Controversial Topics

Getting Started
Pre-Reading Activity
Grades 7–12
Language Arts, History
Small Group, Entire Class, Research, Discussion


  • Before reading The Grapes of Wrath, students will understand some of the controversial issues (racism, sexism, violence, language).
  • Students will work collaboratively in small groups to discuss/understand the documents provided. See Materials Needed/Preparation.
  • Students will understand why The Grapes of Wrath has been on many banned book lists over the years.
  • Students will understand that Steinbeck was neither a racist nor a sexist, but he just reflected the social climate of the time.
  • Students will understand the nature of censorship.


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.

Through class discussions, reading of documents, and some small group work, students should be well equipped to read and understand The Grapes of Wrath.

Materials Needed/Preparation

Estimated Time

  • About 1 class period for a lecture/interactive class discussion about controversial issues.
  • About 1 or 2 class periods for students to break into small groups and discuss why The Grapes of Wrath has been banned.


Day 1

Discuss the usage of some of the following words, references and images
  • Use of the N-word
  • References to sex and prostitutes
  • References to rape
  • References to Native Americans as “Injuns”
  • Questioning religion, sin, and virtue
  • The language (mild by today’s standards), but students will encounter “son of a bitch,” bitch” (not the dog reference), “full of piss an’ vinegar,” and the like.
  • The ending of the novel has been referred to as vulgar.
  • Discuss with students Steinbeck’s purpose for using such language: to be as realistic as possible.
Discuss: What is censorship?
  • Ask students what “censorship” means.
  • Ask students to provide examples of censorship.
  • Have students access “Banned and Challenged Books” on the American Library Association website
  • Have students spend 10-15 minutes looking up books they have read and why they have been banned
  • Pair-share: what did you find? What do you think of these reasons?
Class discussion
  • Have students share what they found.
  • What do students think about banning books? Is there ever a reason to ban books?
  • ~What about Mein Kampf?
  • ~What about websites? Consider current events and how social media and the internet have been used to spread propaganda, false information, and hate speech.

Day 2

The banning of The Grapes of Wrath
  • Steinbeck was called a Communist by his detractors
  • Listen to in class (or assign as homework the night before) “The Grapes of Wrath and the Politics of Book Burning”
  • Discuss the political reasons behind the banning of The Grapes of Wrath in Kern County in the 1930s.
  • ~Political reasons
  • ~The Associated Farmers (called the Farmers Association in the novel) was depicted as corrupt, violent, and exploitative.
  • ~“Threatened” and advocated revolution and violence by migrants
  • ~Challenged the capitalism
  • ~Depicted local officials in Kern County as corrupt and violent
  • ~Supported workers’ rights and strikes

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up


As students begin to read and discuss the novel, they should be taking notes about controversial issues, citing examples from the novel itself. These issues should be incorporated into class discussions.


Address controversial language, images, and ideas during class discussions on the novel. Remember to discuss how the language, images, and ideas were perceived by different groups at the time the book was published.


  • During the course of reading the novel, students can be tested or quizzed on their knowledge of the different controversial issues, language, and ideas found in the novel.
  • Use short quizzes
  • Use the Writing Prompts for written assignments that cover these issues and how they connect to the broader themes of the novel.

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

Related Lesson Plans for this Work