The Grapes of Wrath Lesson Plans

Pre-Reading Activities |Ongoing Activities |Cumulative Activities |General Activites

Pre-Reading Activities

Controversial Topics

Even though some of the controversial issues in The Grapes of Wrath may not seem as controversial today as they were in the 1930s, students still need to be prepared for what they will encounter in the classroom. Steinbeck used words and images in an attempt to write as realistically as possible, and this included the way people spoke; it can be difficult for students to see that this was for effect and not Steinbeck’s personal beliefs.

The Grapes of Wrath Introduction

Through a brief PowerPoint presentation, students will be introduced to John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, its characters, the setting, and the contextual background, including the Great Depression.

Farming Changes

In this activity students will examine the transition from small agrarian farming to the large mechanized, industrial farms prevalent in California.

Migrant Workers and the Great Depression - Leaving Home

Several hundred thousand people fled North and West during the 1930s. Yet these regions were not immune from the effects of the Depression. This activity is meant to expand students’ analytical skills and to give them a greater understanding of life during the Great Depression. The experiences that they will read about are those of teenagers during the 1930s. Like the Joad family, these teenagers are on the move finding temporary work where they can.

Migrant Workers and the Great Depression - Why California?

Several hundred thousand people fled North and West during the 1930s. Yet these regions were not immune from the effects of the Depression. Why then did so many people uproot their lives and head to California and the West? Using first hand accounts archived in the Library of Congress, students will attempt to help answer this question.

Migration, Migrants, and Mobile Living

In writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck hoped to bring attention to the plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression. In The Harvest Gypsies, he even offered his own ideas for solutions to the problem. In this activity, students will examine the lives of migrant workers today and learn what kinds of solutions have been attempted, what has been successful, and what, if anything, has changed since the Great Depression.

Plot and Theme

Plot and theme are often easily confused. This activity should clear up any confusion.

Riding the Rails

Examining the life of migrants who road the rails, particularly teenage hobos. This activity brings the migrant life of the Great Depression closer to home as students examine what people their own age endured in order to survive.

Setting the Context - The Great Depression

The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression are the backdrops of The Grapes of Wrath. The opening chapter of the novel is a vivid description of the Dust Bowl’s devastation. The poverty endured by the Joad family was experienced by millions of people as the Great Depression deepened. In this pre-reading activity students will set the novel into the broader context of what was happening around the country in the 1930s.

The American Dream

The “American Dream” is a constant theme in The Grapes of Wrath, although Steinbeck may have argued that in the case of the Dust Bowl refugees like the Joad family, it was more of a California Dream.  This concept is important to understanding the novel and the motivation of the characters.

Ongoing Activities


The automobile is an essential part of American culture. For the Joads, and other migrant families, their automobiles became more than a method of transportation, they became a home and a means of survival.


This activity helps students to understand characters and their motivations through the use of a graphic organizer.

Character Webs

Character Webs are graphic organizers that help students to gain a deeper understanding of the characters. The purpose of a Character Web is to show the connections between characters. Character Webs can also be done autobiographically; that is, a student can create a web about him/herself.

Correcting the Grammar of Others

Besides students’ usual grammar exercises in English class, they can learn literature-based ways to enhance their grammar capabilities. Students seem to be at their best when they correct the work of others.  One of the best ways to complement grammar study in the classroom is to correct the errant grammar of characters in novels. Obviously, The Grapes of Wrath reflected the language and vernacular of mostly under-educated migrant workers in the 1930s; as a result, the novel is rich in non-standard language. Finding examples to “correct” will be plentiful.

Discussion Topics and Writing Prompts by Chapter

A chapter by chapter breakdown of the major discussion topics and writing prompts. This is a rich source of information to help frame an entire unit plan for The Grapes of Wrath.

Favorite Passages

This activity creates a “message board” where students can post and comment upon important, entertaining, and interesting passages from The Grapes of Wrath. The message board can be displayed in class and expanded as reading through the novel continues.

Identity Charts

This activity helps students to understand characters and their motivations through the use of a graphic organizer.

Letters Home

Not all families stuck together to migrate west like the Joads. Muley Graves stayed behind while his wife and children headed to California for work. Not knowing that Tom was being paroled early, the Joad family nearly left without him and headed to California. 

In this exercise, students examine the push and pull factors families faced during the Great Depression and express those understandings in the form of letters home.

Mining for Examples

In this ongoing activity, students work collaboratively to create an in-depth study guide to understanding key scenes, quotations, and themes in The Grapes of Wrath. Includes a sample project created by students examining some of their favorite scenes.

Period Music

Music is important to any generation; in the 1930s, people listened to not only big band music, but folk music, including Woody Guthrie. John Steinbeck was a fan of Woody Guthrie, and vice versa. Understanding the rich connection between period music (again, using lyric sheets as well as listening) of the 1930s and The Grapes of Wrath is an important complement.

Restaurant Reviews

In chapter 15 the reader gets a general telling of life at a highway-side diner. Of the various clientele that Mae meets, the truck drivers are her favorite. John Steinbeck is saying a great deal about class, class tensions, and prejudice in this chapter. 

This activity is a creative way for students to express their understanding of the social and economic tensions present in the novel and during the Great Depression.

