Discussion Topics 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).
  • Students will (post-discussion) write short papers on discussion topics. (See Writing Prompts.)


Class discussions are at the heart of any book, especially Travels with Charley. The page references here are from the 1997 edition of Travels with Charley (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—see the following examples.
  • 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.
  • 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 person Steinbeck meets in Travels with Charley?” 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 Travels with Charley.
  • Travels with Charley notebooks.

Estimated Time

Lively discussions are ongoing throughout the course of the unit.


Travels with Charley is divided into four parts. 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 text. For discussions about individual scenes, 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 Use the following (before discussion of the individual stories) as general prompts that can apply throughout the book.

  • Why is setting important to Steinbeck? Consider why he often describes the areas he stopped at or visited.
  • What methods does Steinbeck use to help readers understand the personalities of the people he meets along the way?
  • There any many themes in each book. However, what is the major theme in this particular part of the book being discussed? (See Plot and Theme.) Think about how theme affects plot and vice versa.
  • What figurative language does Steinbeck use in the scene being discussed and why? See Literary Terms.
  • What are the motifs used in the section being discussed? See See Literary Terms.
  • Discuss, and provide examples of, the literary devices Steinbeck has introduced. See Literary Terms.
  • Discuss/analyze Steinbeck’s use of symbols in the section being discussed. See Symbolism.

Part One (3-13)

Part One is focused on the purpose of Steinbeck’s journey and how he prepared for it. This discussion will carry over into Part Two.

Some Areas on Which to Focus for a Class Discussion:

  • Why does Steinbeck decide to set out on a journey across the United States?
  • How does a journey have a life of its own?
  • What kinds of preparations does Steinbeck make? Don’t forget Rocinante!
  • Why does Steinbeck bring Charley? What kind of companion do you think he will make along the way?
  • What examples of figurative language can you find in the section where Steinbeck is describing the hurricane (11-13)?
  • ~See Literary Terms for more details.

Part Two (17-92)

Part Two records the journey of Steinbeck and Charley in the eastern states such as Maine, Connecticut, and Vermont. Steinbeck encounters local people and discusses various topics with them. His impressions tell much about how he feels about modernization, urbanization, and commercialization.

Some Areas on Which to Focus for a Class Discussion:

