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        How the War Was Fought: "The Things They Carried" | ​Ken Burns & ​Lynn Novick: The Vietnam War

        In this lesson, students will view segments from The Vietnam War of Vietnam veteran and author Tim O'Brien reading from The Things They Carried, and use this literature to learn about soldiers’ experiences in war. They try their hand at writing about the things they themselves carry, and what those things say about themselves.

        Lesson Summary

        In this lesson, students analyze Vietnam veteran and author Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, using literature to learn about soldiers’ experiences in war. They try their hand at writing about the things they themselves carry, and what those things say about them.

        Time Allotment

        • 1 class period (50 minutes) for Part I
        • 1 class period (50 minutes) for Part II (optional)

        Learning Objectives

        • Analyze a literary passage.
        • Use literature to gain insight into soldiers’ experiences of war.
        • Write about what they themselves carry and what that says about them.


        Video Segments:

        Student Handouts (avaliable in "Support Materials" below):

        • Handout A: Transcript of Tim O’Brien Reading from The Things They Carried (for classes doing only Part I)
        • Handout B: Transcript of Tim O’Brien Reading from The Things They Carried (for classes doing Parts I and II)

        About The Author

        Julie Weiss holds a Ph.D. in American Studies, and taught media analysis and women’s studies at the college level before turning her focus to curriculum development. She contributed lessons based on the Ken Burns documentary The National Parks. She has also written for Teaching Tolerance, the Newsweek Education Program, the California Environment and Education Initiative, and Aramco World magazine, among others. Currently a social worker, she developed a program that helped veterans with PTSD train dogs to provide emotional support. 

        Learning Activities

        NOTE: Part I of this lesson can be used as a stand-alone lesson. Part II is optional and adds another dimension to the lesson.

        Part 1: The Things They Carried

        1. In the video segments, students will watch author and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien read from his novel The Things They Carried. Explain to students that The Things They Carried is a work of fiction, and that they should listen to it that way–as something that can help them understand what it was like for soldiers in Vietnam, although it may not be literally true.

        2. Distribute Handout A, explaining that it is a written version of what they will see and hear in the video. Then show the segment, “The Things They Carried,” twice so that students can fully take it in, both in terms of what O’Brien says and in terms of the rhythmic nature of the writing. Give students a few minutes to react to O’Brien’s reading, either in a one-minute free-write or in a short class discussion.

        3. Have students mark with a highlighter which items on the list are actual physical objects that can fit in a backpack, and use a different color to mark the items on the list which are not actual physical items that can be carried, but more abstractions (dealing with ideas or concepts rather than things). Have students, either in small groups on as a whole class, discuss:

        • What effect does it have on you as a listener/reader that Tim O’Brien included both physical objects and abstractions in his list of the things the soldiers carried?
        • Why do you think he included both in the list?
        • How would you summarize the list of items the men carried with them in their backpacks?
        • How does O’Brien use repetition as a narrative device? (Repetition and detail.) How does it make you feel as a reader?

        4. Have students write down what they are carrying in their backpacks, and think about why each item is there. Then ask them to write a letter to a friend or family member that describes what they carry with them. Make sure students begin their letter by explaining why they are writing. Then have them tell that person about the items, and why they carry them.

        5. Remind students that Tim O’Brien also identified things that soldiers carried that were not literal things, like memory, and the sky. Have students think on this metaphorical level about what they carry. Ask: What do you carry that’s not an object? They can start by making a list, but then have them add to their letter the intangibles they carry, what they mean, and why they are carrying them.

        6. Have students end the letter by explaining the point they are trying to make by describing what they carry.

        7. Have students debrief by talking about what they learned by writing about the things they carried. Ask them to compare their own writing to Tim O’Brien’s. What differences do they notice? How is their informative letter similar to and different from O’Brien’s literary description?

        Part 2: The Things They Did (Optional)

        In this optional part of the lesson, students see author Tim O’Brien read a longer passage from The Things They Carried and discuss it, using the following steps to guide them.

        1. Students have the transcript of the rest of the passage in Handout B. View the segment, “They Endured” with the class twice. Encourage students to follow along with the transcript the first time through, and then just watch and listen the second time. After you show the clip, ask students to write down a word that describes how they feel.

        2. Build on what students did in Part I of the activity by pointing out that in this longer passage, O’Brien adds more to the list of what the soldiers carried. Ask students: What else did the soldiers carry? Why do you think O’Brien expanded the soldiers’ loads to include natural phenomena that they could not literally have carried? What point do you think he is making?

        3. The rest of the passage describes what the soldiers did. Have students identify and list the verbs that O’Brien uses to convey to readers the actions the soldiers took. When they look at the list of actions, what overall sense do they get about the soldiers’ mission and the way they are carrying it out? Ask: Why did the soldiers do what they did? Based on the reading, how do you think they felt about it?

        4. Have students write a short piece in which they summarize the passage from The Things They Carried and explain what was most significant to them about it.   

        Culminating Activity

        Have students watch another video clip from The Vietnam War, “How am I doing this?” Ask students what they think of as courageous. Where do their ideas come from (e.g., movies, family stories)? What do they do that they think of as brave? Then ask them to respond to Tim O’Brien’s assertion that “just to walk felt incredibly brave” in Vietnam. Can they understand why it felt that way? In what circumstances can they imagine that they would be brave just to walk?


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