Instructors’ Teaching Experience

This book worked wonders in my class! The students really got it, and loved it–it will be a huge hit! The writing is gorgeous, and because it is split into short stories (i.e. chapters), it works on a story as well as a novel level; it’s a quick read for them as compared to some other books. [V. Sprow,]

Classroom Strategies

When I teach the titular short story, I have students choose a character and trace what that person specifically carries. They then work in groups to analyze each character based on what he carries and present their claims to the class. Then, I have students do a brief creative writing assignment (1 page or so), in which they describe what they carry throughout their days. They then choose a portion of this to share with the class. This is a great activity to do at the beginning of the semester as students are getting to know one another and develop a classroom community. [S. Grossnickle-Batterton,]

A great way to incorporate the book into American culture is:

  1.  Show clips from documentaries about the Vietnam War. Most students don’t really know a lot about the war.
  2. Do an in-class exploration of the Vietnam War memorial online. Or have students do library research. It’s got an interesting history.
  3. Have students give presentations on Vietnam-era music and relate the song they chose to the themes of the novel.

Character Analysis

The classic activity for teaching the titular story, one that has been passed around the Gen. Ed. Lit. department for as long as I’ve been here, involves breaking your students up into nine groups and assign each group a particular soldier from Jimmy Cross’s platoon. Then ask each group to identify the things that their solider carried (and I ask them to only list things that are carried by their solider specifically, so they don’t list the things carried by everyone.) When they’ve written these lists on the board, we go through group by group and talk about how the items carried by each person can tell us about their character. This is a great way for students to learn to read for detail, for them to begin to think about character construction, and for you to emphasize how similar each character is in spite of their specifics (that they are all carrying items to help remove themselves from where they are at.) You can stretch it out to take most of the class period, and it works like a dream. [L. Row-Heyveld,]

What Would You Carry? 

There is a great 5 minute film on MSNBC called ‘Taking Mementos into Battle’ that implicitly links O’Brien’s titular story of soldiers in the 20th century to 21st century soldiers in Afghanistan. It’s a short enough clip to show your students in its entirety, and it can be a useful place to begin discussion: answering the question of ‘What would you carry?’ can be a great way to ask students to think about what they would bring in a similar situation, or even asking them what they are currently carrying can provide a useful way to begin introspection. This could easily be paired with a discussion of materialism and identity, if you wanted to go that way, but this can really get your class going no matter what choice you go with. [J. Horn,]

What’s on Your Key Ring? 

When teaching the titular story, I begin the day by asking my students to interpret my key ring. They analyze what is on my key ring, as well as what is not, and make claims about what that information could be saying about me as a person. They tend to get a kick out of making assumptions about my life, and they tend to find the exercise entertaining. I find it to be a way to both improve my relationship with my students, as well as lead us into the classic TTTC activity mentioned above by Lindsey Row-Heyveld. [S. Goehring,]

 “The Things I Carry”

I’ve also done a personal writing assignment connected with the titular story. After we’ve analyzed the characters based on what each carry, I have the students take out everything that they carry with them on a daily basis (in a wallet, purse, backpack etc.) and list them. Then they list what these objects represent about them. They also list the intangible/abstract things that they carry with them i.e. memories, traits, etc. Then they turn that into a very short essay “The Things I Carry” where they try to mimic O’Brien’s style of repetition, listing, anything that helps them get their point across. The final part of the assignment is that they each read at least a small section of their writing to the class in a “read around” where we circle the desks. (I tell students beforehand that they need to be expected to share at least a few sentences). It gives students a chance to learn about their classmates as well as get practice with some of the stylistic techniques that O’Brien uses. [S. Grossnickle-Batterton,]

Additional Resources

There are several Interviews with Tim O’Brien about the war and the book available on YouTube. These can be useful as entryways into discussion with students:

Microsoft Office document icon Things I Carry Assignment