Passport to Literacy

Adapting the Text
Cumulative Activity
Grades 6–12
Language Arts, History, Math, Science, Art
Small Group, Large Group, Individual, Cross Curricular, Research, Writing


Students will apply knowledge from multiple subjects to demonstrate mastery of the themes in The Red Pony.


Passport to Literacy is a cross-curricular project developed at Merryhill School in Milpitas, California, where each grade level chose a work of literature and did a variety of projects related to that novel. The Merryhill middle school students took on John Steinbeck’s classic book, The Red Pony.

The theme of the project was to examine life on a farm in the 1930s and today. The students broke up into several teams, and each worked on a different aspect of the project. The sixth-grade class composed and illustrated original poems based on farm/ranch life in The Red Pony. The seventh-grade students (under the direction of the math teacher) researched prices of everyday farm items, wages, and land prices. They then calculated and graphed the rate of change in those values over the last seven decades. The eighth-grade class combined science and entrepreneurship to create business proposals for upgrading a farm to become more eco-friendly and energy efficient.

The heart of the project, however, was created by a writing team of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Together they wrote a biography on the life and works of John Steinbeck as well as an original short story, “The Party,” which stands as a continuation (in present day—Jody is now an old man) of The Red Pony. The project, displayed on large room dividers, was open to students, teachers, parents, and friends, on a very special night.

The Merryhill students worked extremely hard on this project and their work impressed a Steinbeck scholar (who attended the event) at the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University. The project was on display for several months at the San José State University/Martin Luther King Jr. Library.

This valuable project can be adapted to any of Steinbeck’s novels. Under ideal conditions, the teachers of the different subjects involved will participate in leading this project. However, an individual teacher could facilitate (part or all) of this project without collaboration from other colleagues.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Ideally, this project requires a great deal of collaboration with other teachers. Teachers should meet prior to beginning Passport to create a roadmap for how the project will progress.
  • Students need to have completed reading The Red Pony.
  • Art materials
  • Internet access for research

Estimated Time

5 days


  • If Passport is to be led by only one teacher:
  • ~Determine which subjects/activities will be used.
  • ~Divide students into small groups and assign subjects/activities.
  • Suggested subjects/activities:


(Language Arts, History, Art)

Poetry topics for The Red Pony are endless and can include:

  • Jody’s trust of Billy Buck
  • Billy Buck’s infallibility/fallibility
  • Jody’s imagination
  • Horses
  • Ranch life
  • Death
  • Birth
  • Adventure
  • The Gabilan Mountains
  • Gitano, his life and death
  • Guilt
  • Westering
  • Jody’s grandfather and how he felt about westering
  • People and their connection to the land
  • The meaning of home
  • The cypress tree
  • The water tub

Price Comparisons: 1930s and Now

(Math, History)

Examples for research include:

  • Basic food products, including eggs, milk, bread, meat and the like
  • Clothing
  • Land and home prices
  • Wages for various types of jobs
  • Specific costs of various equipment needed to run a self-sustaining ranch (for example, horse harnesses, harvesting equipment)
  • The prices of trucks and other transportation
  • Prices of furniture and other items necessary to furnishing a home
  • Breeding prices
  • Cost of basic utilities


(Language Arts, Science, Business, Math, History)

Possible activities include:

  • Create a fictitious company that wants to modernize the ranch.
  • Choose a service to provide such as green technologies.
  • Create a company name, logo, slogan, mission statement, etc.
  • Create professional business letters and brochures introducing their product.
  • Research facts and statistics in order to create graphs and illustrations of the product/service.
  • Give oral presentations where students pitch their ideas, as if in a business meeting.

Steinbeck Biography

(Language Arts, History)

Extension of the Novel

(Language Arts, History)

Suggestions could include some or all of the following:

  • The ranch now that Jody has grown up.
  • Billy Buck starts his own ranch.
  • Billy Buck starts a new horse training business.
  • The story of what “really” happened to Gitano after he headed off to die.
  • The story of Gitano after the rancho was split up.
  • Grandfather’s stories about crossing west.
  • Scenes from the novel told from Mrs. Tiflin’s perspective.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • Passport to Literacy can be an enormous, yet rewarding, undertaking for students and teachers alike. Consider scheduling some sort of event to celebrate the completion of the project. Invite parents, other teachers, members of the community, etc. for a viewing of the project.


  • The main purpose of this project is for students to apply knowledge and skills from a variety of subjects. Students should come away with an experience that core subjects, skills, and knowledge overlap and can be applied in many situations.
  • Students should come away from this project with a deeper connection to the novel.
  • Students should have fun with this project.


  • Assess student writing based on the conventions of the specific activity in which they are engaged.
  • How well did the students collaborate and cooperate with the group?
  • Was the information researched and presented accurate?

California State Content Standards Met

  • Visual Arts: Content Standards 6-12
  • ~Artistic Perception: 1
  • ~Creative Expression: 2
  • ~Connections, Relationships, Applications: 5
  • History and Social Science Content Standards 11
  • ~Students analyze the major political, social, economic, technological, and cultural developments of the 1920s/1930s: 7
  • ~Students analyze the different explanations for the Great Depression and how the New Deal fundamentally changed the role of the federal government: 3

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
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 7, 9
  • 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, 8, 9
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1, 2
  • ~Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas: 4, 5
  • Language Standards 6-12
  • ~Conventions of Standards of 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, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 7, 8, 9
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 7, 8, 9
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1, 2
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7, 8, 9

Related Lesson Plans for this Work