Discussion by Section

Analyzing the Text
Ongoing Activity
Grades 6–12
Language Arts, History
Small Group, Individual, Full Class, Teacher and Student-Led Discussion, Critical Analysis, Writing


  • Students will be able to fully understand each section of the novel and provide specific examples to support their own opinions.
  • Students will be able to discuss the novel and with 100% participation.
  • Students will take notes on all class discussions.
  • Students will listen to and comment on the opinions of others (including the teacher).
  • Post-discussion, students will write short papers on discussion topics.


Class discussions are at the heart of any novel, especially The Red Pony. The page references here are from the 1992 edition of The Red Pony (Penguin Books). In other editions, page numbers may vary slightly.

Discussions should, first and foremost, be interactive. The teacher should not “tell” students what a book means. The best teachers know that any book has a different meaning for each student, and each supported opinion is valid. The role of the teacher, here, is to facilitate and guide, as necessary, a lively discussion of the current reading assignment.

  • Generally, teachers should have some specific objectives/guidelines for the discussions—for example, in the opening section, discuss and identify figurative language, characterization methods, use of description, early conflicts, and so on. (Specific details will follow.) Teachers can also provide advance organizers or conversation maps to help students to prepare for discussions.
  • Encourage students to cite page numbers and read brief passages when discussing the novel. Other students will be able to follow along more easily.
  • All students should be taking notes during class discussions in their notebooks. Teachers should, as practical, spend the last five minutes of each literature period checking students’ notebooks.
  • Ideally, students are encouraged to listen to the comments of others and comment upon the comments of their fellow students. This is incredibly valuable in maintaining a lively discussion.
  • Teachers should require daily participation (up to two times daily, depending on the size of the class) and keep a record of participation each day. "Talking slips" or "chips" are one method that can help ensure that each student has participated.
  • Consider using the fishbowl method for group discussions. Fishbowls allow students to observe a conversation being modeled as well as participate. This is a creative, yet structured alternative to a traditional discussion.
  • Consider providing non-traditional roles for group discussions. These roles provide students with a specific focal point during a discussion. Similar to the Jigsaw method for challenging readings, providing specific "frames" or "Lenses" narrows the specific information a student is responsible for and can stimulate thoughtful discussions.
  • Consider allowing students the opportunity to rehearse or prepare their ideas prior to discussion. This can make students feel more comfortable about speaking to the class.
  • Teachers should emphasize that there are no “correct” or “set” answers in literature, and that all supported opinions are valid (unlike a subject such as math, where responses are uniform).  For example, when asked, “Who is the most important character in The Red Pony?” there may be several valid responses.
  • Another successful (when teachers think students are ready) device is to have students lead/facilitate discussions. Let the class know that three students will be in front of the class asking questions about the previous reading. The students do not know who will be on the “panel,” so everyone in the class must be prepared with written questions to ask the class. Teachers should have a minimal role here.
  • Also, when students are ready, teachers may lead discussions in organic ways by opening up the discussions in a free-form style about whatever the students wish to discuss about the previous reading. For experienced and sophisticated classes, this is generally a rewarding experience.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Copies of The Red Pony
  • The Red Pony notebooks

Estimated Time

Lively discussions are ongoing throughout the course of the unit.


The Red Pony is divided into four separate, but unified, stories. Activities found in this document can be integrated into teachers’ unit plans as appropriate. Students, as always, will need to take notes during all class discussions. During class discussions, students will also be expected to provide specific examples from the novel. For discussions about each story, sample quoted passages are included. As students become more at ease with the discussion process, they will be expected to come up with their own discussion questions and specific supporting quoted passages.

Teachers should use this lesson in conjunction with Writing Prompts. Before discussion of the individual stories, use the following as general prompts that can apply to all stories.

