Controversial Issues

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


  • Before reading Of Mice and Men, students will understand some of the controversial issues (racism, sexism, violence, language, and mental retardation [the term used in the 1930s]).
  • Students will work collaboratively in small groups to discuss/understand the documents provided. See “Materials Needed/Preparation.”
  • Students will understand why Of Mice and Men has been on many banned book lists over the years.
  • Students will understand that Steinbeck was neither a racist nor a sexist, that he just reflected the social climate of the time.
  • Students will understand the nature of censorship.
  • Students will understand the difference between “mentally ill” and “mentally challenged.”
  • Students will understand how the mentally challenged were treated in the 1930s.


Even though some of the controversial issues in Of Mice and Men 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.

Through class discussions, reading of documents, and some small group work, students should be well equipped to read and understand Of Mice and Men.

Materials Needed/Preparation

Estimated Time

  • 1 class period for a lecture/interactive class discussion about controversial issues.
  • 1 or 2 class periods for students to break into small groups and discuss the articles above (also assigned as reading homework).


Teachers should have an open discussion with the class about some of the controversies surrounding the novel. These include:

  • The liberal use of the word “nigger.”  An open discussion should lead to the students understanding that Steinbeck was not a racist but was merely being realistic and reflecting the attitudes of the times, when that particular word, even though offensive at the time, was in common use.
  • Ask students what they know about the “N” word.
  • Ask students why this term is offensive.
  • Explain to students that there is an African-American character in the novel who is casually and frequently called the “N” word.
  • The censorship history of the novel.
  • Ask students what “censorship” means.
  • Ask students to provide examples of censorship.
  • The sexual implications (though mild by today’s standards) of Curley’s wife and the men and their “cathouse” visits. This may be a sensitive issue, and teachers should use discretion.
  • The language (mild by today’s standards) students will encounter.  Such as “bastard,” “son of a bitch,” "bitch” (not the dog reference), and the like.
  • Violence:  Without alluding to plot, prepare kids for brief and unintentional scenes of violence. Initiate a brief discussion about if violence is ever justified.
  • The treatment of mentally-challenged people has changed dramatically since the 1930s. Also, make sure students understand the distinction between “mentally ill” and “mentally challenged.”
  • Discuss that lynchings still occurred in the 1930s and racist attitudes were prevalent.
  • Distribute the documents listed in Materials Needed/Preparation and assign as reading homework (over as many days that seem necessary). Have students individually read and mark up the documents with any information they find interesting or new to them. This should be a low-pressure assignment. Then break up students into the small groups to discuss and present their findings.
  • Individually, for homework, students should write brief summaries/analyses of their findings to share with their small groups.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up


  • As students begin to read and discuss the novel, they should be taking notes in their notebooks about controversial issues, citing examples from the novel itself.  All of these issues should also be incorporated into class discussions. Teachers should expect 100% participation.


  • Students can continue to research controversial issues of the 1930s and today.


  • During the course of the novel, students can be tested on their knowledge of “controversial” issues, using both the source documents and the novel itself for specific examples. Testing can be achieved through traditional quizzes or short papers.

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