Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Teacher Guide by Kristy Littlehale

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Grapes of Wrath Lesson Plans

Student Activities for Grapes of Wrath Include:

Why does a novel from 1939 about a migrant family in search of work during the Great Depression still resonate with readers in the 21st century? The answer is simple: look around. After the recession of 2008, this story maintains its relevance, especially with many students whose parents lost their jobs and/or careers as a result of the 2008 crash. The universal themes of the pursuit of the American Dream, perseverance, and the struggle against injustice, are still found in many aspects of American life today. As a result, The Grapes of Wrath has been hailed as one of the defining novels of American literature.

Grapes of Wrath Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Plot Diagram Graphic Organizer for The Grapes of Wrath

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A common use for Storyboard That is to help students create a plot diagram of the events from a story. Not only is this a great way to teach the parts of the plot, but it reinforces major events and help students develop greater understanding of literary structures.

Students can create a storyboard capturing the narrative arc in a work with a six-cell storyboard containing the major parts of the plot diagram. For each cell, have students create a scene that follows the story in sequence using: Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.

Example Plot Diagram for The Grapes of Wrath


Tommy Joad has been paroled from prison early for good behavior. He was sent there after killing Herb Turnbull in a barfight. He arrives back to his family’s farm to find it deserted; his family has all moved to his Uncle John’s after the bank took the land. He runs into a former Reverend, Jim Casy, and his neighbor Muley Graves. He resolves to go to Uncle John’s the following morning.


Because Tommy is out on parole, he technically cannot leave the state. However, his family is planning to move to the San Joaquin Valley of California, where a government program promises a beautiful future for displaced farmers. The entire family and Casy have to fit into a small jalopy Hudson Super-Six truck in order to travel the 2,000 miles across the country.

Rising Action

The Joads set off on Highway 66, where many others from the Great Plains areas are migrating west. Grandpa Joad has a stroke the night they leave, and dies. As the Joads drive on, they begin to hear rumblings that there aren’t enough jobs in California after all. As they continue, Noah decides to leave the group, Sairy Wilson is too sick to continue traveling with the Joads, and Granma dies.


At the Hooverville migrant camp, the Joads find corrupt police officers and hostile locals. Casy takes the blame for striking a deputy who was out of control, and is carted off to prison. The Joads move to Weedpatch, which is run by the migrants themselves. They are offered a job picking peaches and find out it’s because the regular workers are on strike. Casy is in charge. He is hit and killed by a police officer, and Tommy explodes, killing the officer.

Falling Action

The Joads move onto a cotton-picking field where Tommy hides out until his injuries are healed from the fight. The Joads share a boxcar with the Wainwrights, and Al Joad and Agnes Wainwright fall in love. After another disappointing job opportunity, Rose of Sharon goes into labor and gives birth to a stillborn baby. Tom decides to continue Casy’s work by staying behind to help the migrant workers. The boxcar is overtaken by floodwaters, so the Joads flee.


The Joads come to a farm where they find a barn for shelter. Rose of Sharon is still very ill. Inside the barn, they find a young boy and a man, his father, who is starving from being sick and is not able to eat solid foods anymore without getting sick. Rose of Sharon gives the dying man her breast, which has milk from her recent birth, and covers him with a blanket. She is strangely at peace.

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)

Student Instructions

Create a visual plot diagram of The Grapes of Wrath.

  1. Separate the story into the Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.
  2. Create an image that represents an important moment or set of events for each of the story components.
  3. Write a description of each of the steps in the plot diagram.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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Character Map Graphic Organizer for The Grapes of Wrath

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As students read, a storyboard can serve as a helpful character reference log. This log (also called a character map) allows students to recall relevant information about important characters. When reading a novel, small attributes and details frequently become important as the plot progresses. With character mapping, students will record this information, helping them follow along and catch the subtleties which make reading more enjoyable!

Use a character map to help track the different characters that are discussed in The Grapes of Wrath.