  • Why is setting/characterization important to Steinbeck? Consider why he usually starts each section of the novel with a description of the setting or a main character.
  • What methods does Steinbeck use to help readers understand the personalities of the major characters?
  • What methods does Steinbeck use to help readers understand the appearance of the major characters?
  • There any many themes in each story. However, what is the major theme in the particular story being discussed? (See Plot and Theme.) Think about how theme affects plot and vice versa.
  • Examine Steinbeck’s clever use of foreshadowing in the story being discussed. Provide examples within the story that eventually foreshadow incidents later on. See Literary Terms.
  • What figurative language does Steinbeck use in the story being discussed and why? See Literary Terms.
  • What are the motifs used in the story being discussed? See Literary Terms.
  • Discuss, and provide examples of, the literary devices Steinbeck has introduced.
  • Discuss/analyze Steinbeck’s use of symbols in the story being discussed.  

“The Gift” (pp. 1-37)

This first story introduces the main characters who will appear in each of the following three stories: Jody, the ten-year-old boy who learns valuable life lessons; Billy Buck, the wise ranch-hand who has a paternal relationship with Jody; Carl Tiflin, the owner of the ranch, and an often distant and stern father to Jody; Ruth Tiflin, the caring mother of Jody; and Gabilan, Jody’s beloved red pony for whom he takes great responsibility.

Jody is delighted when his father and Billy Buck present him with a pony, which Jody quickly names Gabilan. Jody and Billy Buck work together to train Gabilan. Jody’s trust in Billy begins to wane as a quick series of events cause the pony to become ill. Billy does his best to cure the pony but to no avail. Gabilan eventually dies and is then unceremoniously attacked by the buzzards, ruthless scavengers. An inconsolable Jody, hurt, angry, and frustrated, has to be carried off in the arms of Billy.  

Some Areas on Which to Focus for a Class Discussion:

