Standard Lesson

Worth Its Weight: Letter Writing with "The Things They Carried"

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Four 50-minute sessions
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This lesson pairs reading and discussion of Tim O'Brien's story "The Things They Carried" with a letter-writing activity intended to help students develop the empathy needed to be insightful readers and to give students the opportunity to examine the symbolic weights they carry and, in turn, create meaningful, dynamic, and publishable prose. Students begin by listing all the things they carry, both literal and symbolic, and then think about the symbolic weight of these items. Next, after discussing O'Brien's story and how some of the things listed in the story reveal character, they return to their own lists to add anything they may have forgotten. They next write about three of the most significant weights they carry from their lists, describing the items and their importance to them. Finally, students write a letter to someone with whom they can share the weight of one of these things they carry.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

In "The Things They Carried", O'Brien uses the simple device of the list to organize his story and to make the reader begin to understand the terrible weight young soldiers carried in the jungles of Vietnam (6).

The losses and the lessons of that war are part of my own adolescent experience, but, for my students, the war seems a piece of ancient history. Reading Tim O'Brien brings them to the edge of the jungle and makes them care about the lives of those who fought there. It is there that the soldiers' lives intersect with those of my students; it is there that empathy begins. The reading, writing and discussion we do around "The Things They Carried" is intended to help my students see that all of life demands courage and that none of us marches without a burden.

Further Reading

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.

State Standards

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.
  • 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.
  • 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
  • 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

Copies of "The Things They Carried" by Tim O’Brien




Student Objectives

Students will

  • read fiction by Tim O'Brien and determine the characteristics and techniques of his style.

  • make connections between ideas in literature and their own experience in order to grow as empathetic readers.

  • apply their knowledge to write their own pieces in a letter format.

  • employ all the steps of the writing process to create a polished and publishable piece.

Session One

  1. As students enter the classroom, ask them about their “journeys” to your room, using questions such as the following:

    • How far have you traveled? (e.g., “all the way from the gym,” “down the hill from my car,” “just from the room next door,” etc.)

    • What have you brought with you on this journey? (e.g., “last night’s homework,” “my soccer cleats for practice,” “a bottle of water,” etc.)
  2. Using this introductory conversation as stimulus, ask each student to list on a piece of paper all the things—both literal and symbolic things—he or she carries.

  3. As students begin to make their lists, prompt them with some of the following questions:

    • What do you carry every day in school?

    • What do you carry in the summer?

    • What do you have to bring to work?

    • What things do you carry that are very visible to the world?

    • What things are more hidden?

    • What things are totally invisible, that is, abstract or symbolic?

    • What do others make you carry?

    • What things do you carry that you’d like to put down?
  4. Once students have accumulated a long list, ask them to share some of their ideas. Write these ideas on the board. The list likely will include concrete things such as car keys, history books, makeup, skateboards, candy bars, iPods, cell phones, hats, pictures, and good luck charms as well as abstract things such as stress, allergies, a secret, fear of not getting into college, memories of last summer, and so forth.

  5. Using the list on the board, ask students to consider various ways of grouping these items into categories such as “Necessities,” “Luxuries,” “Things I Love,” “Concrete Things,” “Abstract Things,” “Things That Make Me ME,” “Things I Wish I Could Put Down.” Emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers here. The intent is to help students see that people carry things for different reasons and that we all have our own burdens.

  6. Ask students to estimate the symbolic weight of these items listed on the board. Remind them that there are no right or wrong answers. (For example, one student may be carrying a detention slip that seems to weigh 50 pounds because of the trouble it involves, whereas another student may have a similar slip and find it almost weightless!) Students should begin to realize that we give weight to both objects and ideas depending on their importance and personal significance.

  7. Ask students to estimate the symbolic weight of some of the items on their own lists.

  8. Tell students they will read the story “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, from his 1990 novel about Vietnam, The Things They Carried.

  9. Ask students to share what they know about the Vietnam War before they begin reading. Offer background information as needed. (See the Websites listed in the Resources section for information on Vietnam, O’Brien, and the book.)

