The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Teacher Guide by Kristy Littlehale

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The Things They Carried Lesson Plans

Student Activities for The Things They Carried Include:

War is a thing that blurs the line between the truth and the surreal; what happens in war doesn’t seem like it can ever be real, but at the same time, it is happening. Many returning soldiers feel alienated from their homes and families, because no one can truly understand the things they’ve seen or experienced. Author Tim O’Brien experienced war firsthand when he was drafted to fight in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. He and the other men in his unit saw unspeakable horrors, but also moments of beauty and peace, which seem incompatible with the landscape of brutality and fear. O’Brien calls his novel a work of fiction, but it is based on the experiences of thousands of men, called to fight for their country in the muck and jungle of a part of the world far removed from their own.

O’Brien captures their combined experiences in a series of vignettes, blurring the lines between happening-truth and story-truth along the way. For readers who have seen the complicated facets of war, O’Brien’s stories speak truth to them. For readers who have never experienced war, the stories may seem confusing; however, at the same time they are some of the most authentic pieces of writing they will ever come across. O’Brien speaks of strength, hope, despair, and coming to terms with choices that he and other men had to make. Some primary themes the novel tackles include guilt, the relationship between story-truth and happening-truth, the burdens we all carry, and acceptance. Perhaps the most tangible message is found in the men who returned, still carrying Vietnam with them: what do they do now?

The Things They Carried Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

The Things They Carried Characters Graphic Organizer

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As students read, a storyboard can serve as a helpful character reference log. This log (also called a character map) allows students to recall relevant information about important characters. When reading a novel, small attributes and details frequently become important as the plot progresses. With character mapping, students will record this information, helping them follow along and catch the subtleties which make reading more enjoyable!

Use a character map to help track the different characters that are discussed in The Things They Carried.


  • Physical Traits: 19 or 20 years old; Native American; devout Baptist; carries an illustrated New Testament and his grandfather’s hunting hatchet; keeps moccasins for silence

  • Character Traits: Practices his heritage; practices his faith; likes to be in churches; tries to comfort O’Brien after he kills a man; a good person; moral; upstanding

  • Quote

    “And Kiowa had been a splendid human being, the very best, intelligent and gentle and quiet-spoken.Very brave, too. And decent.”

Other characters included in this map are: Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Tim O’Brien, Rat Kiley, Norman Bowker, and Ted Lavender.

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Student Instructions

Create a character map for the major characters.

  1. Identify the major characters in The Things They Carried and type their names into the different title boxes.
  2. Choose a character from the "1900s" tab to represent each of the literary characters.
    • Select colors and a pose appropriate to story and character traits.
  3. Choose a scene or background that makes sense for the character.
  4. Fill in Textables for Physical Traits, Character Traits, and a Quote.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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Literary Conflict Student Activity for The Things They Carried

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Storyboarding is an excellent way to focus on types of literary conflict. Have your students choose an example of each literary conflict and depict them using the Storyboard Creator. In the storyboard, an example of each conflict should be visually represented, along with an explanation of the scene, and how it fits the particular category of conflict.

Literary Conflict in The Things They Carried


Lee Strunk steals Dave Jensen’s jackknife, and they get into a fistfight over it. Jensen eventually overpowers Strunk and hits him hard in the face until Strunk’s nose breaks. Three men have to pull them apart, and Strunk has to be airlifted for medical help. When he returns, Jensen is paranoid that Strunk will shoot him, so he breaks his own nose with his gun to make them even.


Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is broken up after Ted Lavender is shot. He feels that if he hadn’t been spending so much time thinking about his love back home, Martha, that he might have been able to prevent Lavender’s death. That night, he crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha’s letters and pictures.


After returning home, Norman Bowker finds it difficult to readjust to living normally again. He struggles to find meaning in his life after it had been turned upside-down in Vietnam. He can’t hold a job for more than ten weeks, he drops out of junior college, and plays basketball all day. Bowker can’t find a way to fit back into his old life, and no one seems to understand or know how to help him, even his parents.

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows at least three forms of literary conflict in The Things They Carried.

  1. Identify conflicts in The Things They Carried.
  2. Categorize each conflict as Character vs. Character, Character vs. Self, Character vs. Society, Character vs. Nature, or Character vs. Technology.
  3. Illustrate conflicts in the cells, using characters from the story.
  4. Write a short description of the conflict below the cell.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.

