
    • See History vs. Memory for a more in-depth study.
  • “I find out of long experience that I admire all nations and hate all governments…” (66). What does Steinbeck mean by this? How does he show this through his story of trying to cross the border into Canada?
  • How does Steinbeck describe the difference between traveling and taking a journey (73-74)?
  • Steinbeck meets people who live in mobile homes (75-81). What does he think about this new phenomenon?
  • On page 78 Steinbeck writes about his discussions with the man who lives in the mobile home (Steinbeck calls him “the father”). This man talks about his “roots.” What are your roots? Do you feel tied to the land? To a city? To a county? To a state? To a country? To a culture?
  • In his writings, Steinbeck often writes of the strong connection between people and the land, particularly in The Grapes of Wrath. On page 80, after leaving the mobile home park, Steinbeck ponders whether “…Americans are a restless people…” and what value having roots in an area has. How is this passage different from his typical discussions of people and place?
  • Throughout the book, Steinbeck makes reference to the speech and language of the people he encounters in different regions of the country. How is his attitude towards speech similar to his attitudes about food and sterile environments (82-83)?
  • Re-read Steinbeck’s description of New Englanders’ speech and that of Ohioans. This is, of course, a generalized impression Steinbeck created. Imagine a conversation between two people, one from New England and one from Ohio. Create a dialogue between those two people that matches Steinbeck’s description.
    • This may include narration as well.
    • Alternatively, students can narrate as if they were Steinbeck witnessing such a conversation.
    • Alternatively, have students include someone from their own time and region.
  • Steinbeck talks about changes/advances in the technology of communication (88). How does he feel those changes have affected people and society? Think about the changes in technology and communication that have happened since Steinbeck’s death in 1968; how have those newer advances affected people and society? Do you think these changes are good? Bad? Both? Explain.
  • At the hotel in Chicago, Steinbeck examines his hotel and pieces together the life of the man who had previously stayed in the room (calling him “Lonesome Harry”). What do you think of Steinbeck’s attitude towards Harry (90-92)?

Part Three (95-169)

In Part Three, Steinbeck leaves Chicago and heads across the Midwest, to the Pacific Northwest, and then down into California for a visit in his hometown with family and friends. Nature, change over time, and politics become large themes in this section of the book.

