Travels with Charley

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

Pre-Reading Activities

Controversial Topics

Travels with Charley is most known for Steinbeck's visceral narration of the integration of William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana. This was a racially volatile time in American history and the people encountered in Steinbeck's travels through the South reflect the tensions and prejudices of the period. Students should be prepared for what they will encounter in the classroom and during their reading of the book.

Travels with Charley Introduction

An introduction to John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, its characters, the setting, and the contextual background, including the turbulent times of the 1960s.

Planning a Journey

This is a light exercise to help get students into the mood of reading Travels with Charley. Steinbeck devotes Part One (and continues into Part Two) of the book to describing the preparations he made for his journey. This activity helps to get students into the journeying mindset by asking them to consider what kinds of preparations they would make.

Jim Crow and Lynch Laws Introduction

Jim Crow and Lynch Law” is meant as an introduction to the roots and impact of Jim Crow laws and Lynch Law. The purpose of this presentation is to give students an understanding of what led up to lingering racist attitudes since the Civil War, especially given the treatment of Ruby Bridges and the attitudes encountered by Steinbeck.

Plot and Theme

Plot and theme are often easily confused. This activity challenges students to create and act out their own skits that demonstrate the differences between plot and theme.


Steinbeck's novels are rich with symbolism, and although Travels with Charley is meant to be a non-fiction account of his travels, Steinbeck still employs symbolic imagery and language. It is important that students are able to distinguish between literal and figurative concepts. This activity helps students to understand symbols, and to track the use and meaning of symbols throughout Travels with Charley.

The American Dream

The "American Dream" is a consistent theme throughout Steinbeck's works. As he travels across the United States, Steinbeck gets a glimpse of life in many different areas of the country. In every region Steinbeck encounters people working to achieve their version of the "American Dream."

Understanding Lynching

Lynchings were illegal acts of vigilante “justice” that have been a part of United States history since the Colonial Period. The theme of lynching appears several times during Travels with Charley and is an important part to understanding Steinbeck’s experiences in Louisiana.


Travels with Charley Discussion by Section

A section-by-section breakdown of the major events, themes, and discussion topics. This is a rich source of information to help frame an entire unit plan for Travels with Charley.

Writing Prompts

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.

Identity Charts

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

Character Reactions - Picking up Riders

After witnessing the vitriol of the Cheerleaders and having his conversation with Monsieur Ci Git, Steinbeck once again hit the road. Along the way he picked up two passengers on two separate occasions. One, an older African American man; the other, a thirty-something white man. In this activity, students will create an internal monologue for the characters in the scene to examine attitudes of race from different perspectives.

Show, Don't Tell

Travels with Charley is more than an account of Steinbeck's voyage across the United States, it is a rich description of the land and the people he encountered. Using Travels with Charley to understand the difference between "showing" and "telling" will not only enhance the students' enjoyment of literature but will also improve their own writing.

Favorite Passages

The basic premise of this activity is to create a “message board” where students can post and comment upon important, entertaining, interesting, etc., passages from a reading. This activity lends itself well to working with books as it is an ongoing creation in which all students can choose to participate.

Interviewing Characters

A great way for students to get to know the people and regions encountered in Travels with Charley is for them to actually inhabit the personalities of those characters. In this activity, students are challenged to use what they know about the people Steinbeck encountered along with the history and culture of the United States to script and perform interviews with those characters.

Literary Terms

A rich resource to help build students' knowledge and understanding of the literary elements present in Travels with Charley. This guide includes a comprehensive list of literary terms, their definitions, and examples of their usage as found in the book.


This activity provides a list of terms (including slang) used in Travels with Charley as well as an interactive, student drive, "word wall" to help students understand the new vocabulary encountered in their readings.

Sentence Fluency - "Painting with Words"

To increase the level and complexity of students' writing, students can improve their sentence fluency by emulating the sentence structure of Steinbeck's Travels with Charley and those of their classmates. This can work with all levels of student writing abilities. Essentially, students will learn to "paint" with words and create powerful sentences.

A Dialogue with Steinbeck

In this activity students will analyze the different styles Steinbeck used in writing dialogue and emulate one or more of those styles in the form of an interview or dialogue between themselves and Steinbeck. In their discussion “with” Steinbeck, students will express their thoughts on the recurring themes of Steinbeck’s journey “in search of America.”

