Students were assigned the chapter in The Things They Carried titled “On the Rainy River” the day before and they should be almost done with it. I asked them to select 5-6 powerful quotes from the chapter, which will be used to write a response to this important chapter in the novel. I give them the first 10 minutes of class to finish the last few pages of the chapter and to add more quotes to their paper.
We spend an entire class period and a half on this chapter because it is central to O’Brien’s novel. The character’s moral dilemma of fighting or not fighting in a war he does not believe in illustrates an aspect of war that we are not commonly exposed to.
I ask students to share some of the quotes they selected. This is a good way of checking that students were able to focus on the most important points of the chapter. Students begin to share some good ones such as these. I ask which quote they believe is the most important one. What I have in mind is the last two lines of the chapter:
“I was a coward. I went to war.”
These lines state the conclusion the character makes regarding his decision to go to war and I plan for students to work with this. One student identifies these last two sentences. I ask if anyone else selected them and several say they did. I am trying to get a sense of how many students realized the importance of these two sentences. I confirm that this is one of the most important quotes in this chapter and ask that they all copy these two sentences if they have not done so already.
They begin to ask what the character means with these two sentences. I give them time to talk to each other about the possible meaning of these two sentences. I usually don’t answer these questions until they have attempted to answer it themselves. Talking to a partner is a good strategy to get students to think aloud and collaborate to make sense of the material at hand. I give them a few minutes to discuss and I listen in to get a sense of what they think it means. A couple of students are talking about the fact that the character is scared, but he still managed to go to war. They wonder if by “coward” he means he is scared. One also shares her opinion that he should’ve gone to Canada. Her partner disagrees saying he should not have considered fleeing. In another group, a student says, “He was afraid of what they were going to say if he fled, but why is he a coward?” Students are trying to make sense of the author’s words, which is why discussions are so important.
I get their attention and tell them we will spend more time making sense of these lines but in the context of a device I am introducing next, a paradox.
Learning what a paradox is can help students understand the seemingly confusing nature of the two lines we are working with. I show them this definition of Paradox and explain it. I read the example on the definition, “The only way to overcome death is to die” and several exclaim, “whoa.” I say that this reaction is expected because a paradox can play a trick on the mind. I give them a second example, “The more you know, the less you know” and wait for more whoas. We spend a bit of time discussing what these mean. I then ask them to turn to their paper with all the quotes selected from “On the Rainy River” and identify the paradox. They all easily point to the last two sentences they just wrote on their paper.
We discuss why this is a paradox and what it means. I begin by asking them to identify the specific words that make this an example of a paradox. I am basically asking students to pay close attention to language, which is necessary to make sense of a complex device such as paradox. One student suggests “coward” and “war.” Someone else wants to add some more words and adds “went.” I ask these students to explain why they believe these are the words that establish the paradox and in this manner we begin to continue discussing what O’Brien may mean by these words. We end up deciding that “coward” and “went to war” are the words that establish the paradox. I ask why this is a paradox. Students begin to suggest that we don’t expect cowards to go to war. Others add comments such as that we would expect someone to feel brave when deciding to go fight in a war, and that the character thinks the brave thing to do is what he believes in which is to refuse to go fight. By the end of this discussion, enough comments were made to provide a complete explanation of this paradox. Students are going to explain it in writing. That may appear to be a super easy task now that the entire class has basically collaborated to provide a complete explanation. However, the comments were not made in an organized order so students still need to figure out how to piece the different thoughts together for a cohesive explanation. More importantly, a complex device like paradox is difficult for my struggling readers and writers to wrap their brain around so that formulating a complete answer from the disjointed comments made verbally is still a challenging task. Student samples of this writing are included in the next section.
I then ask students to write a complete response in one paragraph. I tell them that a complete response:
Students spend the last 15-20 min of class writing their paragraph. I let them work in silence. Once in a while someone will have question, I will answer it, and they will get back to work in silence. This is a sample from a student who wrote a pretty successful paragraph. I discuss this student paper in this video
For homework, I assign the next 2 chapters, which equal 2 pages, and half of the following one, for a total of about 10 pages.