  10. For homework, ask students to read the story.

Session Two

  1. Begin discussion of “The Things They Carried.” Ask students to note the technique O’Brien uses to tell the story, that is, the device of the list.

  2. Make a list on the board of the things the soldiers carry (e.g., radios, rifles, comic books, tranquilizers, the soil, the humidity, guilt).

  3. Encourage discussion that examines what each soldier carries and how that information reveals character.

  4. Ask students to make categories for these things and to consider the possible symbolic weight of the various things the soldiers carry.

  5. Tell students to return to the lists they made in the previous class session and to add to their lists anything, concrete or abstract, they may have forgotten. Allow students to share new ideas.

  6. On their papers, ask students to circle three of the most significant weights they carry. Note that these things may represent positive or negative weight. The point is that each item is important and has an impact on the student’s life.

  7. Give students five minutes to freewrite on each circled item. Suggest that in the freewriting they might try to describe the item, give some background information about it, explain why they are carrying it, explain its symbolic weight, and connect it to someone else in their lives.

  8. After they finish freewriting, tell students to use their freewrites to determine which one of the things from their lists they feel most strongly about and want to elaborate on in their upcoming letter writing assignment.

  9. Give each student a copy of the What Are You Carrying? Letter Assignment. Explain the activity, telling them that they will write a letter to someone with whom they can share the weight of one of these things they carry.

  10. Use the Letter Generator to review the general requirements of friendly letters. Remind students that while their letters will be in friendly letter format and will therefore have an informal tone, the letters still must include details, as well as solid and specific ideas. (Examples: a student might choose to write to his/her mother to explain why he/she feels an enormous and burdensome weight of parental pressure, or someone might write to a best friend to talk about the positive weight of the picture he or she carries of the two of them together.)

  11. Students should work on a draft of the letter as homework, which they will use in response groups during the next session.

Session Three

  1. During this session, focus students’ attention on responses and revisions of the second drafts.

  2. Divide the class into response groups of three to five students, and hand out the appropriate number of What Are You Carrying? Reader Response sheets to each group.

  3. Ask writers to take turns reading the drafts of their letters to their groups. After each letter is read, the group should collectively complete a What Are You Carrying? Reader Response sheet for that letter in order to generate material that the student can use to improve/revise the next draft.

  4. Ask each group to share a particularly strong letter or part of a letter with the entire class, after obtaining the writer’s permission to do so. Ask the group members to comment on why that piece of writing is especially powerful in order to help students determine qualities of good writing.

  5. Allow writers who are struggling with aspects of their letters to ask for class input on specific problems they are encountering in their writing. Encourage a variety of suggestions from the class to help students recognize that there often is not one correct way to present material but rather that much of writing is subjective.

  6. Allow students as much time as needed to continue to rework these drafts both at home and in class. Students should have their final drafts ready prior the next session.

Session Four

  1. Hand out the What Are You Carrying? Reflection Questions for students to complete and attach to their final drafts before handing them in for grading.

  2. After the final draft has been corrected and graded, ask students to do one more draft for “publication.” Tell them that they will mail this draft to the person to whom it is directed (i.e., the “Dear __________” ) (Note: in some cases a student may not feel comfortable doing this or the person to whom the letter is directed may no longer be alive or a direct part of the writer’s life. In this case, an alternative might be to have the student share the letter with someone else closely connected to the weight. If that is not acceptable to the student, he or she simply does not have to send the letter.)

  3. If necessary, conduct a mini-lesson on addressing envelopes; in an age of e-mail, this is becoming a lost art!


  • Students will enjoy reading more of O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried. It can be read as a whole work, or chapters can be excerpted to stand as individual stories.

  • Try the ReadWriteThink lesson Love of War in Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” to explore another story from the novel.

  • Students who mail their letters may want to share responses they get from recipients, thereby presenting a valuable lesson in the power of the written word.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Use the elements listed on the What Are You Carrying? Reader Response sheet and students’ responses to the Reflection Questions to assess the final letter.

  • Evaluate the letter as a complete writing assignment, including

    • the work done to improve each draft.
    • the quality of the responses to the reflection questions.

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