Santa Monica High teacher launching new Steinbeck program

Appeared in the Santa Monica Daily Press
By Katie Osaki:

Santa Monica High School could initiate a new national youth program focused on the works of John Steinbeck.

Samohi English teacher Pete Barraza is a member of the National Endowment for the Humanities Steinbeck Institute and has spent the past year preparing to start a Steinbeck youth summer institute that is inspired by, but separate from, the established NEH institute.

Barraza wants to provide students with an opportunity to engage in an in-depth study of the author, hoping the experience will increase contributions from young readers in ways that will voice new discoveries in the growing world of Steinbeck.

“The privilege of learning and sharing through my role in the NEH Steinbeck Institute has provoked me to want to bring that experience to high school students whose voices are probably the most important in terms of future scholarship and inquiry,” Barraza said. “As is the case for many people, especially Californians, Steinbeck has always been my favorite writer, and having had experiential opportunities both as a student and educator in connection to his works, I am driven to create a new forum for students to exercise their intellectual and cultural curiosity via the works of John Steinbeck.”

The NEH Steinbeck Institute is a bi-annual three-week program for educators across the country. Barraza said he wants to mimic elements of the national program at his Steinbeck Youth Institute and touch on the philosophical and physical anecdotes that Steinbeck uses in his writing.

“The eventual goal of The Steinbeck Youth Institute will be to expose students from across the country to the literary and physical landscapes captured in the works of Steinbeck and in the academic and creative works that continue to be written or produced,” Barraza said.

Barraza began by asking a number of his tenth and eleventh grade classes if anyone was interested. He then provided students with some of Steinbeck’s novels to read outside of class, novels such as “East of Eden,” “Tortilla Flat” and “The Pastures of Heaven.”

A group of eight students finished this essential reading and Barraza plans to take the octet on a California road trip to visit many locations mentioned in Steinbeck’s books like Salinas, the Pastures of Heaven and Cannery Row this summer. Unlike other experiential adventures rooted in California literature, this endeavor will be more focused on academic inquiry and application via research and application.

Along the way he also hopes to talk with Steinbeck scholars like Susan Shillinglaw, Director of The National Steinbeck Center and author of many Steinbeck-related works, such as her introduction to the Penguin’s edition of “Cannery Row.”

Barraza said Shillinglaw’s position as director of the NEH Steinbeck Institute will offer pathways for the eight students to probe new areas of Steinbeck studies.

“For [any high schooler,] reading is really important, so pick any author and immerse yourself in a writer’s work and you’re on the right track,” Shillinglaw said. “However, living in California is a great opportunity to study Steinbeck because he talks about ethnic diversity and the landscapes of California. I think as a writer, he’s a good way to learn about the history of California and the people that lived here.”

With this youth institute, Barraza hopes to engage avid students in the literature of Steinbeck outside of the canonical required reading in most classrooms, creating new opportunities for young scholars that want to learn and explore arguably California’s most revered writer.

“I’m ecstatic about it because Steinbeck has always been someone I’ve looked up to and I really love his style of writing,” said Kelly Dunn, a Samohi student in the pilot program. “I’m also really excited for the summer where we’re supposed to submerse ourselves in Steinbeck’s literature and take a walk down ‘Cannery Row.’ As well as hopefully getting the chance to talk to scholars like Susan Shillinglaw, who wrote the intro to ‘Cannery Row,’ and Thomas Steinbeck.”

By pushing his students to read Steinbeck’s novels and share their analytical opinions, Barraza has reconnected with his original interest in Steinbeck literature and the importance of creating a space for young Steinbeck scholars to learn and grow in.

“What really drew me to Steinbeck was how prophetic he was in his writing,” Barraza said. “I think that by reading about Mac and the boys from ‘Cannery Row,’ and characters like that, that he gives purpose to, it gave me hope. Steinbeck tells the stories of people that would otherwise go unnoticed; he brought them to into the light and this is why I want to create this institute for youth.”

Katie Osaki, a Daily Press intern, is a student at Santa Monica High School.