The Meaning of Place

Connecting with History
Ongoing Activity
Grades 6–12
History, Language Arts, Debate
Small Group, Out of Seat, Writing


  • Students will learn about the historical background of the Salinas Valley which John Steinbeck grew up in and returned to.
  • Students will improve their dialogue/monologue writing skills.


The place of my origin had changed, and having gone away I had not changed with it. In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me. (Steinbeck 156)

At the end of Part Three, Steinbeck and Charley arrive on the west coast of the United States and work their way down to the Salinas Valley where Steinbeck grew up (148-158). In his novels, particularly the California novels, places have a deep, inherent value. While the Grampa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath found leaving their home difficult (he even threatened to stay as other characters did), Steinbeck finds returning home to be difficult – he even references the Tom Wolfe novel You Can’t Go Home Again (a novel which parallels Steinbeck’s experience with returning to Salinas and Monterey after the success of his novels about those areas).

In this activity, students will examine Steinbeck’s feelings during his return visit to the land of his origin and ask the question: Can you ever go home again?

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Consider combining this activity with Memory vs. History
  • Have small groups planned for Day Two of this activity.
  • Consider creating one or more additional Four Corners questions for Day One of this activity. (See below and see the Four Corners lesson plan.)

Estimated Time

2 class periods


Day One

Journal/Discussion Topic

  • Assign one or more of the following warm up topics:
  • ~Create a list of places important to you. Which is the most important? Why? What do you remember or think about this place?
  • ~Have you ever moved and then returned to your old neighborhood? If so, what was it like?
  • ~Have you ever visited one of your former schools? How did you feel? What was different? What was the same?
  • Consider having students describe the place they choose.
    Consider having students write their description in “Steinbeck’s style.” (See Sentence Fluency.)

Journal/Discussion Topic

  • Consider allowing students to work in pairs or small groups.
  • How does Steinbeck feel about returning home?
  • Discuss student responses.
  • ~The aim is to go beyond answers such as “he feels frustrated,” or “he feels like he doesn’t fit it.”
  • ~Students should identify Steinbeck’s conflicting feelings and point to specific examples from the book.

Four Corners Debate

  • For detailed instructions, see Four Corners.
  • ~Re-read from the top of page 148 to the end of the second full paragraph on page 149; focus particularly on the line “And we were an outrage to the Spanish-Mexicans and they in their turn on the Indians.”
  • ~Question: What is the “real” Salinas Valley?
  • ~~The Salinas Valley of the Native Americans?
  • ~~The Salinas Valley of the Spanish and Mexicans?
  • ~~The Salinas Valley of John Steinbeck’s youth (the 1890s into the 1930s)?
  • ~~The Salinas Valley of the 1960s when Steinbeck and Charley arrive?
  • ~Follow up question/journal topic
  • ~~Considering what you have learned about Steinbeck up to this point in the book, where or when is his home?
  • ~~Discuss student responses.

Day Two

Journal/Discussion topic:

  • What do we know about Johnny Garcia? How do we know these things (be specific, site examples from the book)?
  • Discuss student responses.

An interview with Johnny Garcia

  • Steinbeck left Johnny Garcia’s bar feeling lonely and out of place, but how did Johnny Garcia feel about Steinbeck’s visit?
  • Have students get into their small groups.
  • Re-read/review the scene in Johnny Garcia’s bar in Monterey (pages 152-155).
  • Groups will create a list of interview questions to ask Johnny Garcia about “Juanito” Steinbeck’s visit.
  • ~The purpose of the questions is to find out how Johnny Garcia felt about Steinbeck’s visit.
  • ~Was he angered? Why?
  • ~Was he happy to see Steinbeck? Why?
  • ~How did he feel after Steinbeck left the bar?
  • Allow time at the end of the period to have volunteer groups act out their interviews.
  • ~Discuss as a class the interviews. Allow constructive feedback regarding the questions and answers.
  • ~~Remind students that feedback needs to be constructive. Students do not have to agree with one another, but they must be respectful.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • Consider using this activity as a starting point for an oral history project (see Oral History)
  • Consider using this activity as a starting point for Memory vs. History
  • For more advanced classes, have students work on a research project that examines a people and their connection to the land (or the loss of land).
  • Native Americans, Cubans who fled the Castro regime, Israel and Palestine, Hawaiians, court cases involving Eminent Domain, people displaced by war or natural disasters, etc.
  • For students who have read The Red Pony, have them compare the meaning of place found in Travels with Charley to how Gitano and the Tifflins feel about the land in “The Great Mountains”.
  • For more information, see “The Meaning of Place” in The Red Pony downloadable lesson plans.


  • Students should have a stronger understanding of how characters are connected to the land in Travels with Charley.


  • After reading about Steinbeck’s time in Texas (173-185), compare and contrast what students learned about Johnny Garcia and the Salinas Valley with what students learn about Steinbeck’s in-laws and Texas.


  • This activity is meant to cause students to think more deeply about Johnny Garcia and how he and people in general are connected to their environment. Assess how involved individual students are during the Four Corners debate.
  • ~It may help to collect student-written responses to see how thoroughly students address the question as well as what evidence they use to support their thinking.
  • In their interviews with Johnny Garcia, did students stay on topic? How well did they support such, and how realistic were the answers they created for Johnny Garcia?

California State Content Standards Met

  • History-Social Science Content Standards 6-8
  • ~Research, Evidence, and Point of View: 1, 4
  • History and Social Science Content Standards 4
  • ~Students describe the social, political, cultural, and economic life and interactions among people of California from the pre-Columbian societies to the Spanish mission and Mexican rancho periods: 3, 7, 8
  • ~History and Social Science Content Standards 8
  • ~Students explain the economic, social, and political life in California from the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic through the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the granting of statehood: 2
  • ~Students analyze the divergent paths of the American people in the West from 1800 to the mid-1800s and the challenges they faced: 5

Common Core State Standards Met

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

Related Lesson Plans for this Work