  • Focus on how Steinbeck uses a vivid description of Billy Buck to introduce the story. Ask students to identify passages that are particularly descriptive and why. Examples:
  • ~“He was a broad, bandy-legged little man with a walrus mustache, with square hands, puffed and muscled on the palms” (1).
  • ~“His eyes were a contemplative, watery gray and the hair which protruded from under his Stetson hat was spiky and weathered” (1).
  • Examine the relationship between Billy and Jody and between Carl and Jody. Provide examples of how both Carl and Billy treat Jody. Further, students should be able to identify why one man might be a better father figure for Jody. Examples:
  • ~“Jody did not ask where his father and Billy Buck were riding that day, but he wished he might go along. His father was a disciplinarian. Jody obeyed him in everything without questions of any kind” (3).
  • ~When Jody receives Gabilan, the first thing Carl says to him is, “He needs a good currying…and if I ever hear of you not feeding him or leaving his stall dirty, I’ll sell him off in a minute” (9).
  • ~Carl leaves the barn after giving Jody the pony. “Carl went out of the barn…to be by himself…but Billy Buck stayed. It was easier to talk with Billy Buck. Jody asked again—‘Mine?’” Then Billy says to Jody, “‘Sure! That is, if you look out for him and break him right. I’ll show you how’” (9-10).
  • Have students identify particularly successful uses of figurative language and why they are successful. Examples:
  • ~Steinbeck writes about Jody, “He was only a little boy…with hair like dusty yellow grass and with shy polite eyes… (simile and personification)” (2).
  • ~“When they (Carl and Billy) had disappeared over the crown of the ridge Jody walked up the hill… (metaphor)” (3).
  • Responsibility is a large theme in the story. Show examples of Jody’s responsibility or lack thereof.
  • ~Although she is not mad, Mrs. Tiflin has to remind Jody (who just received the pony) to do his chores. “‘There’s not a stick of wood in the house, and the chickens aren’t fed…well, after this do your chores first. Then you won’t forget’” (13).
  • ~Jody demonstrated his sense of responsibility with Gabilan. “Every morning, after Jody had curried and brushed the pony, he let down the barrier of the stall, and Gabilan thrust past him and raced down the barn and into the corral” (15).
  • True to his promise, discuss ways in which Billy Buck has helped Jody with the training of Gabilan. This is an important part of Jody’s maturation during the entire novel.
  • ~In the early going, Billy kept his promises and taught Jody many things about horses. For example, “Billy Buck kept his word. In the early fall the training began. First there was the halter-breaking…and then came the long halter… (which rapidly) approached perfection” (16-17).
  • ~Billy also explained “how horses love conversation…(and that) he (Jody) must talk to the pony all the time, and tell him the reasons for everything” (14).
  • However, Billy does eventually, at least in the eyes of Jody, make some mistakes in his evaluation about the weather, Gabilan, and its effect on him. Jody is visibly upset, and Billy is angry that he is indeed fallible. Point out some examples.
  • ~In short sequence, Billy tells Jody that it would not rain and that the pony would be fine. He also tells Jody that if it did rain, it would not harm Gabilan. Further, he also assured Jody that if it did indeed rain, he would try his best to put Gabilan back in the barn (21-22).
  • ~“Jody looked reproachfully at Billy Buck and Billy felt guilty.
    ‘You said it wouldn’t rain,’ Jody accused him.
    Billy looked away. ‘It’s hard to tell this time of year,’ he said, but his excuse was lame. He had no right to be fallible, and he knew it” (23).
  • Students should understand that Billy Buck truly tried his best to help Gabilan survive. Have students point out specific examples where Billy tried to save Gabilan.
  • ~For example, Billy tried to help Gabilan by keeping him warm, rubbing him down, applying a steam mixture, and cutting the poisonous lump (24-30).
  • ~Ask students which method Billy employed was probably the most drastic (and most graphically described). Most students will probably choose the scene in which Billy is forced to cut a hole in Gabilan’s windpipe so he can breathe. “Jody held the pony’s head up and the throat taut, while Billy felt up and down for the right place. Jody sobbed once as the bright knife point disappeared into the throat. The pony plunged weakly away and then stood still, trembling violently. The blood ran thickly over and up the knife and across Billy’s hand and into his shirtsleeve” (32).
  • Even though Carl Tiflin is clearly Billy Buck’s boss, Billy stands up to Carl (in defense of Jody) at least twice in this story. Ask students to point out examples where Billy does this and importantly why he risks doing this.
  • ~In the barn during the latter part of the story, Jody’s father tries to remove Jody from the presence of Billy and the seriously sick Gabilan. Billy is not happy with Carl’s suggestion: “Billy turned on him angrily. ‘Let him alone. It’s his pony, isn’t it?’
    Carl Tiflin walked away without saying another word. His feelings were badly hurt” (33).
  • ~At the end of the story, Jody, in his frustration, has killed the buzzard that was picking at the already dead Gabilan. When Carl and Billy find Jody, Carl and Billy have a conflict. Billy pulls Jody off the buzzard and holds him. Carl tries to explain that it was not the buzzard that killed Jody. “It was Billy Buck who was angry…he turned back on Carl Tiflin. ‘Course he knows it,’ Billy said furiously. ‘Jesus Christ! Man, can’t you see how he’d feel about it?’” (14).

The Great Mountains (pp. 38-55)

As the story opens, Jody is bored and has resorted to being cruel to animals. He has destroyed some swallows’ nests and, with his slingshot, killed a bird, and then dismembered and disemboweled it. Jody is very curious about The Great Mountains, but no one, including his father, his mother, and Billy Buck, can answer his questions to his satisfaction. Suddenly, an old man appears on the property. He explains to all that he is Gitano, was born in an adobe on this property, and has come back to die.

Carl Tiflin, not happy with this development, allows Gitano to stay for one evening (he can no longer work), but no more. Jody takes an immediate interest in Gitano, asking him about The Great Mountains and the mysterious rapier Gitano carries. Gitano disappears without a word with Old Easter, the family horse put out to pasture, into the mountains. Jody’s sense of unfulfilled adventure now translates into a “nameless sorrow.”

