The Meaning of Place

Connecting with History
Ongoing Activity
Grades 6–12
History, Language Arts, Debate
Small Group, Out of Seat, Writing


  • Students will understand the historical background that led to Gitano’s “return.”
  • Students will improve their dialogue/monologue writing skills.


“I am Gitano, and I have come back” (43).

In “The Great Mountains,” the mysterious Gitano arrives at the Tiflin ranch. Gitano was born on the old rancho that the Tiflin ranch now sits on, and he has returned to the place of his birth to die. Gitano’s mysterious background hints at the deeper history of California and the west.

In this activity, students will examine what drew Gitano specifically to the Tiflin ranch, the reactions that the Tiflins had to Gitano, and their own thoughts on what makes a place important. Students will engage in a four-corners style debate over where Gitano should have gone and will script a fictitious interview with Gitano to learn and understand more about him.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Consider first reviewing Mexican/Spanish land grants, the U.S.–Mexican War, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and “An Act to Ascertain and Settle Private Land Claims in the State of California.” (See Land Grants and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.)
  • Have small groups planned for Day Two of this activity.
  • Consider creating one or more additional Four Corners questions for Day One of this activity. (Four Corners Sample).

Estimated Time

2 class periods


Day One

Journal/Discussion Topic
  • Create a list of places important to you. Which is the most important? Why? What do you remember or think about this place?
  • ~Consider having students describe the place they choose.
  • ~Consider having students write their description in “Steinbeck’s style.” (See Sentence Fluency.)
Journal/Discussion Topic
  • Consider allowing students to work in pairs or small groups.
  • Why does Gitano “return?”
  • Discuss student responses.
  • ~The aim is to go beyond the answer “to die.” Why does Gitano come to the Tiflin ranch to die?
  • ~~Steinbeck, especially in his California novels, pays particular attention to how people are connected to the land.  
  • ~~Gitano and his father were born on the rancho that existed before the Tiflins came.
  • ~~It is possible that his family owned the rancho. (See Land Grants and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.)  
Four Corners Debate
  • For detailed instructions, see Four Corners.
  • ~Question: Where do you think Gitano should have gone to die?
  • ~~To the old rancho (as he did in the novel).
  • ~~To his family in Monterey (remember, that’s not very far from Salinas).
  • ~~Nowhere; he should have stayed where he had been living.
  • ~~To Mexico (he most likely had relatives there as well)
  • Follow-up question/journal topic
  • ~Why is it more important to Gitano that he die on the old rancho land rather than surrounded by his family?
  • ~Discuss student responses.

Day Two

Journal/Discussion topic:
  • What do we know about Gitano? How do we know these things (be specific, site examples from the novel)?
  • Discuss student responses.
An interview with Gitano
  • Have students get into their small groups.
  • Groups will create a list of things they want to know about Gitano.
  • ~Have groups take their list and create questions to ask Gitano in an interview.
  • ~Once the questions have been created, students should start scripting answers.
  • ~~Answers can be cryptic as Gitano’s were in the novel, or they can be specific and clearly answer the questions.
  • ~~Answers need to be realistic (no, Gitano did not get his sword from King Arthur).  
  • Allow time at the end of the period to have volunteer groups act out their interviews.
  • ~Discuss as a class the interviews. Allow constructive feedback regarding the questions and answers.
  • ~~Remind students that feedback needs to be constructive. Students do not have to agree with one another, but they must be respectful.  

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • Consider using this activity as a starting point for an oral history project).
  • For more advanced classes, have students work on a research project that examines a people and their connection to the land (or the loss of land).
  • ~Native Americans, Cubans who fled the Castro regime, Israel and Palestine, Hawaiians, court cases involving Eminent Domain, people displaced by war or natural disasters, etc.


  • Students should have a stronger understanding of how characters are connected to the land in The Red Pony.
  • Students expand their knowledge about land issues following the U.S. war with Mexico.


  • Return to what students discussed about Gitano and his connection to the land after reading “The Leader of the People.” How would Jody’s grandfather feel about Gitano?


  • This activity is meant to cause students to think more deeply about Gitano and how he and people in general are connected to their environment. Assess how involved individual students are during the Four Corners debate.
  • ~It may help to collect student-written responses to see how thoroughly students address the question as well as what evidence they use to support their thinking.
  • In their interviews with Gitano, did students stay on topic? How well did they support such, and how realistic were the answers they created for Gitano?  

California State Content Standards Met

  • History-Social Science Content Standards 6-8
  • ~Research, Evidence, and Point of View: 1, 4
  • History and Social Science Content Standards 4
  • ~Students describe the social, political, cultural, and economic life and interactions among people of California from the pre-Columbian societies to the Spanish mission and Mexican rancho periods: 3, 7, 8
  • History and Social Science Content Standards 8
  • ~Students explain the economic, social, and political life in California from the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic through the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the granting of statehood: 2
  • ~Students analyze the divergent paths of the American people in the West from 1800 to the mid-1800s and the challenges they faced: 5

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 9
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 8, 9
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3, 6
  • ~Craft and Structure: 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 8
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1

Additional Information

If your textbook does not provide enough detail on this period, try the University of Houston’s “Digital History” online textbook.

Related Lesson Plans for this Work