  • How does Steinbeck feel about growing old (17-18)?
  • On the ferry, Steinbeck meets a sailor in the Navy who works on board a submarine. This brings back memories of World War II for Steinbeck (18-20). How does Steinbeck feel about submarines?
  • As an extension, tie in a discussion about Steinbeck’s time as a war correspondent during WW II.
  • ~See “Front Line to Front Pages” for more on this subject.
  • On page 22, Steinbeck drives through Hartford and Providence. How does he feel about the growth of cities? Note what figurative language he uses in his descriptions.
  • ~This can be discussed again in Maine (56).
  • Steinbeck learned a great deal from his friend, Ed Ricketts. Ricketts was an early environmentalist and one of the first people to examine the natural world as a system rather than as separate, disconnected parts. How does Steinbeck feel about the effects urbanization has on the natural environment (22)?
  • ~This is a recurring theme throughout the book.
  • ~Compare what he says on page 22 with what he says on page 24 regarding the “…many modern designs for easy living.” Do these two passages seem in conflict?
  • Steinbeck discusses Russia and Khrushchev’s speech at the U.N. with a man in Vermont. Based on what you know about the Cold War, what can you determine about Steinbeck’s attitudes towards Russia and the current Cold War policies (24-27)?
  • ~See “The Cold War” and “The Cold War at Home” for more details.
  • ~The Cold War is referenced and discussed several more times throughout the book.
  • What can you learn about Steinbeck’s description of himself on pages 30-32? Point out specific descriptive words and phrases that support your impressions.
  • Near Bangor, Maine Steinbeck made a stop for the night at an auto court (motel). This is one of the first descriptions of food and a restaurant/diner environment that he gives. How does Steinbeck feel about the new, modern approach to sanitation and cleanliness (36-38)?
  • ~Find examples of figurative language that support your thoughts.
  • What kind of mood does Steinbeck create in his description of his time at the auto court? How does he do this?
  • ~Sanitation, plastic, sterile environments are a recurring theme throughout the book.
  • What affect does seeing the Aurora Borealis have on Steinbeck (38-39)? What does this tell you about his feelings towards nature and its effects on people?
  • What are Steinbeck’s feelings about hunting and gun culture in America (44-46)?
  • ~Compare this to his later discussion of guns and hunting and his personal experience with guns and hunting (In Montana: 121-122; in the Mojave Desert: 161-162).
  • Read the first paragraph on page 47 where Steinbeck describes Maine. What kind of mood does he create? How does he do this?
  • What affect does the darkness and the unknown have on Steinbeck while he was parked on the side of the road in Maine (47-49)? How does he react? What kind of language does he use to describe his experience?
  • ~Compare this with his description in the Bad Lands (117-120).
  • Steinbeck wrote often about the common person, particularly farmers and migrant farm workers. In Maine he meets migrant workers who came over the border from Canada (50-54). What are Steinbeck’s feelings towards migrant workers? What does he think about the use of migrant work in the United States?
  • What does Steinbeck mean when he says “I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style” (60)?
  • ~This is a recurring theme throughout the book: how accurate is Steinbeck’s account of what he experienced?
  • What does Steinbeck mean when he says “…it does make for suspicion of history as a record of reality” (63)?
  • ~Steinbeck addresses the conflict between history and memory throughout the book.
  • ~See History vs. Memory for a more in-depth study.
  • “I find out of long experience that I admire all nations and hate all governments…” (66). What does Steinbeck mean by this? How does he show this through his story of trying to cross the border into Canada?
  • How does Steinbeck describe the difference between traveling and taking a journey (73-74)?
  • Steinbeck meets people who live in mobile homes (75-81). What does he think about this new phenomenon?
  • In his writings, Steinbeck often writes of the strong connection between people and the land, particularly in The Grapes of Wrath. On page 80, after leaving the mobile home park, Steinbeck ponders whether “…Americans are a restless people…” and what value having roots in an area has. How is this passage different from his typical discussions of people and place?
  • Throughout the book, Steinbeck makes reference to the speech and language of the people he encounters in different regions of the country. How is his attitude towards speech similar to his attitudes about food and sterile environments (82-83)?
  • Steinbeck talks about changes/advances in the technology of communication (88). How does he feel those changes have affected people and society? Think about the changes in technology and communication that have happened since Steinbeck’s death in 1968; how have those newer advances affected people and society? Do you think these changes are good? Bad? Both? Explain.
  • At the hotel in Chicago, Steinbeck examines his hotel and pieces together the life of the man who had previously stayed in the room (calling him “Lonesome Harry”). What do you think of Steinbeck’s attitude towards Harry (90-92)?

Part Three (95-169)

In Part Three, Steinbeck leaves Chicago and heads across the Midwest, to the Pacific Northwest, and then down into California for a visit in his hometown with family and friends. Nature, change over time, and politics become large themes in this section of the book.

Some Areas on Which to Focus for a Class Discussion:

  • What kinds of figurative language does Steinbeck use to describe Wisconsin? What kind of mood does he create? What is his impression of the land (97-98)?
  • Read Steinbeck’s description of Fargo, ND (104-105). A the end of his description, he says “…in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger.” What does he mean by this?
  • While parked near the Maple River, Steinbeck engages in a “dialogue” with Charley (107-111). What has Steinbeck learned about America and Americans at this point in his journey? Has he learned anything at all?
  • ~Return to this topic at intervals throughout the book to see if Steinbeck is learning more, less, or not at all. See pages 128-129 (after passing the Great Divide),
  • What affect does the darkness and the unknown have on Steinbeck while he was in the Bad Lands (117-120)? How does he react? What kind of language does he use to describe his experience?
  • ~Compare this to his description of his stay while parked on the side of the road in Maine (47-49)?
  • How is Steinbeck’s description of Custer, Chief Joseph, and Native Americans different from how most people of his time thought (122)?
  • Steinbeck and Charley visit Yellowstone National Park, briefly (123-126). Steinbeck says of Yellowstone that it “…is no more representative of America than Disneyland” (123). Do you agree with this statement? National Parks are supposed to preserve American land and environment for all time, is this representative of America or not?
  • How do the themes of modernization and masculinity fit into Steinbeck’s thoughts about Lewis and Clark (while standing at the Great Divide, p. 127).
  • Consider Steinbeck’s thoughts on hairdressers when he meets Robbie and his father (130-134). What do you think about his comments? Is Steinbeck being serious? Are his ideas sexist?
  • ~Also, consider discussing how this passage would be different if written today when gender stereotypes are different.
  • When he arrives in Washington, Steinbeck is beginning to feel close to home. How does he feel about the changes he sees? How do these changes fit in with the themes of modernization, urbanization, and change over time (127-139).
  • ~Compare and contrast this with his thoughts on these themes earlier in the book.
  • “It is the principle of do it yourself” which defines the West (139). Do you agree with this?
  • When Rocinante gets a flat tire, Steinbeck has to put on a spare and make it to a service station. How does he describe the station attendant and how does his description change as he gets to know the man (141-142)?
  • ~This scene, it should be noted, may be very foreign to students. The idea of needed to purchase something and it not being available is uncommon today.
  • What affect does Steinbeck’s visit to a Redwood grove have on him? What kinds of themes about nature and humans can you find in this section of the book (143-147).
  • Why does Steinbeck find it difficult to write about California (148-149)? What themes does he touch on in his explanation?
  • Consider what Steinbeck says about California: “We who were born here and our parents also felt a strange superiority over newcomers, barbarians…and we were an outrage to the Spanish-Mexicans and they in turn on the Indians” (148-149). What is Steinbeck talking about here (historically)? Who do you think are the true “natives” of California (or of the area you live in)?
  • While talking with Johnny Garcia, Steinbeck discovers much has changed in Monterey since he left. He says “There was a great man named Thomas Wolfe and he wrote a book called You Can’t Go Home Again. And that is true” (153). What do you think Steinbeck means by “you can’t go home?” Do you agree with him?
  • What changes in Monterey does Steinbeck come across? How does he feel about those changes (148-158)?
  • What do you think when Steinbeck says “If the most versatile of living forms, the human, now fights for survival as it always has, it can eliminate not only itself but all other life” (165)?

Part Four (173-210)

In Part Four, Steinbeck heads home by way of Texas and Louisiana. In these regions he experiences Texas as a unique “nation” of its own. In Louisiana, he witnesses history as Ruby Bridges integrates an all white elementary school in the face of brutal racism. This section of the book is one that is most remembered by readers (and the most socially and historically important).

Some Areas on Which to Focus for a Class Discussion:

  • “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession” (173). From what you know of Texas, and what you read in Travels with Charley, do you agree with Steinbeck?
  • How would you define Texas and Texans after reading about Steinbeck’s time in Texas (173-184)?
  • From Steinbeck’s description, is Texas hospitality genuine, or is it a show (173-184)?
  • “When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not welcome witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble” (188). Steinbeck says this in reference to racism in the South. Do you agree with him? How does this idea apply to issues of race today? Does it apply to other issues as well?
  • While in Louisiana, Steinbeck shows his knowledge of local cocktails, coffee, and food. Why does he do this?
  • Steinbeck parks Rocinante and takes a taxi to witness the “Cheerleaders” in their attacks. During that ride he pretends to be British (192-193). Why does he do this?
  • ~Perhaps compare this to how the African American man behaves in Steinbeck’s story about Manhattan (202).
  • What does Steinbeck think about the Cheerleaders? What does he think about the people who joined in?
  • “But where were others – the ones who would be proud they were of a species with the gray man – the ones whose arms would ache to gather up the small, scared black mite?.... I don’t know where they were… but they left New Orleans misrepresented to the world” (196). What does Steinbeck mean by this? Do you agree with him?
  • Why does Steinbeck feel better after his conversation with Monsieur Ci Git (197-201)?
  • After giving the older African American man a ride, Steinbeck lets him out and says “He didn’t live nearby at all, but walking was safer than riding with me” (202). What does he mean by that statement?
  • Steinbeck gave a ride to a young African American college student who told him “I might be an old man before I’m a man at all” (206). What do you think he means?
  • Steinbeck ends his journey through the South by saying “…the end is not the question. It’s the means – the dreadful uncertainty of the means” (207). What do you think of this? What does Steinbeck mean and do you agree?
  • After reading Travels with Charley, do you agree with what Steinbeck said, that “…people don’t take trips – trips take people” (208)?

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up


  • Each discussion question has its own takeaways. Overall, the purpose of discussion is to create a thoughtful conversation about the book.


  • Students can write short papers based on discussions. (See Writing Prompts.)


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

Related Lesson Plans for this Work