Found Poetry

This is a fun and creative activity during any time of the year, but teachers can apply this specifically to Travels with Charley. Through spontaneous poetry, students will learn more about the book.

Oral History

In this activity, students will learn a bit of someone else's life story through interviewing a family member or a close friend of the family. Teachers can choose to focus students on a similar topic (e.g. immigration, the Cold War, etc.), or to allow students to decide what kind of history they will be collecting.

Adapting Scenes from the Book to a Play

Travels with Charley is an episodic picture of life in the United States during the early 1960s. Students can learn the art of adaptation of genres, a valuable lesson, by selecting scenes from the book to adapt into short one act plays.

Period Music - The 1960s

Music is important to any generation. The 1960s are known for having produced a rich catalog of folk and rock music that paint a picture of a world full of change and fear. Understanding the connection between the music of the 1960s and the events portrayed in Travels with Charley is an important complement. 

From Words to Pictures

Steinbeck's writings are known for their vivid descriptions. In this activity, students adapt a short passage from Travels with Charley into a visual form.

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 Travels with Charley


Reader's Theater

Reader’s theater is an effective, fun, and different (“out-of-the-box”) way to help students understand problems that characters experience throughout Travels with Charley. Groups of students are assigned a small portion of the text to present to their class. Unlike the presentation of traditional plot skits, reader’s theater asks students to create a performance that reveals a message, theme, or conflict represented by the text they have chosen.

Chief Joseph and American Pioneers

In Part Three of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck passes through Montana and the Dakotas, areas he called “memory-marked as Injun country” (122). He goes on to describe a very non-traditional view of Native Americans when he relates a story about Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians. Through the use of primary sources, students can examine the old pioneer story from the perspectives of peoples who have been traditionally left out.

The Meaning of Place

At the end of Part Three, Steinbeck and Charley arrive on the west coast of the United States and work their way down to the Salinas Valley where Steinbeck grew up (148-158). In this activity, students will examine Steinbeck’s feelings during his return visit to the land of his origin and ask the question: Can you ever go home again?

The Cold War

Travels with Charley is about a journey across the United States, but more particularly it is about a journey across the United States in 1960. In Part Two of the book Steinbeck makes references to the Cold War, giving the reader a look into Steinbeck’s impression of how the United States was thinking about and affected by the Cold War. This lesson is designed to provide historical background to these references.

Cold War Videos

Travels with Charley is about a journey across the United States, but more particularly it is about a journey across the United States in 1960. In Part Two of the book Steinbeck makes references to the Cold War, giving the reader a look into Steinbeck’s impression of how the United States was thinking about and affected by the Cold War. This lesson allows for students to creatively interpret the Cold War and Cold War propaganda by allowing them to script and perform their own “educational video” (or skit).

History vs. Memory

Even prior to the modern digital age, history often becomes intermingled with memory. Steinbeck addresses this issue bluntly when he says “I cannot commend this account as an America you will find” (60). He knows, and admits, that his experiences, his eyes, may see a different American than that of his readers. This activity challenges students to think critically about history and events, even when those “facts” are being presented by someone of authority, such as Steinbeck.

Ruby Bridges and Desegregation

On November 14, 1960 six year old Ruby Bridges was the first African American child to attend William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was escorted by U.S. Marshalls for her protection and to enforce the integration of the school. Ruby walked a gauntlet of angry white parents, teenagers, students, and community members. 

Hearing about this, John Steinbeck decided to come and witness it for himself. He did not know the name of the brave little girl he watched walk up the steps of the school, but he wrote his impressions of her and described in vivid detail what he witnessed that day. This scene, and the few that follow, is one of the most powerful in Travels with Charley

Cumulative Activities

What is America? Who are Americans?

Steinbeck set out on his journey with Charley in order to “…try to rediscover this monster land” (5). A continuing theme throughout the book is Steinbeck’s attempt to answer the questions “what is America?” and “what does it mean to be an American?” In this activity, students will analyze Steinbeck’s thoughts on America and Americans and determine what it is that Steinbeck discovered.

Steinbeck Blogs

In this activity, students will practice summarizing and interpreting Travels with Charley in the form of blog posts or social media posts. This can be easily expanded to include photos, “replies” by people Steinbeck encountered on his journey, and other creative additions.

Radio Plays/Podcasts

In this activity, students create radio play adaptations of scenes in Travels with Charley. 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.

General Activities

Steinbeck Club

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

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 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.

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 Final-Final

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.