Letter Writing with "The Things They Carried"

Dec 31, 1969
Letter Writing with "The Things They Carried"

What is the most important thing you carry with you every day? Why is it significant in your life? Who would you want to tell about this weight you carry, and what would you tell them about it? Is it a concrete object or something more symbolic? In this mission you can be funny or serious, but you are going to explore a weight you carry with you in life through letter writing.

For this mission we are using the short story “The Things They Carried” from Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried. This great lesson plan was developed by Susanne Rubenstein; the lesson plan and many useful handouts can be accessed at NCTE’s ReadWriteThink website.

First, the class spends some time discussing the things that they carry everyday. I ask where they traveled from to get to the class, and I also ask them what they carried with them on the journey. In their lists, they detail things found in their backpacks, pockets, cars, purses, and wallets.

Next, we read “The Things They Carried,” and students focus on Tim O’Brien’s use of the list. We spend some time talking about the things the soldiers carry, and we consider the symbolic weight of these various things. We noticed how there can be positive or negative weights and concrete or abstract items. We go back to the lists the students generated about what they carry, and they add anything they may have thought of while reading Tim O’Brien’s story.

Then, we continue to discuss the objects on their list. What is the symbolic weight of the objects? Things that are more important have more weight, but each item will be different for each student. For some, the weight of their homework is heavy, something they think about all evening. For others, of course, homework doesn’t signify any weight at all.

It is the personal stories which convey the weight of these objects. We also think about things they carry that are not concrete objects. Things like guilt, stress, love, family, memories, and pain all come up here. And, we spend some time thinking about both positive and negative weights.

Next, students reflect on their lists and pick the three most important items. They free write for five minutes on those three items. For the next class, students will create a rough draft of a letter about the one item that they are the most interested in writing about. They create a letter to the person that is most connected to that item.

For example, if a student chooses to write about a class ring from high school, they will write a letter to the person that the class ring is most connected to. If they choose to write about a bracelet that their girlfriend gave them, then they will write a letter to the girlfriend in which they describe why it is important. This is an area that students sometimes struggle with, yet they must come up with a specific person to write to.

The letter must contain a vivid description of the thing you carry, an idea of the weight of the thing you carry, a sense of whether this is a positive pleasure or a negative burden, an explanation of why you carry this thing, a story involving the thing you carry, and a clear sense of who the letter is written to and why they are connected to the item.

Students sometimes have the a difficult time coming up with a story related to the item. I often have to help them understand some of the elements of narratives in order to get a story included. If they put in some dialogue, blocking, setting description, character description, or flashback, they will usually get on the right track. We then use the Reader Response Sheet for a peer review, and focus on revisions for the final draft. My final grades are usually based on improvement from the rough draft to the final draft and on the inclusion of the elements of the letter described above.