Power, Justice, and Culpability: Of Mice and Men and The Central Park Five

In this unit, students read John Steinbeck's classic novella, Of Mice and Men, and the 2011 nonfiction text, The Central Park Five by Sarah Burns. 



Unit 3

9th Grade

Unit Summary

This is the new 2023 edition of our 9th Grade unit on Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck and The Central Park Five by Sarah Burns.

"They argue that Reyes's culpability does nothing to contradict the guilty 
verdicts of the five young men, despite the overwhelming forensic evidence
 and the teenagers' confused and contradictory confessions." 
—The Central Park Five

"'Lennie never done it in meanness,' George said.
 'All the time he done bad things, but he never done one of 'em mean.'" 
—Of Mice and Men

In this unit, students read John Steinbeck's classic novella, Of Mice and Men, and the 2011 nonfiction text, The Central Park Five by Sarah Burns. Although these texts are set in very different time periods and address seemingly disparate topics, we have chosen to place them together because of the opportunity each provides to complicate students' understanding of power, justice, and culpability. These texts don't "speak to each other" so much as they provide students with drastically different lenses through which to explore larger ideas about human nature.

The unit begins with an analysis of Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck's 1937 novella about two migrant workers and their experiences on a ranch in Salinas, California. Over the course of the unit's first nine lessons, students will closely read the text, paying careful attention to elements of craft. Students will discuss Steinbeck's use of setting to establish mood, the development of foreshadowing as a means of creating tension, his use of dialogue to reveal aspects of characters, and the way that the text's structure contributes to meaning. This text provides students the opportunity to grapple with questions about how power and perceived vulnerability affect the way that characters see themselves and treat others. Students will wrap up their close analysis of this text with a Socratic seminar that prepares them for an analytical essay in which they take a position on one of three prompts, focusing on providing the strongest evidence to support their claims.

Students will then spend three lessons considering the concept of culpability, particularly in the context of the criminal justice system, and how aspects of a person's identity can shape whether a person is perceived as guilty. They will learn about a Supreme Court decision that forbids the execution of people with intellectual disabilities and a case where the character of Lennie was used as a benchmark of guilt in a real-life crime (and the horrified response of the Steinbeck family to this decision). Students will then learn about situations where people have been wrongly convicted of crimes, and the role that racism can play in these convictions and in perceptions of guilt more generally.   

This leads students to the second core text of the unit, The Central Park Five, where they will continue their analysis of the way that power dynamics – and particularly racism and classism – intersect with perceptions of culpability. The book tells the true story of five young teenagers who were falsely accused of a brutal rape in 1989. Students will read the first several chapters of the text, paying close attention to author Sarah Burns' structural choices as she develops her argument about this tragic miscarriage of justice. The text pushes readers to consider the role that the media played in both reflecting and shaping public opinion of this case, and particularly the way that the media used specific words and phrases to dehumanize the boys. 

The unit concludes with a Performance Task through which students will demonstrate their understanding of the larger themes raised in the core texts. Furthermore, this unit will offer students daily opportunities to engage in discourse, craft written interpretations of text, and synthesize themes across texts. 

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Texts and Materials

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This assessment accompanies Unit 3 and should be given on the suggested assessment day or after completing the unit.

Key Knowledge

Intellectual Prep

Unit Launch

Before you teach this unit, unpack the texts, themes, and core standards through our guided intellectual preparation process. Each Unit Launch includes a series of short videos, targeted readings, and opportunities for action planning to ensure you're prepared to support every student.

Essential Questions


  • How does a person's sense of their own power or powerlessness affect the way they behave toward others? How do intellectual ability, race, class, and gender impact an individual's power or lack thereof?
  • What is the impact of loneliness on how people behave and treat others? 
  • What factors shape our perception of a person's level of culpability when a crime has been committed?


  • How can the way a text is structured help to communicate meaning?
  • How can specific words and phrases shape the way a reader thinks and feels about a topic?



advocate anachronistic barrage barrage belligerent bemused contemptuous cognitive bias cultivate culpable destitute dehumanize derogatory disarming erroneous hierarchy humanize imperious ingenuity inadvertent mete monotonous morose nomadic ostracize pugnacious reprehensible scheme scheme woe

Literary Terms

characterization climax colloquial language connotation dialect dynamic characters epigraph exposition falling action foreshadowing mood perspective preface purpose resolution rising action static characters structure sympathetic character tone

To see all the vocabulary for Unit 3, view our 9th Grade Vocabulary Glossary.

Notes for Teachers

Of Mice and Men contains the N-word. Before starting the text, it is imperative that teachers prepare students for its use in the text. BIPOC students, in particular, can be harmed by seeing the word in the text without any warning. Teachers should understand the history of the word and unpack and facilitate discussions with students about the history and usage of the word. In your classroom communities, establish that the word should never be said aloud in class. If reading the text aloud, teachers should replace its use with "N-word." When citing the text in classroom materials or in writing, replace it with "N-word" or "n—" as seen in our lesson plans. Below are some resources to further prepare yourself and your students for its use in the text:

Central Park Five contains graphic descriptions of violence, including rape, that may be upsetting to students. When They See Us dramatizes onscreen the descriptions read in the text. Your students may have reactions to this content, and some may have personal history that makes this a particularly difficult topic. Both texts, as well as the articles on culpability and race, also explore how racism and classism in the criminal justice system leads to a disproportionately high number of wrongful convictions for Black and Latino men. Be mindful of your Black and Latino male students, in particular, and how they might feel reading these texts.

Lesson Map

Common Core Standards

Core Standards


Supporting Standards

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Unit 2

You Laugh But It’s True: Humor and Institutional Racism in Born a Crime


Unit 4

¡Viva Las Mariposas! Voice and Agency in In the Time of the Butterflies

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