History vs. Memory

Connecting with History
Ongoing Activity
Grades 6–12
History, Language Arts
Research, Individual or Small Group, Whole Class


  • Students will identify passages in Travels with Charley which are historically inaccurate and those which are historically accurate.


Even prior to the modern digital age, history often becomes intermingled with memory. Events are reinterpreted with new eyes, are falsely reported to paint a cleaner picture, or are simply hearsay and rumor spread as fact. Steinbeck addresses this issue bluntly when he says “I cannot commend this account as an America you will find” (60). He knows, and admits, that his experiences, his eyes, may see a different American than that of his readers.

This activity challenges students to think critically about history and events, even when those “facts” are being presented by someone of authority, such as Steinbeck.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Copies of Travels with Charley
  • Devices with internet access

Estimated Time

  • 1-2 class periods if done as a standalone lesson
  • 5-10 minutes of class discussion time if done as an ongoing activity


Day 1

  • Journal topic: “What is the difference between history and memory? Can you think of an event in your life (or someone else’s life) which is remembered differently by different people?”
  • ~Have students begin by writing on the above topic. The purpose is to get them to think about the differences between historical facts and the memories that people and society create around and about historical events.
  • As a class (or individually), read the first full paragraph on page 63 which begins with “I find this interesting, but it does make for suspicion of history as a record of reality.”
  • ~This paragraph describes a story where Steinbeck learns of a myth about himself which he knows to be untrue.
  • ~Discuss how students think this myth may have come about. Students should see the connections Steinbeck draws between this myth, the American Dream, and the reality of his life.

Day 2

  • This portion may be completed as an in-class assignment, or can be done as homework prior to class.
  • Break students into groups.
  • ~An even number of smaller groups is recommended rather than two large groups.
  • Assign each group one of the following sections of the book:
  • ~Page 25: Khrushchev and the shoe banging incident
  • ~Page 174: Steinbeck discusses Texas and perpetuates the myth that Texas “…retains the right to secede at will.”
  • ~Groups will research their historical event/fact and address the following questions:
  • ~~Is Steinbeck’s version of the story/event factually correct?
  • ~~What other versions of the event/story did you find?—Provide quotes and sources
  • ~~Why do you think there are different versions of this event/story?
  • Research can be done as part of class, or as homework.
  • ~If done as homework, have groups meet at the beginning off day 2 to discuss and compile their findings
  • Groups report out their findings
  • ~This is a good opportunity to discuss what a valid source is and methods to determine which sources are valid.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • For more advanced classes, consider having students address the issue of Texas secession by examining of the “Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas to the United States.” This may be combined with the Document Analysis and/or the Jigsaw method.
  • For more advanced classes, consider having students read the article “Novel Tourism” which discusses how Cannery Row in Monterey, California was transformed into the Cannery Row of Steinbeck’s novels.


  • Students should come away from this activity with a stronger sense of the need to challenge the “facts” as they are presented.
  • Students may be able to connect this to history lessons such as the “Myth of the Lost Cause” (The American Civil War).


  • Extend this activity and analyze Part Four of the book about Ruby Bridges and the desegregation of schools.


  • How well were student findings supported through examples in the text and sources found during research?
  • How thorough was research?

Common Core State Standards Met

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

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