Some Areas on Which to Focus for a Class Discussion:

  • Ask students why Steinbeck begins the story with a rather graphic description of Jody’s cruelty toward animals (a carryover from “The Gift”). Also, asks students to explain how Jody’s cruelty toward animals might tie into Carl’s cruelty toward Gitano.
  • ~For example, “Jody felt mean then…he carefully raised the sling and aimed…down the little bird went with a broken head…Jody felt a little mean pain in his stomach…and cut off the bird’s head…then he disemboweled it” (39).
  • ~About Old Easter, Carl said, “Old things ought be to put out of their misery…one shot, a big noise, one big pain in the head maybe, and that’s all…Jody knew his father was probing for a place to hurt in Gitano” (48-49).
  • Ask students why Gitano feels he needs to be back at the ranch, claims that he was born there, and intends to stay until he dies. If necessary, briefly explain to students that Gitano is a paisano, part of the Mexican nation that used to own land in California (see also Land Grants and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and The Meaning of Place).
  • ~For example, Gitano tells Mrs. Tiflin, “‘Back at the rancho. I was born here, and my father, too.’”
    ‘Here?’ she demanded. This isn’t an old place.’
    ‘No, there,’ he said, pointing to the western ridge. ‘On the other side there, in a house that is gone’” (44).  
  • Ask students to describe the relationship between Jody and Gitano. Jody seems to be very curious about Gitano, who represents for him adventure and a sense of the old West. Jody is so excited and asks the reticent Gitano many questions about The Great Mountains. Gitano is fairly reserved and is soon irritated by Jody.
  • ~“In his excitement, Jody had lost his shyness. ‘Don’t you remember anything about it [The Great Mountains]?’” (47).
  • ~“But now Gitano’s face became impatient. ‘No,’ he said in a tone that told Jody he didn’t want to talk about it any more. The boy was held by a curious fascination. He didn’t want to go away from Gitano. His shyness returned” (47).
  • Ask students to describe the relationship between Carl and Gitano. There are numerous examples to support this, as Carl’s feelings toward Gitano never waver from the moment he meets him until after Gitano has disappeared, just as Gitano’s calm demeanor never changes during that same time (45-55).
  • ~For example, Gitano says to Carl, “‘I am too old to work. I come back where I was born’” (45). Carl tells Gitano he was indeed not born on the property but Gitano insists he was born on the rancho before it was divided, long before the Tiflins bought the land.
  • ~Carl is angry. “‘I tell you, you won’t stay. I don’t need an old man. This isn’t a big ranch. You must have relatives and friends. Go to them. It is like begging to come to strangers.’
    ‘I was born here,’ Gitano said patiently and inflexibly” (45-46).
  • Ask students to point out the parallels between Old Easter and Gitano. Gitano, himself, actually adds to these comparisons.
  • ~For example, Gitano says of Old Easter, “‘No good any more…Too old to work…just eats and dies’” (48).
  • Ask students why Gitano suddenly disappears into the mountains (seemingly with Old Easter) without a word (leaving his bag behind)?
  • ~This should make for an interesting discussion, given the sophistication level of a class. Steinbeck does not clearly answer this question and students must read between the lines. Was Gitano a thief? Why did he take Easter? Why was the rapier so significant? Did he leave the ranch to die? Why did he leave some of his belongings behind? Why was Jody so full of sorrow?

“The Promise” (pp. 56-79)

As the story opens, Steinbeck uses a fantasy sequence showing Jody in both a marching band and on an imaginary safari. “The Promise” has a lot in common with “The Gift,” as it is about Jody, along with Billy Buck, taking the responsibility for raising a horse. This time, both Carl and Billy agree that Jody is ready to raise a colt from birth, so the mare Nellie is bred with a local stallion. Jody must exhibit patience as the gestation period is at least a year; he is also charged with helping Billy take good care of Nellie.

