A "Brief, Urgent Message": Theme in Slaughterhouse-Five
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In Slaughterhouse-Five, author Kurt Vonnegut describes Tralfamadorian literature as "brief, urgent message[s]—describing a situation, a scene"; when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep" (111-112). Students use this literary perspective to analyze passages from Slaughterhouse-Five and then apply that perspective by creating a compilation album, CD cover, and liner notes that demonstrate their interpretation, understanding, and evaluation of the themes and ideas in the novel.
Slaughterhouse-Five CD Project: Use this one-sheet set of directions to have students create personal connections to the novel by identifying and writing about a collection of songs they believe help represent the themes in the book.
From Theory to Practice
Believing that "popular culture has an important place in the English classroom-as an object worthy of study and as a means for students to access and study literature successfully," Jerome Evans discusses an assignment in which students use popular music to access the literary concept of theme (32). "By showing the connection between a selected theme and specific lines in the song lyrics," he argues, "they engage in critical thinking about literature in much the same way they will when using quoted passages to support their assertions" about a novel, play, or poem (33). This assignment similarly engages students in the act of accessing and critiquing literature through popular music.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- A classroom set of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
- CD or Mp3 player
- Recording of "The Trapeze Swinger" by Iron & Wine and "Sidewalk Fight" by Yann Tiersen (or other music as you see fit; available for purchase as downloads online)
- CD/DVD Cover Creator
- Video of students sharing and discussing their work
- Students should read and have a basic understanding of at least the first five chapters of Slaughterhouse-Five. It is not necessary to teach this lesson immediately after students have finished those chapters; the lesson can be taught at any point thereafter. The Study Guide to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Slaughterhouse Five may be a useful resource to facilitate a general understanding of the novel.
- Prepare an appropriate number of copies of the handouts associated with the lesson.
- Review the Teacher's Guide to Chapter Five of Slaughterhouse-Five and select a passage from Chapter 5 to model during Session One.
- Secure recordings of "The Trapeze Swinger" by Iron & Wine and "Sidewalk Fight" by Yann Tiersen (or other music as you see fit). These pieces are referenced in the student examples.
- Secure a CD player or other method for playing music for students.
- (Optional) Secure a means of projecting the video of students sharing and discussing their work.
- Review the NCTE Position Statement on Fair Use for Media Literacy Education for an understanding of fair use in student selection of music for the CD project.
- Familiarize yourself with some examples of liner notes and reviews in order to spend time in class talking about the genre of music writing.
- Familiarize yourself with the CD/DVD Cover Creator if students will be using that tool. Ensure that you have the latest version of Flash on student computers. This plug-in can be downloaded through the technical support page.
- evaluate and analyze theme in Slaughterhouse-Five.
- articulate trends they find in Vonnegut's use of language.
- apply knowledge of literary themes to explain connections between specific textual examples and larger themes.
- demonstrate their understanding of themes in Vonnegut's text by connecting them to themes in music.
- experiment with the genre of music writing.
- employ visual, musical, spatial, and verbal intelligences in communicating their interpretation of Vonnegut's text.
- Begin the session by distributing copies of the "Brief, urgent messages" handout. Read the excerpt from the novel and ask students to state in their own words what the structure of a Tralfamadorian novel is like.
- Follow up this discussion/quickwrite question by asking students what connections they see between the description of a Tralfamadorian novel and the structure of Slaughterhouse-Five. Students should note that Vonnegut's chapters are broken into discrete sections by the addition of extra space between some paragraphs. Depending on the edition of the book being students are using, they may also see a row of asterisks in these breaks.
- Explain to students that during this session, the class will be looking at chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse-Five as a Tralfamadorian novel.
- Explain that to look at Slaughterhouse-Five as a Tralfamadorian novel, you will be asking each student to look carefully at one "telegram." Their job will be to contemplate that "telegram" as both a Tralfamadorian and as an Earthling. As a Tralfamadorian, they should look for the "brief, urgent message" communicated in the "telegram." As an Earthling, they should contemplate how the discrete "telegram" contributes to a larger picture that is "beautiful and surprising and deep." For the next session, they will report back to the class on the Tralfamadorian and Earthling message of their assigned telegram.
- Assign each student a section of the text, taking note of the assignment so you can call on students in the next session to talk about their section.
- Model the kind of observations that you would like them to make. Refer to the Teacher's Guide to Chapter Five of Slaughterhouse-Five for an example of this type of observation.
