Imagining the War Draft

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SWBAT be better prepared to engage with O'Brien's "On the Rainy River" by imagining they have just received a draft letter and weighing options.

Big Idea

Walking in somebody else's shoes, even if just in our imagination, can help us find compassion for those in difficult situations.


10 minutes

Today we discuss the draft during the Vietnam War. Students have several questions: how were the men selected? How would you find out if you were drafted? How many came back? Were there any valid reasons to avoid the draft? What if you didn’t go?

It is useful to Google images with the simple search words “Vietnam War draft” and show students some of the images that show up, which include actual draft letters, images of protesters, among other things. There are also some websites that have information to share with students, such as the Vietnam War Draft Lottery, and this other one.

Students should understand that this was a difficult time for young men old enough to be considered ready for combat and that this is true for those who opposed the war as well as those who supported it. They need to know that there were those who willingly went to war and those who refused despite the consequences.The discussion is open and is driven by students' genuine questions. For any question I have no answer for, I turn to the websites I mentioned. I do this throughout the discussion. In this manner, I am collaborating with students to find answers to the questions they are interested in and creating an organic discussion with high student participation. Students ask specific questions about what happens once you get a draft letter, such as: what if you didn't want to go? How many refused to go? How many were willing to go? What reasons did the government accept for not going? How old did you have to be in order to be drafted? Their questions and the level of participation make it clear that students understand the impact of the draft on young men and they are ready to think about what it may have felt like to receive a draft letter. Also, they are practicing listening and speaking skills important in the Common Core.

Quick Write And Sharing

25 minutes

I ask students to imagine getting a draft letter during the Vietnam War. I quickly clarify that this would only have happened to young men slightly older than those in class, so they are all going to have to pretend that they are old enough and we all have to pretend that young women would also be drafted, which is likely if the draft had occurred in recent times. Once they all understand that they must make this leap of imagination I ask them to do the following:

  • imagine your response
  • think of the options you would consider
  • what choice would you make?
  • how would you feel about this choice?

Once students have thought about these, I give them about 5 minutes for a quick write in which they answer these questions. This is one student’s response. I then ask students to share their response. Students listen attentively to each other’s responses. I do the same. It is important to listen without judgment to the choices they imagine making. In my class, most decide to go to war because of the consequences they would face if they don’t. A few said they would refuse to go because they do not believe in the war.

I essentially helped students be better prepared to engage with the content of "On the Rainy River" through an informal quick write, important in addressing the Common Core expectation that students write routinely and for varied purposes, and through a discussion, also important in addressing the Common Core expectation that students are given multiple opportunities to present their point of view and listen attentively to each other's.    

Independent Reading

20 minutes

I now ask students to read the chapter titled “On the Rainy River.” I ask them to work on collecting 5-6 important quotes from this chapter. They will be using these for a written response to the chapter. Students ask what the quote should be about. I let them know they should select quotes that are powerful and that helps us understand the central points of this chapter.