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Three Student Activities for "The Winter of Our Discontent"

By Krima Olive Molina

Moral dilemmas, sacrifices, and soul decay--these are just some of the themes that prevail in the novel "The Winter of Our Discontent" by John Steinbeck. How do you make your students connect with this kind of plot? Here are some activities you can do in your classroom.

Moral Debate

The main problem of Ethan, the lead character in the novel, is his loss of wealth, and watching helplessly as the money shifts from his side of the game to the new businesses sprouting around him. Although he is blessed with a loving wife and kids, he still feels a gaping hole of discontent within him--he has to have his prestige back. Eventually, he figures that the only way to get that prominence back is through the dirty way--deceit and dishonesty.

One of the "The Winter of Our Discontent" student activities you can use in your class, is a moral debate with this question: Is there a way to gain wealth and prestige the honest way? Divide your class into two groups, select a debate format most appropriate for the class, and give them time (one period of your class may do) to talk among their group mates and do research on the issue. Encourage them to cite evidence of their standpoint from the novel itself. How was wealth acquired, lost, and reacquired by Ethan? Was there any other way he could have regained his prestige? These are some of the questions you might want to leave the students with as they brainstorm among themselves. Implement some brainstorming techniques to get the debate going.

Experts' Circle

Another activity that will surely be meaningful and easy to understand, for your students, is the Experts' Circle. In this activity, assign three students to be a psychologist, a guidance counselor, and a sociologist. These roles should be given beforehand so that the students can prepare. What do they prepare?

These "experts" are to study the life and times of Ethan, and how his values and actions affect his fate. During the activity itself, the students are to act as reporters, trying to write a life story about Ethan, and therefore they need information and opinions from the appropriate people--the experts. The teacher starts by introducing the experts to the press conference ("We are very privileged to have with us here three people who have a wide glimpse into the life of Ethan.")

Do this everyday, with three different selected students per session. Following the constructivism theory, students get into the character when impersonating them, which is an effective way to deepen the students' comprehension of the events leading the plot. It is an efficient way to connect the schema of the students, with that of the character/s in the novel.

You might want to look at some best practices in student learning before starting this method if you are unsure about how to conduct it.

My Thoughts Exactly

This activity is again conducted in groups. Divide your students into three groups. Make sure to distribute your best writers evenly among these three groups.

The task of each group is to: (1) deliberate on whether or not Ethan died in the end and, (2) if it would be more effective if he died or not. They are to present their opinions by coming up with a PowerPoint presentation of their consolidated thoughts. Each group is to pick a representative to present these thoughts in front of the whole class.

The Individual's Interpretation

Using "The Winter of Our Discontent" student activities is a lot easier once you actually involve the students in the thinking, interpreting, and presenting their own opinions on the novel. Literature is, after all, owned by the reader--each individual has an entirely different perspective of a given text. Rather than lecturing and imposing your own thoughts on the students, let them come up with their own stance, and watch them develop a deeper interest in your subject matter.