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Themes, Symbols, and Motifs Student Activity for The Things They Carried

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Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes to Look For and Discuss

The Burdens We All Carry

The primary theme in the novel The Things They Carried is the burdens we all carry. The first chapter of the novel is dedicated to the physical and emotional burdens the men carried with them as they marched: the guns, the gear, the photos, the letters, the hope, the fear, the memories, and the guilt. Some of these things create a physical burden that must be borne; for some men, the emotional burdens weigh more than the gear. For instance, Lieutenant Cross feels responsible for thinking about his love for Martha rather than ensuring his men's’ safety; when Ted Lavender is killed by a sniper, Lieutenant Cross carries that guilt with him, and rips up and burns all of Martha’s letters. The things the men carry are relatable to the readers, as we all carry things with us in life that lift us up, or drag us down.

Story-Truth vs. Happening-Truth

Another important theme in the novel The Things They Carried is the exploration of the relationship between story-truth and happening-truth. O’Brien analyzes the different facets of a true war story in his chapter, “How To Tell A True War Story”. Among some of the characteristics, he notes a true war story “is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done.” A true war story “cannot be believed… Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.” In some cases, a true war story can never be told. O’Brien’s stories often present one story, or linear idea, and then he’ll contradict it later. He’ll change names and places, but he’ll also combine experiences and admit that sometimes the “pictures get jumbled.” This does not make the story any less true, however; a true story is not always about memory. It’s about emotion. Emotional truth is truer than memory. O’Brien’s stories may not always stick to the details, but they convey the same feeling and the same themes, which is a higher truth to him and other soldiers. He writes, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”


An additional important theme in the novel The Things They Carried is guilt. There’s the obvious guilt that the men carry from their mistakes, the people they’ve killed, from chances not taken, and opportunities squandered. There’s also another kind of guilt, which Norman Bowker writes about in a letter to O’Brien a few years after he returns home. He tells O’Brien, “The thing is, there’s no place to go. Not just in this lousy little town. In general. My life, I mean. It’s almost like I got killed over in Nam…” Bowker expresses his frustration that he shouldn’t have anything to complain about: he lived, he made it home, he’s in safety and security again. Yet, he can’t hold a job, he doesn’t feel normal, and he can’t understand it. Many soldiers return home and suddenly find themselves wishing they were back at war, where life is actually much more simple. He feels guilt about not being able to go back to “normal”, and for not feeling more grateful for being home. After reading his letter, O’Brien feels guilt that he never experienced the haunting ghosts that debilitated Bowker and others, but then realizes that he found a sort of catharsis through his writing. His writing allows him to express his guilt about his mistakes and choices, and the things he had seen.


Another theme that the novel The Things They Carried examines is acceptance. O’Brien uses his writing to accept his own experiences, and to explore the different kinds of truth that he knows exist. Throughout the novel, the men come to accept the realities of their situation: the duties they must perform; the deaths of Kiowa, Curt Lemon, and Ted Lavender; the acceptance of their roles in the unit; the acceptance of the fight; the acceptance that even in war, there is beauty, too. Rat Kiley comes to accept his best friend Curt Lemon’s death by shooting a baby buffalo, and then is unable to accept the war anymore and shoots himself in the foot. When they return home, Bowker is unable to accept his new role as a civilian and hangs himself; Ted Lavender accepts his realities by taking tranquilizers until he is shot. The men all cope and accept their new situations in different ways. O’Brien’s stories attempt to bring acceptance to their war story, the collective story-truths that also includes the happening-truths and exist in one, cohesive universe in their minds.

Motifs, Imagery & Symbols


An important recurring motif in the novel The Things They Carried is O’Brien’s discussion about the purpose of stories. He talks about how telling his stories is not necessarily therapy for him, but it is cathartic. He says that telling war stories makes them come out from the past and into the present, and their purpose is to join the past to the future. He writes, “Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.” He analyzes his penchant for continually telling stories so many years after the war as a 43-year-old man, when his daughter Kathleen calls him on it. He supposes that he should probably write about something else, but at the same time, he sees the importance of keeping the stories alive - it keeps his memories, his friends, and even his mistakes alive.

The Man I Killed

An important recurring symbol in the novel The Things They Carried is the young Vietnamese man that O’Brien may or may not have killed. This fits in with O’Brien’s musings that every soldier carries a burden from war. For O’Brien, this man seems to be one of the bigger things that he still carries. O’Brien describes the man in grotesque detail after he killed him, but then he speculates about who the man was before, and some of the biographical details seem to line up with O’Brien’s own life. He makes a connection with the man, even though he is unclear as to whether or not he did kill him. Regardless, the man is a ghost in the stories that O’Brien is clearly still struggling to cope with.

