Introduction To The Things They Carried

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SWBAT prepare to take in Tim O'Brien's novel by reflecting on what they carry in their bags.

Big Idea

Making up a story about the contents of our school bags is a small-scale entry point to this novel.


10 minutes

To introduce students to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I just give them the title and some vague information such as, “Clearly, the author discusses things that people carry.” I am engaging them in an activity where they make meaning of things they carry in their backpack so that they may be ready to take in O’Brien’s lengthy description of the things the soldiers in his novel carry. This activity will do a better job of introducing them to this story than a broad description from me.

I begin by sharing what I carry in my bag. I don’t prepare the bag in advance, I want to be as surprised as they will be looking into their own bag. So I make sure I use my teacher bag, not my personal purse. In this video, I discuss what these reveal about me and how I might select a few to make a story about myself.  


Students Look In Their Bags

10 minutes

I now ask students to do what I just did, look in their school bag. Several say that they have nothing in their bag, but I challenge them to find out if there is anything surprising. They all find at least one item that is worthy of notice. Unfortunately, I do have to tell them that if they are carrying anything they are not supposed to carry in school, I expect them to not make that public and to focus on the other items they carry. 

Students begin to look in their bag and emptying the contents on their desks. They didn’t expect to, but they are clearly enjoying pulling things out and sharing with each other. Indeed, there are interesting things in their bag. One of my high achieving students unzips his backpack to reveal a thick compilation of handouts, notes and assignments from several different classes mixed together in a 4-inch vertical stack. He always turns in work on time so there must be some organization to that mess. I point to details like these to begin to explain that there is a story in the collection of items they are finding in their bags. They are working on a quick story based on these items next.


Mimicking the Author's Writing

30 minutes

To give students a sense of what Tim O’Brien does in the first chapter of this novel, I have students mimic his writing using the contents of their back packs. They will do part of this on their own and part of it in small groups. I give each student this half sheet with a list of sentences from the first chapter of The Things They Carried. I ask them to first focus on the sentences under the subtitle INDIVIDUAL STUDENTS for the first task. The first task is to select one sentence and mimic the structure by replacing the words I underlined with their own content. To illustrate what I mean, I use the first sentence in this section and draft a sentence that makes up a story about me as a teacher based on the contents of my bag:

Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake.

Ms. Soto, who was less experienced, carried extra work; she was especially willing to carry multiple materials for lesson planning.


I give students a few minutes to work on their own sentence. They need help following the sentence structure. If I just remind them that they are to use all the words that are not underlined and just replace those that are underlined, it helps them understand the task. I also have to assist some in understanding that we are mimicking the structure so that “she was especially fond of books” does not accurately capture the structure of the first sentence, but “she was especially fond of nonfiction stories about teenage issues” does. These are some sample sentences students wrote about themselves.

Once students are done writing their individual sentence, I have them work in small groups of four. Each group gets two small white boards. One board is for all the individual sentences to be written. The other one is for the group to collaborate in drafting two sentences that mimic those that are under the subtitle FOR THE GROUP in the half sheet. The second GROUP sentence is easy as they just need to list the things each individual student included in their individual sentence. The first GROUP sentence requires a bit more thinking as it has to communicate something about the collection of items individual students selected to include in their INDIVIDUAL sentence. I give them an example. I let them know that one of my teaching colleagues, as opposed to me, usually carries very little. To make a story of what we both carry, I have to interpret the abundant contents of my bag in the same way that I interpret the light contents of her. I choose to identify the contents that suggest we are both overcommitted. Neither one of us knows how to take on less responsibilities. Indeed, the few items she carries have to do with one of the many responsibilities she takes on as a teacher. This is how I mimic O’Brien:

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.

The things they carried were largely determined by commitment.


Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.

Among the commitments were lesson planning notebooks, agendas for meetings, toy soldiers, an iPad, an agenda, multiple notebooks, and a few snacks.

Students get the point. They work together on this. This is a sample of the group and individual sentences one group drafted.


5 minutes

To close, I ask a few students to share what they wrote. Students are impressed with some of the sentences shared so this is a good opportunity for praise to be delivered.

I let students know we will be reading the first chapter tomorrow right after they receive their copy of the book.