Teaching With Documents
Letter from President
to John Steinbeck
- Provide students with a copy of the featured document. Ask a volunteer to read it aloud while the others follow along. Lead a class discussion with the following questions:
- What type of document is this?
- When was it created?
- Who created it?
- Who received it?
- What was the purpose of the document?
- What questions does the document raise
- Ask students to consider what President Johnson meant by "the many gifts you [Steinbeck] have given this grateful nation." Lead a class discussion about what it is that authors and literature "give" to people, and what John Steinbeck’s contributions in particular were. [If students have not read much of Steinbeck’s work, encourage them to either read what various literary critics wrote about his books. Or, suggest that they read the speech that Steinbeck gave on December 10, 1962, when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, for insight into what he believed was the role of "the writer." The speech is reprinted in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters.]
Small Group Research Activity
- Share with students the section of the background essay that quotes Steinbeck’s letter to the President. Ask students to identify the wars that Steinbeck referred to (the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War I). Divide students into five groups. Assign each of the first four groups one of the wars referred to in the letter, and assign the fifth group Vietnam. Ask student groups to research the dissent by Americans to their assigned war and determine whether Steinbeck’s characterization of the protesters was accurate. Ask a volunteer from each group to report their findings with the class.
Research and Paired Discussion
- Share information from the background essay with students about the relationship between John Steinbeck and President Johnson. Inform students that Jackson Benson, one of Steinbeck’s biographers, claimed that "support for the war in Vietnam tragically affected the reputations of both men and unfairly tarnished their other accomplishments." Ask half of the class to research the accomplishments of Lyndon Johnson and the other half to research the accomplishments of John Steinbeck. Then, divide students into pairs (one student who had researched LBJ with one student who had researched Steinbeck). Ask them to share their findings and discuss to what extent they agree with Benson’s claim.
Individual Opinion Paper
- Assign students to write a two-page opinion paper explaining their agreement or disagreement with Steinbeck’s comment that "only mediocrity escapes criticism." Encourage them to cite at least five examples from history to support their argument.
Individual Letter Writing Exercise
- Remind students that Steinbeck helped LBJ draft his speech for the 1964 Democratic Convention. Ask students to pretend that they are running for a political office and have decided to seek writing assistance from a literary figure (living or deceased) whose writing style they admire. Direct students to write a one-page letter to that individual, asking for their assistance and explaining why they have been chosen.
- Inform students that John Steinbeck, Jr., in his book In Touch, described his father as "a kind of American-conscience figure." Ask students what they think that meant and whether they can think of other such figures.
Individual Extension Activities
- Invite student volunteers to complete one of the following projects:
- Research Steinbeck’s trip to Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Identify places he visited on a map of Southeast Asia; write a brief summary about his experiences and the articles he wrote; and present a 10-minute overview to the class.
- Read Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952) and compare his perspective on the impact of war on families and culture during the World War I period with the impact of the Vietnam War on families and culture during the 1960s; and present a 10-minute overview to the class.
- Research the criticism Steinbeck received for his support of American policy in Vietnam; write a two-page summary; and present a 10-minute overview to the class.
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