As time progresses, and Jody sees no sign of Nellie being pregnant, he begins to worry. Billy Buck, as he did in “The Gift,” reassures Jody that everything is fine. In a clear reference to the “The Gift” and the death of Gabilan, Billy explains what must happen in order for a safe birth. Even though Jody remains worried, everything seems fine as Nellie is finally ready to give birth. However, the colt is not aligned properly, and Billy has no choice but to kill Nellie to save the colt. Despite the promise kept, both Billy and Jody are haunted.

Some Areas on Which to Focus for a Class Discussion:

  • Generally considered a realistic writer, ask students why does Steinbeck choose to open the story with a fantasy involving Jody with a marching band and on an imaginary safari? (56-58). This should prompt an interesting discussion, especially given that Steinbeck is not an author who writes randomly. Are there any indications in the previous two stories that would provide a reason for the fantasy scenes?
  • ~Steinbeck writes, “As the gray and silent army marched past, led by Jody…the gray army halted, bewildered and nervous. The army stood in long, uneasy ranks for a moment, and then, with a soft sigh of sorrow, rose up in the faint gray mist and disappeared…The brush along the road stirred restively under a new and unexpected population of gray tigers and gray bears” (57).
  • In a clear reference to the events in “The Gift,” after Nellie’s breeding, Jody begins to get worried when he notices no change in Nellie’s condition. Have students identify various times when Jody is expressing anxiety. His anxiety, eventually justified, increases during the course of the story.
  • ~For example, early on, Jody asked Billy, “‘Do you think she’s really going to have a colt?’” (65). Billy is relaxed and replies. “‘I told you you’d get tired waiting. It’ll be five months more before you can even see a sign, and it’ll be at least eight months more before she throws the colt…you’ll be an old man’” (66).
  • ~Later on, however, Jody’s concern grows. “When the end of the month arrived with no birth, Jody grew frantic…Jody was filled with terror and desolation” (74).
  • Ask students what foreshadowed Nellie’s death in “The Promise.” There are several examples. One appears early in the story when Billy is forthcoming about the nature of a colt’s birth. Jody asks Billy about how colts are born. Even though Billy is talking about the colt’s well being, his speech is also about the well being of the mare.
  • ~Billy explains, “‘Sometimes you have to be there to help the mare. And sometimes if it’s wrong you have to—’” Jody is obviously concerned and Billy continues, “‘Have to tear the colt to pieces to get it out, or the mare’ll die’” (67).
  • Billy is increasingly defensive about his actions as the story progresses. Have students identify instances in which Billy is being defensive, especially with Jody.
  • ~For example, when Jody is in the barn, and asks Billy about the health of Nellie and asks him to promise to not let anything happen to Nellie, Billy explodes. “Billy growled down at him. ‘I told you I’d call you, and I will. Now you get back to bed and stop worrying that mare’…Jody cringed, for he had never heard Billy speak in such a tone” (75).
  • Ask students to compare (and contrast) “The Gift” with “The Promise.” This should make for a lively discussion, as the two stories have many similarities in theme, plot, and characters. Also, “The Promise” is the only story in The Red Pony which directly references (albeit briefly) Gabilan and “The Gift.” This could conceivably provide a discussion that will last close to an entire class period. Examples:
  • ~Students may discuss Jody’s responsibilities with both Gabilan and Nellie.
  • ~Students may discuss Billy Buck’s relationship with Jody in both stories.
  • Ask students about the symbols in this story. For example, the black cypress tree plays a huge role in this story.
  • ~Jody thought of Nellie as he walked. “Then suddenly he saw that he was under the black cypress, under the very singletree where the pigs were hung…It seemed to him an unlucky thing to be thinking of his colt in the very slaughter place, especially after what Billy had said” (69).
  • Given what happened in both “The Gift” and “The Promise,” ask students if Billy Buck is a failure. This discussion should also include the nature of mistakes, forgiveness, and promises.
  • ~Ask students to go beyond the text and discuss (for the brave and willing) failures, triumphs, and forgiveness they have experienced.
  • ~Kids can certainly change but can adults?
  • ~Discuss the nature of success vs. failure.