- Answer any questions students may have about the activity and give them time to begin the assignment, using the back of the "Brief, urgent messages" handout to record their thoughts.
- If possible, arrange your classroom space in a way that is conducive to presentation and discussion.
- Explain that you will be going in chronological order from the novel, asking students to read their section of the text aloud and then to articulate their observations about their section as both a Tralfamadorian and as an Earthling. Ask students to get out their "Brief, urgent messages" handout, with the notes and preparation they wrote on the back.
- As students share their observations, give feedback and ask probing questions as necessary. Refer to the Teacher's Guide to Chapter Five of Slaughterhouse-Five for some potential observations and discussion questions that can come out during this activity.
- Encourage students to be creative and take risks as they look at this novel through Tralfamadorian literary theory. A successful discussion will reveal that the majority of students have thought about their passage both as a stand-alone message and as part of the larger whole. An exemplary discussion will get at the significant, thematic observations listed in the Teacher's Guide to Chapter Five of Slaughterhouse-Five.
- In preparation for this session, make copies of the CD Project Assignment handout and obtain recordings of "The Trapeze Swinger" by Iron & Wine and "Sidewalk Fight" by Yann Tiersen (or other music as you see fit), and a device to play them on. If you are using the video, you will also need a means to project it. If you are unable to use video—or in addition to the video—you can share the student examples of liner notes with students.
- Explain to students that they will be taking the concept of "brief, urgent messages" that you discussed in the previous session and applying it to a compilation CD that communicates their thoughts and feelings about Slaughterhouse-Five.
- Distribute the CD Project assignment handout and discuss it with students. Stress to students that the fun part of the assignment comes in going through a music collection and finding songs that match themes in the book. Explain that the challenging part of the assignment comes in conceptualizing the project as a complete album (with cover and liner note graphic design that matches the themes in the book to the music) and writing liner notes that are adequately communicative of the connection between song and text while adhering to the traditional form of liner notes or music review.
- Briefly explain the history of liner notes. Direct students to the Resources for Album Liner Notes and Reviews or provide students with examples you select.
- Once you have talked through the basics of the assignment, play "The Trapeze Swinger" and "Sidewalk Fight" for them to listen to while they read the sample liner notes. Talk about what is different when writing about music as opposed to the writing they are frequently asked to do about literature. Explain that the writing they do in the liner notes is replacing a formal paper that would describe the choices they made in selecting the songs. As such, each song should have an entry that communicates why the song was chosen and what thematic, mood, tone, or symbolic connection to Slaughterhouse-Five the writer sees. However, the liner notes should be relatively brief and should not contain overtly presentational phrases like "I chose this song because" or "The first song I chose is."
- If you have access to a computer and projector, show students the short video of students sharing and discussing their work as a model of what these projects may look like and to hear students talking about the choices they made when completing the project. Alternatively, or additionally, share the student examples of liner notes.
- A note about copyright: Students should be instructed to use only music that they have legally obtained for this project. The CD compilation is within the bounds of fair use as laid out in the NCTE Position Statement on Fair Use for Media Literacy Education so long as the music on the CDs was legally obtained in the first place.
- If you have concerns about students' ability to access legally downloaded music, or if students express a lack of access to recorded music altogether, recommend sources such as public libraries and Creative Commons Licensed Work.
- Share the CD Project Rubric and discuss/clarify expectations for the assignment.
- If students will be using the CD/DVD Cover Creator, share the URL and provide access to computers and printers as necessary.
- After students have finished reading the novel and have completed their projects, schedule a day for them to share their final projects. Ask students to share one song from their compilation that they feel does a particularly good job meeting the expectations of the assignment. Students should read the entry in their liner notes and then play their song for the class. If time is limited, students can play a "sample" of the song, rather than playing the complete song.
- If students have completed the optional reflection activity, they can also share with the class their thought process that went into choosing the song they choose to share with the class.
- At the end of class, collect all student work and evaluate according to the CD Project Rubric.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- The final CD project serves as the assessment for this lesson. It can be assessed using the CD Project Rubric both for the relevance and meaningfulness of the connections students make between the songs and the book as well as their creativity and risk taking in engaging with the genre of music writing/liner notes.
- As an optional reflection activity, you can ask students to write or speak on camera about their thought process as they put their CD compilations together. Use the video of students sharing and discussing their work as a model.