Category Archives: Unit Plan

Truth and Storytelling: Two Final Essays

My example of a journal brainstorm: "Draw the relationship between the self and the changing world."

My example of a journal brainstorm: “Draw the relationship between the self and the changing world.”

I started this series two months ago, but here’s the final project that goes with the Things They Carried: Truth and Storytelling Unit.

Your benchmark task is to answer the essential question:

What is the relationship between the self and the changing world?

(Sub questions: How does the self react to and deal with change? How does the world in turn react when a person changes? How does this cycle work? What is notable about it?)

You will do this by writing an essay that is both analytical and narrative.

The analytical portion of you essay will identify a major lesson O’Brien gives us about the self in the changing world. You must analyze how he conveys this message in his book. Once this formal analysis is complete, you must then apply your understanding from the book it to your own beliefs and experiences, and then write a personal essay around that theme. (This section can resemble one of the stories in the book.)

The analytical section really just reinforces the writing skills we’ve been working on all quarter with the 2Fers — and students see this. The narrative assignment, though, really blows things wide open. I emphasize that, while you can focus on death or trauma (and many students do), there are so many lessons embedded in the book about the self in the face of x y or z change. I also rely on lessons from Peter Elbow to get these ideas really flowing from students — not always easy after a few months of mostly analytical composition.

Students write about the acute anxiety of transferring schools, or refusing to watch a loved one die in the hospital; to be intensely attached to every item in a care package sent to summer camp, or to have an anger that they bank down inside them, only to have it seep out at unexpected moments.

I love this project, and it’s a fitting end to a unit where we have explored the purpose of storytelling in their lives. (At this point they usually get over the fact that Tim O’Brien was “lying” with his book of fiction.)

Truth and Storytelling: Connecting Vietnam and Iraq

The first time I showed this photo in my classroom, it was four years ago, right after it had been published in The New Yorker.

I presented it without comment, and asked students to look at all the clues and figure out what the situation was.

There’s a lot here to process — the age of the woman, the items sitting in the grass, the heritage of that name, the code-like descriptors below.

I am always surprised at how many kids recognize where that gravestone must be, and how few of them can identify what the crescent and star stand for.

That year, I also talked about Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama, and how he cited this very photograph as an example of his frustration with people who “accused” Obama of being a Muslim — as though that was a bad thing.

The makeup of America continues to change, and individuals respond to that change — in both good and bad ways. (This links to our essential question for the unit — what is the relationship between the self and the changing world?)

Four years later, I brought it up again. “Do you remember during the last election,” I asked them, “when lots of people said that Obama was a Muslim?”

So many hands went up. I shared Powell’s commentary. In one instance, I put one of our Muslim students on the spot, asking for her personal reaction, and she graciously shared how she was watching some of her own Muslim friends go into the armed forces, and the complex feelings she had about it.

When students are lost in the storytelling and meta-narrative tricks of “The Things They Carried,” this photo is a nice grounding moment. In this image, both the characters and their feelings are painfully real.

This post is a specific activity belonging to the Truth and Storytelling: Things they Carried Unit.

Truth and Storytelling: The Things They Carried

In an attempt to follow Diana Laufenberg’s lead, I’m going to share my first full unit plan here.

At SLA we all plan using Understanding By Design, and in English that means thematic units. So when I first planned around “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, the obvious ideas that came up were around truth and storytelling.

Here are the essential questions for the unit:

•    How are we the stories we tell? What makes a story universal?
•    What is the difference between “truth” and “fiction”?
•    How can war change a person?

The unit also seeks to answer one of the three grade-wide essential questions, around the theme of change:

•    What is the relationship between the self and the changing world?

The book is a great one to start the year–it’s easy to read, but hard to understand, which makes for easy buy-in and killer class discussions. On day one, look at a photo of Tim O’Brien:

We then read the book’s dedication:

This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.

and front matter quote:

This book is essentially different from any other that has been published concerning the “late war” or any of its incidents. Those who have had any such experience as the author will see its truthfulness at once, and to all other readers it is commended as a statement of actual things by one who experienced them to the fullest.

– John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary

Who are the two groups who will read this book, and what is the difference in how they understand it? That’s the set up that we return to several times throughout the unit. Sometimes with delightful student frustration.

Check out the unit plan here. I will also feature some activities with descriptions on the blog this week.