The Field Where Kiowa Dies

Another important symbol in the novel The Things They Carried is the field where Kiowa dies. In the most pleasant of terms, it is a field full of swampy waste: “the village toilet”. The men settle in near it and the field is attacked during the night. Norman Bowker tells about going towards a screaming Kiowa, but when he gets to him, he’s already underneath the muck. He sinks into it and Bowker lets go of his boot, because he can feel himself sliding under, too. Bowker says that he could have won the Silver Star if it hadn’t been for the smell. Later in the novel, however, O’Brien reveals that it wasn’t Bowker who lost his nerve and the Silver Star that night; it was him. Later, O’Brien goes to visit the field with his daughter, Kathleen. It is clear that Kiowa’s death still weighs on him.

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in The Things They Carried. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.

  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Identify the theme(s) from The Things They Carried you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for examples that represent this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.

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T.W.I.S.T.-ing The Things They Carried

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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that examine Tone, Word Choice, Imagery, Style, and Theme. This activity is referred to with the acronym "TWIST". In a TWIST, students focus on a particular paragraph or a few pages, to look deeper at the author’s meaning.

Using an excerpt from O’Brien’s story of when he almost went AWOL, rather than get drafted, students can depict, explain, and discuss what the impact of telling this story is for O’Brien, while getting a good idea of his voice.

TWIST Example for The Things They Carried

This is one story I’ve never told before. Not to anyone. Not to my parents, not to my brother or sister, not even to my wife. To go into it, I’ve always thought, would only cause embarrassment for all of us, a sudden need to be elsewhere, which is the natural response to a confession. Even now, I’ll admit, the story makes me squirm. For more than twenty years I’ve had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away, and so by this act of remembrance, by putting the facts down on paper, I’m hoping to relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams.

Tim O'Brien The Things They Carried



O’Brien is hesitant, reluctant, ashamed, and hopeful that telling the story will ease his burden a bit.


embarrassment, confession, squirm, shame, relieve


"...I’m hoping to relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams."


O’Brien utilizes parallel structure to emphasize the fact that he has held this secret inside for a long time. He uses the phrase, “not to” and “not even”, which points to people he probably should have told, but has not.


This passage highlights the burden of this secret shame that Tim O’Brien has been carrying, showing the greater theme of the emotional burdens people carry and hope to relieve somehow. For O’Brien, he hopes that writing out his confession will ease his guilt.

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Student Instructions

Perform a TWIST analysis of a selection from The Things They Carried. Remember that TWIST stands for Tone, Word Choice, Imagery, Style, Theme.

  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Choose any combination of scenes, characters, items, and text to represent each letter of TWIST.
  3. Write a few sentences describing the importance or meaning of the images.
  4. Finalize images, edit, and proofread your work.
  5. Save and submit storyboard to assignment.

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What Do You Carry? Lesson Plan for The Things They Carried

The first chapters of the novel detail the different things - physical, emotional, mental - that the soldiers carry with them throughout their journeys in Vietnam. They carry weapons, supplies, mementoes, hopes, dreams, regrets, and guilt. To have students connect with this idea further, have them complete the following assignment and utilize the Storyboard Creator to illustrate their ideas.

  1. Have students write about an object that they keep because it is special to them. It could be a war medal from a grandfather, a T-shirt from a baseball game with their dad, a friendship bracelet, a family heirloom, etc. Have them describe the object, and detail why it is so important to them.

  2. Then, have students write about two items that are important for them to get through a day at school. This could be their backpack, their phone, their planners, etc. Have students discuss why these two items are so necessary to a successful school day.

  3. Finally, have students write about two memories that are important to them. Have them also describe the emotions associated with that memory.

  4. When students are done with all of the above, have them create a storyboard to illustrate their writing. A sample board can be found below:

Something I Keep

I keep a doll that my grandmother gave to me when I was six. She passed away last year, and I miss her a lot. I’ve carried this doll with me everywhere: on vacations, to the hospital when I had to have my appendix removed, and to my Nana’s funeral.