“The Leader of the People” (pp.80-100)

As the story opens, Jody suggests to Billy Buck that they could hunt for mice in the barn’s haystack. Next, a letter arrives announcing a visit from Jody’s grandfather, Mrs. Tiflin’s father. Carl Tiflin is not pleased as he complains that Grandfather constantly repeats stories from an older time, crossing the Great Plains to the West. Jody is fascinated with the stories, however, and Grandfather has also a mutual respect with Billy Buck.

As with Gitano in “The Great Mountains,” Carl Tiflin has little patience with Grandfather and his stories. For the first time, Mrs. Tiflin actually stands up to Carl and chides him for the treatment of his father-in-law. Grandfather, sensing that his stories have lost their value, intends to leave the ranch. The idea of “westering” is done. Jody tries to cheer up his grandfather with an offer to mutually hunt the mice. His grandfather refuses, and the story ends with Jody trying one more time to cheer his grandfather by offering him some lemonade.

Some Areas on Which to Focus for a Class Discussion:

  • Have students focus on similarities between “The Great Mountains” and “The Leader of the People.”
  • ~How are Gitano and Grandfather similar?
  • ~How are Gitano and Grandfather different?
  • ~How are Jody’s reactions to Gitano and Grandfather similar/different?
  • ~Have students focus on how Carl treats Gitano and Grandfather.
  • Ask students why the crossing of The Great Plains was so important to Grandfather (see also Westering).
  • ~Why does it no longer seem necessary for Grandfather to tell his stories?
  • ~What did Grandfather accomplish during the crossing?
  • Show how Mrs. Tiflin was angry at her husband for being mean to Grandfather.
  • ~For example, “She had caught Carl, caught him and entangled him in her soft tone…She tried to catch him again. ‘Well, it’s [the crossing] everything to him. You might be patient with him and pretend to listen’” (85).
  • Jody even encounters an enlightened moment of philosophy. Shortly before breakfast, he talks with Billy Buck about hunting the mice. “Jody changed his course and moved toward the house. He leaned his flail against the steps. ‘That’s to drive the mice out,’ he said. ‘I’ll bet they’re happy and fat. I’ll bet they don’t know what’s going to happen to them today.’
    ‘No, nor you either,’ Billy remarked philosophically, ‘nor me, nor anyone’” (96).
  • ~What does Billy Buck mean?
  • ~How does Billy Buck’s statement relate to the other three stories?
  • Ask students how Steinbeck masterfully demonstrates how he “shows and not tells”. In other words, how does Steinbeck allow the readers to experience what the characters are feeling without being told what they are feeling?
  • ~Everyone is listening to Grandfather’s stories, told again and again, and everyone is bored. Steinbeck does not tell the reader the characters are bored; rather, he shows the reader such. Explain.
  • ~“In some manner a big moth got into the room and circled the hanging kerosene lamp. Billy got up and tried to clap his hands. Carl struck with a cupped palm and caught the moth and broke it. He walked to the window and dropped it out” (91).
  • Many students are puzzled by the closing lines of the story after Jody has asked for a lemonade to give his grandfather. After Mrs. Tiflin asks if Jody wants a lemonade too, he refuses. What is the significance of this scene?
  • ~“‘Jody! You’re sick!’ Then she stopped suddenly. ‘Take a lemon out of the cooler,’ she said softly. ‘Here, I’ll reach the squeezer down to you.’” (100).

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up


  • Takeaways have been included above.


  • Teachers can have students write an evaluation of the project and what they have learned.
  • Students can write short papers based on discussions.


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

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

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