Tommy Joad

Physical Traits
Wears new, ill-fitting clothes from the prison; recently paroled for good behavior; dark brown hair and dark brown eyes; high cheekbones; heavy callouses on his hands

Character Traits
Well-respected by his family; doesn’t take any nonsense from others; wants to help his family; finally sees the wisdom in Casy’s teachings and wants to help the migrant workers fight against injustice; lives in the moment

“But look, when you been in stir a little while, you can smell a question comin’ from hell to breakfast. You telegraphed yours the first time you opened your trap.”

Other characters included in this map are: Pa “Ol’ Tom” Joad, Jim Casy, Ma Joad, Rose of Sharon, and Al Joad.

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Student Instructions

Create a character map for the major characters.

  1. Identify the major characters in The Grapes of Wrath and type their names into the different title boxes.
  2. Choose a character to represent each of the literary characters.
    • Select colors and a pose appropriate to story and character traits.
  3. Choose a scene or background that makes sense for the character.
  4. Fill in the Textables for Physical Traits, Character Traits, and Quote.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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Literary Conflict Student Activity for The Grapes of Wrath

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Storyboarding is an excellent way to focus on types of literary conflict. Have your students choose an example of each literary conflict and depict them using the Storyboard Creator. In the storyboard, an example of each conflict should be visually represented, along with an explanation of the scene, and how it fits the particular category of conflict.

Examples of Literary Conflict from The Grapes of Wrath


The locals feel threatened by the sudden wave of migrants coming into their communities. When the Joads leave the Hooverville camp, they are confronted by an angry crowd of men who swarm the truck. The men force the Joads to turn around, telling them, “We ain't gonna have no goddamn Okies in this town.”


Tommy doesn’t feel particularly bad about the murder he committed, because it was done in self-defense. However, he doesn’t really feel like he fits in either. His family has been uprooted, and now they’ve arrived in another part of the country where there is no work or opportunities for them. He wishes that he could do more to help his family. Tommy finally finds his calling after Casy’s death, but it takes him a lot of internal struggling to arrive at this conclusion.


Tommy Joad decides to stand up for the migrant workers, even in the face of the wealthy farmers who are actively working to take advantage of them. The communities of California try to control this influx of migrant workers by calling those who demand fair wages, “communists”. In reality, they are just trying to call attention to the criminal practices of the wealthy farmers, and fight for a wage that will support their families.

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)

Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows at least three forms of literary conflict in The Grapes of Wrath.

  1. Identify conflicts in The Grapes of Wrath.
  2. Categorize each conflict as Character vs. Character, Character vs. Self, Character vs. Society, Character vs. Nature, or Character vs. Technology.
  3. Illustrate conflicts in the cells, using characters from the story.
  4. Write a short description of the conflict below the cell.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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Themes, Symbols, and Motifs Student Activity for The Grapes of Wrath

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes to Look For and Discuss

Pursuit of the American Dream

An important theme in The Grapes of Wrath is the pursuit of the American Dream. In the 1930s, when many families just a short time before had thought they had achieved the Dream by purchasing land and building homes on it, suddenly found their worlds uprooted by the Depression, and then by the Dust Bowl. The Joads’ pursuit of reclaiming the American Dream takes them to California, where they just want a chance for a living wage and some happiness. This is not unlike many people who migrate to America today, and it gives the Joads hope in the face of an otherwise hopeless situation.


Another important theme in The Grapes of Wrath is perseverance. Almost from the outset of their journey, the Joads lose their dog and Grandpa. This is followed shortly by Connie abandoning his pregnant wife Rose of Sharon, Noah deciding to leave his family at the border, and then the death of Granma. On top of all of that, they have to leave behind their friends, the Wilsons, because Sairy Wilson is too sick. Once in California, the Joads are met with hostility and corruption, and are unable to find work. Jim Casy even takes the blame for a fight that breaks out with a corrupt deputy and is arrested. In spite of all of this, the Joads continue to persevere in their search for a better life: they go from the peach farm to a cotton farm, to a boxcar, and eventually to a barn where Rose of Sharon is able to help a starving man. While we may never know what happens to the Joads, one thing is for certain: their sheer will and their kind hearts are their biggest assets.

