Hometown Travel Journalism

Steinbeck’s witty memoir, “Travels with Charley: In Search of America,” inspires kids to investigate their neighborhoods as local travel journalists.

By Mollie Moore


Earth with two suitcases

Teaching humanities courses at a small private school, it was well within our pedagogy to ask the class for literature suggestions prior to planning a unit (a risky, but worthwhile endeavor). You can imagine my excitement when a member of my freshman class suggested Steinbeck’s entertaining travelogue, Travels with Charley: In Search of America. This fabulous novel offers a gold mine of cross-curricular learning opportunities for my young geographers! Or were they travel journalists? Full of hilariously awkward, yet poignant anecdotes of his cross-national road trip, this book follows John Steinbeck (and his poodle, Charley) as they examine real American culture through informal interviews. It’s a great platform to incorporate travel writing in the classroom and to challenge kids to become investigators in the place they live. Here’s how we created our own travel magazine while taking a literary journey with Steinbeck:  

Note: Although the text complexity makes this book appropriate only for high school classrooms, a travel magazine is a great class project for almost any grade. 

Awakening the Travel Bug

The brief introduction to this text is a fantastic way to begin discussing the value and process of travel in general. Is traveling something your learners want to do someday? Examine their personal motivations, moving beyond the standard response of “seeing new things.” 

After reading it together, consider asking scholars to find a golden line that spoke to them. Reflect on these lines together. Here’s one that tends to spark a good conversation: “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip.” Use this introduction to begin drawing parallels to larger journeys in life and the ultimate futility, or necessity, of control. Getting kids excited about taking part in an adventure, even if it is just around their own town, is a great way to start the project.

Assigning Beats to Your Reporters

Every town has subtle geographic nuances, and it’s your learners’ job to get to know the realities of these neighborhoods. If you’re up for it, this would be a great time to play the role of a no-nonsense magazine editor, assigning beats to your team of travel writers. Hand out the reporting assignment (feel free to use mine and adjust it for your own purposes) and explain what they will be doing. Be sure to emphasize the safety measures. Steinbeck doesn’t exactly set a stellar example as he invites perfect strangers into his home. Be sure to explain your expectations and the boundaries of investigative reporting.

As a group, begin brainstorming the various parts of town, writing two or three characteristics of each: “Old town is quaint, full of barbershops, and seems like it’s been forgotten by time.” Steinbeck demonstrates these types of observations during his travels, so it will be easy to draw on quality examples. Now that you’ve determined your beats, it’s time to assign them to reporters and let them loose!

Creating a Map

To incorporate geography into this project, I asked each writer to create an original map on his/her magazine page. Help them see the potential creativity in this by examining some map examples of your hometown and answering logic questions. Feel free to use mine as an example. The purpose here is to see how artistic, practical, and localized maps can be. After looking at the samples, they choose the top three that best depict a map they might create for their travel magazine page. If you have time, share out top map choices and reasons these styles stood out to students.  

Keeping Reporters Motivated

Like any project, the key to this assignment is to give young reporters adequate time and progress checks throughout. Keep them motivated by expecting regular reports on what they have been discovering on their beat (do this in small groups if you have a big class). Bring in fascinating travel magazine features to explore this writing style. Take full advantage of the naturally occurring connections between their experiences in the field and Steinbeck’s adventures across country as you embark on this exciting journey together. Once the magazine is finished, give it the dignity it deserves by binding and displaying it in a prominent place. 

Here Are Some Other Approaches to Consider:

Outline a Travel Narrative

Let imaginations run wild while outlining a travel narrative from the perspective of a train conductor traveling across the United States. Writers fill in all the elements of a great story, then draft opening and closing lines. 

Regions of the United States

Focus on presenting ideas logically with young writers as they research a specific US region and create a travelogue to describe its various cultural, geographic, and economic distinctions. This is a small group project and includes almost everything you'll need to make it happen! 

How Can Maps Help?

Check out the National Geographic MapMachine while investigating the various ways maps are used. The tool shows different types of maps, and scholars consider how each could be best used. Then, they determine which five maps would be most helpful when planning an international event.