  • What kinds of figurative language does Steinbeck use to describe Wisconsin? What kind of mood does he create? What is his impression of the land (97-98)?
  • On pages 108-111 Steinbeck has one of his “conversations” with Charley. This time, Steinbeck is discussing what it is he has possibly learned at that point in his journey. What does Steinbeck think he has learned at that point? What evidence does he use to show what he learned? Do you agree with his conclusions?
  • Read Steinbeck’s description of Fargo, ND (104-105). A the end of his description, he says “…in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger.” What does he mean by this?
  • While parked near the Maple River, Steinbeck engages in a “dialogue” with Charley (107-111). What has Steinbeck learned about America and Americans at this point in his journey? Has he learned anything at all?
    • Return to this topic at intervals throughout the book to see if Steinbeck is learning more, less, or not at all.
  • What affect does the darkness and the unknown have on Steinbeck while he was in the Bad Lands (117-120)? How does he react? What kind of language does he use to describe his experience?
    • Compare this to his description of his stay while parked on the side of the road in Maine (47-49)?
  • Compare Steinbeck’s feelings about hunting and gun culture in America in Montana (121-122) and in Maine (44-46).
    • Compare this to his later discussion of guns and hunting and his personal experience with guns and hunting in the Mojave Desert: 161-162.
  • How is Steinbeck’s description of Custer, Chief Joseph, and Native Americans different from how most people of his time thought (122)?
  • Steinbeck and Charley visit Yellowstone National Park, briefly (123-126). Steinbeck says of Yellowstone that it “…is no more representative of America than Disneyland” (123). Do you agree with this statement? National Parks are supposed to preserve American land and environment for all time, is this representative of America or not?
  • How do the themes of modernization and masculinity fit into Steinbeck’s thoughts about Lewis and Clark (while standing at the Great Divide, p. 127).
  • On pages 128-129 Steinbeck recalls a conversation with a political reporter friend. This discussion centered around who the “real People” of the United States are. Based on what Steinbeck says, how does he define “real People” or “real Americans” (a phrase that gets thrown around in politics quite a bit)? Use examples from the text to support your conclusions.
    • Additionally: do you agree with Steinbeck’s conclusions? Why/why not?
  • Consider Steinbeck’s thoughts on hairdressers when he meets Robbie and his father (130-134). What do you think about his comments? Is Steinbeck being serious? Are his ideas sexist?
    • Also, consider discussing how this passage would be different if written today when gender stereotypes are different.
  • When he arrives in Washington, Steinbeck is beginning to feel close to home. How does he feel about the changes he sees? How do these changes fit in with the themes of modernization, urbanization, and change over time (127-139).
    • Compare and contrast this with his thoughts on these themes earlier in the book.
  • What does Steinbeck mean when he says “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction” (138)? What would he think about “progress” today?
  • “It is the principle of do it yourself” which defines the West (139). Do you agree with this?
  • When Rocinante gets a flat tire, Steinbeck has to put on a spare and make it to a service station. How does he describe the station attendant and how does his description change as he gets to know the man (141-142)?
    • This scene, it should be noted, may be very foreign to students. The idea of needed to purchase something and it not being available is uncommon today.
  • What affect does Steinbeck’s visit to a Redwood grove have on him? What kinds of themes about nature and humans can you find in this section of the book (143-147).
  • The redwood forests, clearly, were one of Steinbeck’s favorite natural environments (143-147). What does he enjoy about them? Write about your favorite natural environment. Describe it as Steinbeck would. What is it that you most enjoy about this place in nature?
  • Why does Steinbeck find it difficult to write about California (148-149)? What themes does he touch on in his explanation?
  • Consider what Steinbeck says about California: “We who were born here and our parents also felt a strange superiority over newcomers, barbarians…and we were an outrage to the Spanish-Mexicans and they in turn on the Indians” (148-149). What is Steinbeck talking about here (historically)? Who do you think are the true “natives” of California (or of the area you live in)?
  • While talking with Johnny Garcia, Steinbeck discovers much has changed in Monterey since he left. He says “There was a great man named Thomas Wolfe and he wrote a book called You Can’t Go Home Again. And that is true” (153). What do you think Steinbeck means by “you can’t go home?” Do you agree with him?
  • What changes in Monterey does Steinbeck come across? How does he feel about those changes (148-158)?
  • In the Mojave Desert, Steinbeck decided to not shoot a pair of coyotes he saw. Afterwards he thought of something he had once heard: “…when a man saved another’s life he became responsible for that life to the end of its existence. For, having interfered with a course of events, the savior could not escape his responsibility” (162). Do you agree with this philosophy? In the modern world, can this philosophy be truly adhered to?
  • What do you think when Steinbeck says “If the most versatile of living forms, the human, now fights for survival as it always has, it can eliminate not only itself but all other life” (165)?

Part Four (173-210)

In Part Four, Steinbeck heads home by way of Texas and Louisiana. In these regions he experiences Texas as a unique “nation” of its own. In Louisiana, he witnesses history as Ruby Bridges integrates an all white elementary school in the face of brutal racism. This section of the book is one that is most remembered by readers (and the most socially and historically important).