The Struggle Against Injustice

Another crucial theme in The Grapes of Wrath is the struggle against injustice. The smaller farmers are being forced out by larger farmers; the larger farmers are printing 5,000 advertisements for 800 job openings, which are drawing over 20,000 people to California; the larger farmers are taking advantage of the migrant workers and paying them below livable wages; anyone who rises up or tries to make trouble is carted off by corrupt law enforcement officials, who are in the farmers’ pockets. These are the injustices that the Joads witness, and which Jim Casy rises up against. It is after Casy’s death that Tommy realizes that this is his calling, too, and that, like Casy said, they are all just a piece of a bigger soul. Tommy tells Ma, “I been thinkin’ how it was in that gov’ment camp, how our folks took care a theirselves, an’ if they was a fight they fixed it theirself; an’ they wasn’t no cops wagglin’ their guns, but they was better order than them cops ever give. I been a-wonderin’ why we can’t do that all over. Throw out the cops that ain’t our people. All work together for our own thing - all farm our own lan’.”

The Importance of Family

A last important theme in The Grapes of Wrath is the importance of family. Ma Joad becomes distraught when she realizes, as they cross into California, that their family seems to be falling apart: Grandpa and Granma are dead; Noah leaves the family; Connie abandons his pregnant wife; and their new “family” members, Ivy and Sairy Wilson have to stay behind. Ma knows that without their family sticking together, they will not survive. Tommy relies on his family to help him after he kills the police officer who murders Jim Casy; Rose of Sharon depends on her family when her husband runs off, and then she gives birth to a stillborn. The family comes together and forges a new family with the Wainwrights, especially when Al falls in love with Agnes. Finally, their family continues to hold together when they come across the starving man and his son, and invite them into the folds of their family, too. The strength of the Joad family is what gives them the will to continue to persevere.

Motifs, Imagery & Symbols

The Joad Farm

An important symbol in The Grapes of Wrath is the Joad farm. The Joad farm has been in the family for three generations, and means everything to Pa and Grandpa. Being run off their land by a heartless bank with no one to turn to deals Grandpa quite a blow, and Pa a new set of challenges. Ma seems most dismayed by this loss of family history, and she wonders if California will be all it’s cracked up to be.

Highway 66

Another important symbol in The Grapes of Wrath is Highway 66, the main migrant route to California. Highway 66 is a road of hope for the migrants searching for a better life after the loss of their homesteads and jobs. The migrants become a sort of family amongst themselves, forging new friendships with others in need. The Joads find this friendship with the Wilsons, whose kindness during Grandpa’s death is not forgotten.

The Grapes (and Other Fruit)

A final important symbol in The Grapes of Wrath is the grapes and other fruit of California’s promises. The phrase “the grapes of wrath” comes from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Throughout the beginning of the novel, Grandpa muses about getting to California and eating as many grapes as he can get his hands on. Later, Steinbeck uses the grapes to symbolize the growing unrest in the clash between the migrant workers and the larger farmers, who are withholding an opportunity of a better life from these destitute and desperate people. Steinbeck said that he liked the song “because it is a march and this book is a kind of march - because it is in our own revolutionary tradition and because in reference to this book it has a large meaning.”

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Imagery Lesson Plan for The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck is well-known for painting detailed pictures with his words. Choose some selections from the novel where Steinbeck uses detailed descriptions of the landscape. Choose six lines from the description that are especially vivid. Use Storyboard That’s Photos for Class search function to find pictures that highlight the images captured in these lines. Then, create a storyboard for your selection!

Cell 1

“The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.”

Cell 2

“The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects.”

Cell 3

“And the crops changed. Fruit trees took the place of grain fields, and vegetables to feed the world spread out on the bottoms: lettuce, cauliflower, artichokes, potatoes - stoop crops. A man may stand to use a scythe, a plow, a pitchfork; but he must crawl like a bug between the rows of lettuce, he must bend his back and pull his long bag between the cotton rows, he must go on his knees like a penitent across a cauliflower patch.”

