A Dialogue with Steinbeck

Reading Comprehension
Ongoing Activity
Grades 6–12
Language Arts, History, Performing Arts
Individual, Pairs, Writing, Close Reading, History


  • Students will learn that dialogue can be written in different forms.
  • Students will express their own ideas on what America is, what it means to be an American, and what life in America is like.
  • Students will practice delivering dialogue (optional).


What is America? What does it mean to be an American? What is life like in America? These are recurring themes throughout Travels with Charley. Each person or group of people Steinbeck meets on his journey allows him to experience America from that person’s point of view. Whether this dialogue is written down verbatim is not as important as the ideas and concepts expressed by the dialogue. As with Thucydides and the History of the Peloponnesian War, Steinbeck uses dialogue as a literary device to express what he discovered in his journey.

In this activity students will analyze the different styles Steinbeck used in writing dialogue and emulate one or more of those styles in the form of an interview or dialogue between themselves and Steinbeck. In their discussion “with” Steinbeck, students will express their thoughts on the recurring themes of Steinbeck’s journey “in search of America.”

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Copies of Travels with Charley
  • Teachers should choose 2 or 3 examples of dialogue in Travels with Charley. Suggestions:
  • ~Steinbeck discusses voting, the U.N., and the American political climate with a farmer in Vermont (25-27).
  • ~~Traditional mix of narration and dialogue
  • ~Steinbeck meets the migrant Canadian workers in Maine and discusses migrant work and cross-border relations (51-55).
  • ~~Narration
  • ~~Dialogue without quotation marks
  • ~~Dialogue with a nontraditional structure (no line breaks between speakers or narration)
  • ~Steinbeck at the Canadian border (66-69).
  • ~~Traditional mix of narration and dialogue
  • ~~Humor and satire employed
  • ~Steinbeck at Johnny Garcia’s as he wrestles with the concept “can you ever go home?” (152-155).
  • ~~Traditional mix of narration and dialogue
  • ~~Speech is more bombastic, less realistic
  • ~Steinbeck speaks “with” Charley while depressed on the journey (168-169).
  • ~~Traditional mix of narration and dialogue
  • ~~Magic realism employed
  • ~Any of the dialogue in Part Four of the book where Steinbeck examines racism in the South.
  • ~Graphic organizer

Estimated Time

2-3 class periods depending on student ability levels and how in-depth the teacher wants to go.


Day 1: Preparation

  • As a class, examine 2-3 different sections of dialogue (see above for suggestions).
  • ~What writing styles are used by Steinbeck?
  • ~What effect does the style have on the scene (mood, tone, etc.)?
  • ~What do you/Steinbeck learn from this interaction about America, life in America, or what it means to be American?
  • ~~Provide specific examples from the text
  • Using a graphic organizer, or simply using their notebooks, students record what they and the class discover.
  • Introduce the writing prompt:
  • ~What if Steinbeck and Charley were on their journey today and met you, what would you discuss? What would he learn about America, Americans, and life in your area of America by talking with you?
  • ~As homework or as a closing activity, have students brainstorm:
  • ~~Themes, topics, and ideas they would discuss with Steinbeck.
  • ~~Things Steinbeck would see, experience, or ask about
  • ~~Focus on what Steinbeck is in search of: what is America, what does it mean to be American, what is life like in America

Day 2: Writing

  • Individually or with a partner, students will write their own dialogues with Steinbeck
  • ~Should include narration
  • ~Students can choose one style to emulate or can experiment with mixing different styles
  • ~Remember to focus on what Steinbeck is in search of: what is America, what does it mean to be American, what is life like in America?

Day 3: Presentation (optional)

  • Allow time for students to rehearse
  • Have students come to the front of the class and act out their dialogues
  • ~No need for props
  • ~See Reader's Theater for more details and suggestions
  • Consider allowing students to video record their performances/presentations

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • Students can spend some time critiquing (respectfully), in writing, each group’s adaptation and performance. This activity will satisfy evaluation writing requirements.
  • Students can also (in confidence and in writing to the teacher) critique the roles of their fellow group members in terms of participation, cooperation, level of enthusiasm, and so forth.


  • Students will improve their writing abilities by practicing different forms of dialogue.
  • By performing dialogue out loud, students will hear whether their writing flows well as effective dialogue should.


  • Students can compare and contrast the different ideas expressed in the dialogues of other students.


  • Student work should be assessed based on grammatical and writing standards.
  • Did students answer the thematic questions of the activity, or did they venture off topic?

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • 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: 9
  • ~Range of Writing: 10
  • Speaking and Listening Standards: 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1, 3
  • ~Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas: 6
  • Language Standards: 6-12
  • ~Conventions of Standard English: 1, 2
  • ~Knowledge of Language: 3
  • ~Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 4, 5
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies: 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6

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