Students may desire to process The Things They Carried by learning from veterans in their own communities. Teachers can utilize personal or familial connections or reach out to their local American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans or other local chapters and invite veterans to share their war related stories in their classrooms. Inviting local veterans into the classroom can allow for further consideration on themes of loss and storytelling, and teachers can also ask veterans to respond to particular chapters in light of their own wartime experiences. Having the text as the focus may help veterans know what to talk about, giving them the space to share similar or different experiences and viewpoints.
At key points in the novel, students can revisit their autobiographical writing prompts and consider the ways that their responses align or differ from O’Brien’s perspective. Ideas include when O’Brien says, “sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future” (p. 36); when O’Brien states, “What stories can do, I guess, is make things present. I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again” (p. 171-172); and, at the end of the novel, when O’Brien says, “stories can save us…in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world” (p. 212).
Considering their work with stories and veterans up to this point, students can explore in concrete ways how storytelling construction communicates truth by writing original autobiographies about loss or revisiting their autobiographical writing prompts, addressing literacy standards W.9-10.3 and W.11-12.3. Channelling the power of Tom Romano’s (2000) multigenre projects and addressing literacy standard W.9-10.10 and W.10-12.10, students can rewrite their stories into other genres. Ideas include merging narratives with “found” poems that utilize lines from the novel or nonfiction Vietnam War resources; creating obituaries and other memorials; compiling images and explanations of loss from their own lives or the lives of others; telling their stories of loss with episodic fiction or six-word memoirs; curating a multi-genre, loss-focused collection. Experimenting with form and offering student choice can communicate to students that there is power in telling stories of loss on their own terms.
Further exploring story construction and veteran experiences, students can listen to Storycorp, an audio-based story archive with a Military Voices section. With goals that mirror Romano’s multigenre project, Students can interview veterans, classmates, family or community members about stories of loss and construct and revise them as per StoryCorp guidelines. These accounts can be posted to StoryCorp’s website and/or compiled and shared with the immediate community as a testament to the power of stories.
Cautions and Advice
Discussions with students about wartime and other deaths can pose unique challenges. As O’Brien’s text suggests, remembering and reflecting on death can be messy, contradictory, surprising, and difficult; yet, this is why O’Brien’s text is so important. The Things They Carried does not promise its readers an easy walk through a difficult subject, and yet it does provide solace and even hope to its readers. Stories can save people.
Value of stories aside, it should be noted that some school districts have resisted the book due to its use of profanity and graphic content. Also, politics surrounding war and the ways that patriotism might or should be expressed in war are topics that can lead to division in the classroom. Additionally, students’ personal experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder should be considered prior to reading the book.
While the above concerns are real, they are not reasons to avoid using the book. Instead, such concerns highlight the need to build trust with students, colleagues, parents, and administrators; plan instruction carefully, scaffolding for potentially troubling content; and through journaling and other responses, enable students to communicate when they are struggling to process difficult stories or concepts. Each of these strategies empower teachers and students to read The Things They Carry and other books that “do not lie to the young about the perilous but wondrous times we live in, [but rather] books which talk of the fears, hopes, joys, and frustrations people experience, books about people not only as they are but as they can be” (NCTE, 2017, para. 17).