This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington's blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa or Facebook.com/TheresaHarringtonBANG.

April 15

To mark the 75th anniversary last Monday of the publication of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," schools throughout the state participated in a variety of activities as part of the California Teachers Association's "California Reads" program that highlights teacher-recommended books for students of all ages.

The epic struggles of the Joad family in Steinbeck's novel are being rediscovered and honored in classrooms, theaters and lecture halls this month and throughout the year, according to a CTA news release.

Northgate High English teacher Daniel Reynolds has taught the book for nine years to his high school juniors in the Mt. Diablo school district.

"'The Grapes of Wrath' is relevant to students today because the struggles of the Joad family, and of all the families dispossessed by the Depression, are the struggles of millions of people today," Reynolds said in a prepared statement. "Steinbeck reminds us that people want to work, they want to provide for their families, they want a little piece of land they can call their own, an education for their kids, they want to be healthy, and ultimately they want all these same things for everyone else too. Students feel a lot of this already, but struggle to put their feelings into words. The 'Grapes of Wrath' helps them do that."


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Reynolds' students at Northgate High in Walnut Creek participated in a variety of activities during lunchtime. Projects included a 75-foot multimedia timeline based on events in the book, an interactive social media experience designed by Reynolds, an Instagram scavenger hunt related to the novel, a student's website documenting what other classmates are doing to honor the book, square-dancing instruction in the gym, birthday cake, outfits created by students similar to what the characters wore, and an art show with music.

The book tells the story of the Joad family's migration from their farm in Oklahoma to California, where they were exploited and forced to work for starvation wages by unscrupulous growers. Reynolds said the book shows the power of working together against great and menacing odds.

"The 'Grapes of Wrath' evokes the American themes and progressive ideals of collective action and reasoned dissent," Reynolds said, "and reminds us that we all do better when we all do better."

In Fremont, American High School English teacher Deborah Thorsen recently finished teaching the book for a fifth time to her junior students.

"I tell my students that this is the kind of book that can change the way you look at the world," she said. "It tells them that they have a chance to change the world. It shows them that society isn't nice. They come away from the book with a sense of injustices, but wanting to do something about it."

The book, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is on the California Department of Education's recommended literature list. It has sparked numerous teacher lesson plans, both in high schools and colleges.

The Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University houses extensive archives -- including "Grapes of Wrath" manuscripts and first editions -- on the fifth floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. main library downtown, next to the university. The campus staged a Wednesday production of the novel, immediately followed by a discussion with Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw, who teaches English at the university and spoke about her new book, "On Reading the Grapes of Wrath." An opera based on the novel will be performed May 9 and 11.

I visited the Northgate campus after school Monday and saw some of the signs Reynolds had posted to get students thinking about themes in the book. One sign asked: "When someone warns you about the negative consequences of an action, do you stay away (and learn from their warning), or do you do it anyway (and learn from doing things for yourself -- even if that means taking negative consequences)?"

Reynolds said afterward that he considered the day a success.

"The idea was to have a celebratory nature, encouraging the students to think about the quotes," he said. "All over campus during lunch and most of the day it was everywhere for people to see."