Cannery Row

Discover brief discussion techniques of plot, character development and theme employed by Steinbeck in his brief novella, Cannery Row.
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Teaching Strategies:
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Both the length and the storytelling quality of Steinbeck's Cannery Row make it a perfect book for reading aloud. Less than two-hundred, easy-to-read pages, its imagery and voice come to life when read orally by a good reader. The teacher may want to select chapters to read aloud that provide students with a picture of the Row, setting her up as one of the major characters of this enjoyable tale. The introduction, "Cannery Row," is a good example. After the teacher reads this three page description of Cannery Row, the students can orally respond to it as an entire class or in small groups. Questions such as these might be posed for discussion: What does Cannery Row look like? What does it smell like? Why does Steinbeck use the derogatory terms of "Wops and Chinamen and Polaks" in juxtaposition to "shining cars bring the upper classes down?" How does he show the passage of time on Cannery Row? Why does he say that "its normal life returns" after all of these people leave? What is this normal life of the Row? From the last line of this introduction, "And perhaps that might be the way to write this book-to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves," what do you expect the rest of the book to be like?

After reading the introduction orally, teachers may want to let the students read the first chapter of the book silently, followed by an oral reading of chapter two. The students can keep a dialogue journal of their reactions and responses to the book after each silent reading, with a discussion following each oral reading. This book lends itself to being read in class, during class time, with students given the time to respond individually in writing to the story and as a group to the more subtle aspects of Steinbeck's deceptively simple style and the "hidden" qualities and messages of the setting and characters.

By reading selected chapters aloud to the class and discussing them, teachers can help students go beyond the simple plot outline of the story. Chapter two, for example, is a good selection to be read orally. It begins with: "The word is a symbol and a delight which sucks up men and scenes, trees, plants, factories, and Pekinese. Then the Thing becomes the Word and back to Thing again, but warped and woven into a fantastic pattern. The Word sucks up Cannery Row, digests it and spews it out, and the Row has taken the shimmer of the green world and the sky-reflecting seas." If students read this silently, most are likely to say, "What?" But, when read orally and later discussed, the students can begin to understand what Steinbeck is suggesting. Teachers can lead them toward this by asking such questions as: Are things always what they seem? What is Steinbeck suggesting here about Lee Chong? How about Mack and the boys? Teachers can tell students to look for things (or people) who are not what they seem as they silently read chapter three. They can then write about this in their response journals. This alternating oral reading with small or large group discussion and silent reading with written response can be continued throughout much of the book. After students are aware of Steinbeck's style and know some of the themes to search for in his work, teachers may want to vary this approach. Perhaps, students can read several chapters silently, particularly those chapters in which Steinbeck relates the two main stories of Doc's first and second parties and the sad and humorous antics of Mack and the boys as they prepare for them. Throughout this silent reading, the students continue to respond in writing in their dialogue journals.

Periodically, the teacher can collect a group of these journals (perhaps five at a time) and respond to the students in writing. This works particularly well if the students are encouraged to write their responses to each chapter or each group of chapters or respond to one of several questions in letter format to the teacher. The teacher can then respond back, writing directly to the student. A variation of this approach is to have the students write letters to either a partner in the class, or, if it can be arranged, to a student at a local college or university who is also reading the book. If you have access to telecomputing networks, this approach can provide almost immediate feedback.

Students can share their responses in small groups, reading them and then discussing them. While in these groups, they can be encouraged to read certain more difficult chapters orally. The teacher can provide the students with questions to help them discuss these more complex sections of the work. For example, after reading chapter three silently and responding to it in their dialogue journals, students might be told to read chapter four orally in each of several small groups. They might respond to these questions in their small groups following their reading: Why does Steinbeck introduce the old Chinaman? Why does he come by just at dusk and leave just at dawn? How does his presence relate to what Steinbeck told us about the "normal life" on the Row? Why does he relate the story of Andy from Salinas? How does this contrast to the Chinaman's "normal life" on the Row? What does the Chinaman and the juxtaposition of Andy tell us about the Row herself? How would you characterize the Row?

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