Cell 4

“The moving, questing people were migrants now. Those families which had lived on a little piece of land, who had lived and died on forty acres, who had eaten or starved on the produces of forty acres, had now the whole West to rove in… Behind them more were coming.”

Cell 5

“And all the time the fruit swells and the flowers break out in long clusters on the vines. And in the growing year the warmth grows and the leaves turn dark green.”

Cell 6

“Over the high coast mountains and over the valleys the gray clouds marched in from the ocean. The wind blew fiercely and silently, high in the air, and it swished in the brush, and it roared in the forests.”

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Vocabulary Lesson Plan for The Grapes of Wrath

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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that use vocabulary from The Grapes of Wrath. Here is a list of a few vocabulary words commonly taught with the novel, and an example of a visual vocabulary board.

Example Vocabulary Words from The Grapes of Wrath

  • emulsion
  • truculent
  • wrath
  • ostracism
  • migrant
  • prodigal
  • listless
  • parched
  • disconsolate
  • cantankerous
  • ravenous
  • lanky
  • vagrant
  • assail
  • gulch

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)

Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in Grapes of Wrath by creating visualizations.

  1. Choose three vocabulary words from the story and type them in the title boxes.
  2. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  3. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  4. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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Comparing The Great Depression and the 2008 Recession

The Great Depression

2008 Recession

Unemployment Rate 25% Unemployment Rate 10%
20% of people are underemployed
Governmental monetary stimulus took 19 months to reflect in the stock market Governmental monetary stimulus took 10 months to reflect in stock market
People waited in bread lines; depended on government to survive day-to-day One in six people ended up on governmental assistance
Banks collapsed, losing $140 billion in depositors’ money; over 9,000 banks failed Between GDP loss and loss of household wealth, estimates are around $12.8 trillion dollars lost; 57 banks failed

The Dust Bowl

Right in the middle of the Great Depression came one of the worst droughts America had ever seen. For several years (from about 1934-1940), 150,000 square miles of America’s heartland were ravaged by high winds, dry conditions, and poor cultivation practices that led to loose topsoil in which nothing could survive the harsh weather.

Enrichment Activity

While reading The Grapes of Wrath, have students compare and contrast the Joads’ story with that of the current immigration crisis out of Syria into Europe.

Essential Questions for The Grapes of Wrath

  1. What is the American Dream, and how has it changed over the last century?
  2. Why is it important to hold onto hope in the face of tragedy?
  3. When can family provide strength and comfort?
  4. How can a person stand up to social injustice?
  5. Why is it important for people to earn a fair living wage?
  6. What does this novel say about being an American, even in dark times?

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•   (English) Grapes of Wrath   •   (Español) Uvas de la ira   •   (Français) Les Raisins de la Colère   •   (Deutsch) Früchte des Zorns   •   (Italiana) Furore   •   (Nederlands) Grapes of Wrath   •   (Português) Vinhas da Ira   •   (עברית) ענבי זעם   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) عناقيد الغضب   •   (हिन्दी) ग्रैप्स ऑफ रैथ   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Гроздья Гнева   •   (Dansk) Vredens Druer   •   (Svenska) Vredens Druvor   •   (Suomi) Vihan Hedelmät   •   (Norsk) Grapes of Wrath   •   (Türkçe) Gazabın Üzümleri   •   (Polski) Grona Gniewu   •   (Româna) Fructele Mâniei   •   (Ceština) Hrozny Hněvu   •   (Slovenský) Hrozno Hnevu   •   (Magyar) Szőlő of Wrath   •   (Hrvatski) Grožđe Gnjeva   •   (български) Грозде на Гнева   •   (Lietuvos) Vynuogės Rūstybės   •   (Slovenščina) Grozdje Wrath   •   (Latvijas) Vīnogas of Wrath   •   (eesti) Viinamarjad Wrath