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Teaching Guide: Exploring The Things They Carried

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion questions

  1. In the chapter “In the Field,” Lieutenant Cross rehearses the letter he is going to write to Kiowa’s father explaining his son’s death. How is the letter from Bobbie Lou Pendergrass to President Kennedy similar? How is it different?

  2. Using photographs and television clips in this set, identify similarities and differences between forms of protest during the Vietnam War and today. How do characters in The Things They Carried express dissent or ambivalence toward the Vietnam War?

  3. In the chapter “Spin,” Tim O’Brien writes: “On occasions the war was like a Ping-Pong ball. You could put fancy spin on it. You could make it dance.” Explain the “fancy spin” the U.S. Army puts on the war in the clip from a U.S. Army film.

  4. O’Brien arrived in Vietnam a year after the My Lai massacre of 1968. After reading the excerpt from the transcription of the 1970 military hearings, explain how Tim O’Brien (the character) might have reacted to learning about this atrocity? Find a piece of textual evidence from the novel to support your argument.

Classroom activities

Imagine you are a soldier fighting in the Vietnam War; however, in some anachronistic twist of fate, you have an iPhone that captured the photograph of Army nurse Diane Kay Corcoran, the photo of an American soldier motioning to a woman refugee, the photo of a Viet Cong soldier crouching in a bunker, the photo of a US Army soldier directing an approaching helicopter, and the photo of a military pack with canteens and guns, all of which which you instantly uploaded to Instagram. Create hashtags and captions for each of these images.

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