Sentence Fluency

To increase the level and complexity of students’ writing, students can improve their sentence fluency by emulating the sentence structure of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and those of their classmates. This can work with all levels of students’ writing abilities. Essentially, students will learn to “paint” with words and create powerful sentences.

Throughout the year, as the students grow more sophisticated and experienced, the assignment can become longer than a few sentences.

The Fambly

“Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do” (445). 

Family dynamics change throughout the novel. By examining how the Joads and other families react to the changing conditions around them and within them students will strike at the heart of Steinbeck’s major themes.

The General Chapters

Studying the intercalary chapters of The Grapes of Wrath can serve several different purposes to students reading the novel. Most of the chapters foretell in broad terms what the Joads are about to experience in the following chapter (or chapters), preparing the reader for what is to come. If reread after completing the novel, these chapters can serve as a review.

The Great Depression in Images

During the Great Depression, artists, writers, historians, and photographers were employed under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Farm Security Administration (FSA). They traveled the country capturing the lives and histories of the people and places, leaving a wealth of images and firsthand accounts. 

John Steinbeck read reports, saw photographs, and toured migrant worker camps across California seeing the struggles of everyday people. What he saw made him angry and inspired him to write The Grapes of Wrath.

The Kidnap and Murder of Grampa

In this activity students will engage in a beginner level mock trial with the Joad family facing charges of kidnap and murder. This interactive approach will help students analyze the motivations of the family.

Trouble Makers

A major theme throughout The Grapes of Wrath is the concept of “I to we.” The Joad family and other migrants struggle against two seemingly opposite goals: to care for themselves and to care for other poor people like themselves; to be both part of a larger group and to ensure their own survival.

In this activity, students will examine the conflicting motivations that poor migrant workers like the Joads endured.

Themes by Chapter

A document, rather than a stand alone lesson plan, this collection of themes is meant to be used throughout the novel and in conjunction with many of the lesson plans.

Cumulative Activities


In this exercise, students will examine the characters who left the family, their motivations, the results of their departure, and determine if these characters betrayed the family.


Apart from the Keynesian economic theory behind the New Deal, President Roosevelt’s aim was to put people into motion, to put them to work and restore their dignity and hope. Steinbeck’s concept of dignity is similar – something that can be lost or gained, and an essential element to society.


Eulogies are powerful, and should be taken seriously, even though they may contain some elements of humor. This exercise can provide students with empathy, sympathy, and a greater understanding, during any point of the novel, of the characters and situations surrounding death.

Full Circle

In this activity students will examine Muley and Tom and discuss whether the novel has come full circle at this point.

Most Important Speech

In this exercise, students will revisit the big moments in the novel where a character (or characters) delivers a meaningful, revealing, or important set of thoughts and ideas. Students will then be challenged to choose which is the most important.

Placing Characters on Trial

This activity works well for many books, but it especially lends itself to The Grapes of Wrath because there are many instances where characters are breaking the law along with instances where characters are acting within the law but in questionable ways (such as the way the police treat squatters outside of Bakersfield). The classroom will be converted into a courtroom (as elaborate or simple as time permits). Students will begin to understand the legal system and its implications. Even though this is a fun activity, the trial should not be played out as a comical activity.

Radio Plays

In this activity, students create radio play adaptations of scenes from The Grapes of Wrath. This activity can be done simply as live, unseen performances (behind a room divider or curtain). Or, for teachers with access to some basic recording equipment, the radio plays can be recorded, edited, and turned into a podcast.

The Citadel

In chapter 8 Steinbeck gives the reader a first, vivid description of Ma. While much of the narrative follows Tom, it is Ma who is the center of the family – the “citadel.” In this activity students will examine the central role Ma plays throughout the novel.

The Five Layers

Steinbeck said of The Grapes of Wrath that “There are five layers to this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won’t find more than he has in himself” (Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, 178-179)

The five layers is a reference to the ideas of Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts and integral to the themes of The Grapes of Wrath.

What's a Red?

“We’re all reds” (298)

Steinbeck was accused of being a communist and a socialist, particularly after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath. Throughout the novel he hints at revolution and decries the greed of a capitalist system that would force its own people into destitution and starvation.

Where are they Now - Epilogues

Hope and despair are overarching themes in The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck wanted to show the strength and resolve of migrants like the Joads. But, in the end, is the reader left with hope because the Joad family has persevered and survived? Or are they left with despair that the system and even Mother Nature continue to beat them down. Students examine the novel and use their creativity to describe what happened to the characers.

General Activities

Document Analysis

Analyzing documents of any kind is a skill that will aid students in multiple subject areas. This activity provides a structure that students of all abilities can utilize to build their analytical skills.


The Final-Final is designed to reinforce feedback on student writing. Too many times students ignore or forget the feedback given to them on their writing assignments. The Final-Final requires students to take action on that feedback and to resubmit their work for a last round of teacher feedback.

Four Corners

A four-corners debate requires students to show their position on a specific statement (strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree) by standing in a particular corner of the room (signs will be posted) or by responding to four choices to one question. This activity gets everyone involved and requires full participation by taking a position.


The Jigsaw method is a way to help students understand and retain more information by working collaboratively with classmates. Students work in small groups to analyze and dissect a reading, then report back to the class. This collaborative method aids students in understanding material that at first seems complex and dense with new facts and information.

Steinbeck Club

A fun way to expose interested students to more of the writings of John Steinbeck.