School Item #1

The first thing that I need in order to get through the school day is my phone. I use it for my watch because it’s digital and easier to read the time quickly. I also use it to keep in touch with my friends during the day and my parents. I like to take pictures of my friends during lunch, too.

School Item #2

The second thing that I need in order to get through the school day is my backpack. I don’t have as many textbooks anymore since we switched to textbooks online, but I still have folders, papers, pens, pencils, and sometimes paperback books to carry around. Without my backpack, I would be so disorganized and leave stuff all over the school.

Memory #1

One memory that is really important to me is when I was 8, my best friend Hannah moved into the house next door. She came over to my yard and said hello, and I knew instantly that we would get along. I like to remember this because it makes me happy, and I remember the moment vividly.

Memory #2

Another memory that stands out to me is when I ruined my mom’s new dress that she had just bought for my dad’s policeman’s ball. I blamed it on my little brother, who was two and I knew wouldn’t get into too much trouble. I still feel guilty about doing that because I should have just told the truth instead.

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Vocabulary Lesson Plan for The Things They Carried

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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that use vocabulary from The Things They Carried. Here is a list of a few vocabulary words commonly taught with the novel, and an example of a visual vocabulary board.

  • catharsis
  • fatigues
  • hamlet
  • topography
  • bivouacked
  • rapture
  • gangrene
  • mine detector
  • culottes
  • latrine

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Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in The Things They Carried by creating visualizations.

  1. Choose three vocabulary words from the text and type them in the title boxes.
  2. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  3. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  4. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.

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Vignettes in Literature

The Things They Carried is told in a series of vignettes, or short stories, that provide a picture of a particular moment, story, emotion, or impression. Students will actually be quite familiar with vignettes if they watch TV. Many TV series have been making use of the vignette storytelling format throughout their seasons, including a very popular show about zombies. Have students collaborate together and come up with some examples of vignettes in TV series or movies to get them thinking about the format of vignettes and how it might be used in literature. Some common characteristics of a vignette include: has some great tools for having students practice writing their own vignettes.

PTSD and Veterans

Until recent years, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in soldiers returning from the battlefield was not something that was publicized or even widely-acknowledged by the military. According to an extensive study done by the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, 22 veterans commit suicide per day. Of the veterans who suffer from PTSD, only 50% seek treatment. Estimates show that between 10% and 31% of returning soldiers suffer from PTSD. It’s important for students to understand that PTSD is playing a crucial role in the novel, from O’Brien’s own experiences and strategies for dealing with his guilt, to Norman Bowker’s suicide. Students should know the common causes of PTSD, and the symptoms. Perhaps they also know a veteran who suffers from PTSD and can discuss what they know, or interview the veteran if he or she is willing. Have students do some research on PTSD first. Some great websites for information include:

Essential Questions for The Things They Carried

  1. What are some of the burdens people carry each day?
  2. What is truth? How can it differ from person to person, and from experience to experience?
  3. What is the purpose of storytelling?
  4. How important is staying true to details when trying to relate an important experience, idea, or theme?
  5. How does war change people?
  6. How do people deal with unresolved guilt?
  7. What are some ways that people use to come to accept their experiences?

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•   (English) The Things They Carried   •   (Español) Las Cosas que Llevaron   •   (Français) Les Choses Qu'ils ont Portées   •   (Deutsch) Die Dinge, die sie Trugen   •   (Italiana) Quanto Pesano i Fantasmi   •   (Nederlands) De Dingen die ze Carried   •   (Português) As Coisas que Eles Levaram   •   (עברית) הדברים הם נשאו   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) الأشياء التي المحمولة   •   (हिन्दी) चीजें वे चलाए   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Вещи, Которые они Перенесли   •   (Dansk) De Ting de bar   •   (Svenska) Saker de bar   •   (Suomi) Asiat he Kantoivat   •   (Norsk) De Tingene de Gjennomført   •   (Türkçe) Taşındıkları Şeyler   •   (Polski) Rzeczy, Które Niesie   •   (Româna) Lucrurile au Efectuat   •   (Ceština) Věci Nesli   •   (Slovenský) Veci, Ktoré Vykonávajú   •   (Magyar) A Dolgok Vitték   •   (Hrvatski) Stvari Koje su Nosile   •   (български) Нещата, Които те Носят   •   (Lietuvos) Ką jie Atliekama   •   (Slovenščina) Stvari Nosili   •   (Latvijas) Šīs Lietas Viņi Aiznesa   •   (eesti) Asju, Mida nad Viiakse