Controversial Topics

Getting Started
Pre-Reading Activity
Grades 6–12
Language Arts, History
Small Group, Entire Class, Research, Ongoing, Discussion


  • Before (and during) reading Travels with Charley, students will understand some of the controversial issues found in the book.
  • Students will work collaboratively in small groups to discuss/understand the documents provided. See “Materials Needed/Preparation.”
  • Students will understand the nature of censorship.


Even though Travels with Charley is not nearly as controversial as Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath, 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 Travels with Charley.

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).


Before showing the PowerPoint presentation, teachers should have an open discussion with the class about some of the controversial language and imagery in the book. (NOTE: Teachers may become more specific as reading progresses; however, for teacher reference, some issues below contain specific examples. Going forward, students will provide specific supporting examples.) These include:

Racist words and phrases

  • Part Four of the book deals with Steinbeck’s time in the South. Here he encounters racism and anti-Semitism.
  • ~Use of the word “nigger.”
  • ~~“‘I thought you had a nigger in there.’ And he laughed delightedly. It was the first of many repetitions” (Steinbeck 190).
  • ~~“‘Sure, God bless them. Somebody got to keep the goddamn niggers out of our schools’” (Steinbeck 204).
  • ~"‘It’s the goddamn New York Jews cause all the trouble’” (Steinbeck 192).
  • ~Teachers should make students aware that this type of language is used.
  • ~The use of these words and phrases should be used as a launching point for discussions about race and prejudice.
  • ~~Does Steinbeck paint the entire South as racist?
  • ~“‘There wass a jung guy from Jolon – got seek from leeving halone. He wan to Keeng Ceety to gat sometheeng pretty – Puta chingada carbon’” (Steinbeck 152).
  • ~~Not only is language an issue in this passage, but so is the depiction of Mexican American diction.
  • ~~This passage can be used for discussions about prejudice.
  • ~~Steinbeck uses this language, but does this make him racist? Does it make the passage racist?


  • The uses of the word “bitch” (not in reference to a dog), “goddamn” (several instances), and some words and phrases in Spanish (“no me cagas, nino”).
  • ~These are mild by today’s standards, but teachers may want to make students aware.
  • ~These passages can be used to spark discussions about language, dialogue, and literature. When is it appropriate (rather than gratuitous) to utilize such language in writing?

Sexual language and references

  • Some passages/words contain sexual imagery used metaphorically. Teachers may want to make students aware of this. For more mature classes, a discussion about the power of sexual language and imagery may be appropriate.
  • ~“Whores” (Steinbeck 148-149).
  • ~“Thanksgiving orgy” (Steinbeck 179).
  • ~“I’ve seen this kind bellow for blood at a prize fight, have orgasms when a man is gored in the bull ring…” (Steinbeck 196).
  • The “Lonesome Henry” scene on page 91
  • ~Here Steinbeck refers to a man he calls “Harry” and his liaison in a hotel room with a woman who is not his wife (she is possibly a prostitute, as noted by Steinbeck).
  • ~Steinbeck does not condemn “Lonesome Harry,” rather he seems empathetic towards Harry and his life.
  • ~This passage could be used to discuss issues of sexual double standards.


  • Steinbeck refers to guns in several sections of the book. Particularly on pages 44 to 46 he discusses the American tradition of gun ownership, hunting, and masculinity.
  • This may be a hot button for some students. Encourage students to balance this passage with latter references to guns; after all, Steinbeck himself brings a gun along on the trip and buys another rifle while traveling.
  • The passages regarding guns can be used to launch class discussions or debates.


Individually, 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 book, they should be taking notes in their notebooks about controversial issues, citing examples from the book 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 1960s and today.


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

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