  • “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession” (173). From what you know of Texas, and what you read in Travels with Charley, do you agree with Steinbeck?
  • How would you define Texas and Texans after reading about Steinbeck’s time in Texas (173-184)?
  • From Steinbeck’s description, is Texas hospitality genuine, or is it a show (173-184)?
  • Steinbeck spends Thanksgiving in Texas and struggles to describe the experience as both a show put on for the benefit of the guest, and a genuine outpouring of hospitality (179-184). How does this compare to Thanksgiving (or another major, family oriented holiday) in your life?
  • “It boils down to this: the Americans, the British are that faceless clot you don’t know, but a Frenchman or an Italian is your acquaintance and your friend. He has none of the qualities your ignorance causes you to hate” (185). What does Steinbeck mean by this? Do you think, in your experience, that he is correct. Write about someone you know who is personally different from the stereotypes you assume about the culture/nation/group to which they belong.
  • On pages 186-188 Steinbeck writes about growing up in Salinas and his experiences with race and racism. He cites a local African American family, the Coopers, as his example of how he grew up without prejudice or racism; his conclusion is that “…there was something else about the Coopers that set them apart from other Negroes I have seen and met since. Because they were not hurt or insulted, they were not defensive or combative. Because their dignity was intact, they had no need to be overbearing, and because the Cooper boys had never heard that they were inferior, their minds could grow to their true limits” (187).
    • Based on this statement, do you think that Steinbeck is as free from racial prejudice as he believed himself to be?
    • Based on this statement, what does Steinbeck think is the cause of racial prejudice and the social upheaval that was going on during the 1960s?
    • Consider the issues of race and racism today. Does Steinbeck’s theory fit in today’s society? Explain.
  • “When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not welcome witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble” (188). Steinbeck says this in reference to racism in the South. Do you agree with him? How does this idea apply to issues of race today? Does it apply to other issues as well?
  • While in Louisiana, Steinbeck shows his knowledge of local cocktails, coffee, and food. Why does he do this?
  • Steinbeck parks Rocinante and takes a taxi to witness the “Cheerleaders” in their attacks. During that ride he pretends to be British (192-193). Why does he do this?
    • Perhaps compare this to how the African American man behaves in Steinbeck’s story about Manhattan (202).
  • Re-read pages 189-196 (Ruby Bridges and the Cheerleaders). How does this make you feel? Use quotes from the text to help explain why.
    • How did Steinbeck feel about this event? Quote passages from the text that support your thoughts.
  • What does Steinbeck think about the Cheerleaders? What does he think about the people who joined in?
  • If you were to interview one of the Cheerleaders today, what do you think she would say about her protest against school integration? Do you think that her views on race will have changed? Why or why not?
  • “But where were others – the ones who would be proud they were of a species with the gray man – the ones whose arms would ache to gather up the small, scared black mite?.... I don’t know where they were… but they left New Orleans misrepresented to the world” (196). What does Steinbeck mean by this? Do you agree with him?
  • Why does Steinbeck feel better after his conversation with Monsieur Ci Git (197-201)?
  • Based on his conversation with Monsieur Ci Git (197-201), what does Steinbeck think is the key to ending racism and hatred? Do you agree?
  • After giving the older African American man a ride, Steinbeck lets him out and says “He didn’t live nearby at all, but walking was safer than riding with me” (202). What does he mean by that statement?
  • Steinbeck gave a ride to a young African American college student who told him “I might be an old man before I’m a man at all” (206). What do you think he means?
  • Steinbeck ends his journey through the South by saying “…the end is not the question. It’s the means – the dreadful uncertainty of the means” (207). What do you think of this? What does Steinbeck mean and do you agree?
  • After reading Travels with Charley, do you agree with what Steinbeck said, that “…people don’t take trips – trips take people” (208)?

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

  • Takeaways
    • Each discussion question has its own takeaways. Overall, the purpose of discussion is to create a thoughtful conversation about the book.
  • Follow-up
    • Students can write short papers based on discussions. 


  • Periodical tests/quizzes and short papers on each section would be useful.

Standards Met

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
    • Key Ideas and Details: 1,2,3
    • Craft and Structure: 4,5,6
    • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:7,9
    • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards 6-12
    • Text Types and Purposes: 1,2, 3
    • Production and Distribution of Writing: 4,5,6
    • Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7, 9
    • Range of Writing: 10
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
    • Comprehension and Collaboration: 1,2,3
    • Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas: 4
  • Language Standards 6-12
    • Conventions of Standard English: 1
    • Knowledge of Language: 3
    • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 5,6
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
    • Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2
    • Craft and Structure: 4,5,6
    • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 8
    • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
    • Range of Writing: 10