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War Games: Gamifying the Vietnam War and teaching 'The Things They Carried'

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October 06, 2017

Intro and Setting the Stage

Bishop McNamara High School (BMHS) in Forestville, MD, sits just across the highway from Andrews Air Force Base, which means that class discussions are briefly interrupted each day by the sounds of helicopters, C-130s, F-16s or even occasionally Air Force One taking-off low over the building. For many of the students, these sounds can remind them that their friends and family may be serving in the Middle East, but for so many others, the concepts of “war” are ultimately intangible.

This was the disconnect my students would experience as they began reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried -- a series of not-quite-untrue vignettes about life and love in the Vietnam War. For my 11th-Grade American Literature students in March of 2017, the Vietnam War was as far away from them as World War II was from O’Brien the day that he received his draft notice. 

The Challenge I was trying to solve was how to help students experience the feelings of separation and camaraderie caused by being drafted into, and serving in, the Vietnam War. 

Part I: Conception and Pre-Planning

The story of this lesson happens in three parts: the conception, the game, and the debrief. To be fair, that’s the goal of any classroom: a thoughtful lesson plan, an engaged classroom, and a review of what we learned. My colleague, Matt Buckley, the Director of Instructional Technologies at BMHS and I were able to use the framework of BreakoutEDU to create a lesson that blended appropriate educational technologies with the fun of puzzle games to replicate the feeling of separation that comes with a draft. 

What is BreakoutEDU?

If you aren’t familiar with BreakoutEDU you may be more familiar with your local "Escape The Room" puzzles, both in larger cities and online. What co-founders Adam Bellow and James Sanders accomplish is making the concept of escaping a room classroom-appropriate; rather than locking students in a room, BreakoutEDU locks students out of a box.  Students must collaborate if they are going to successfully break into the box and achieve the goal that lies inside.  

Another excellent aspect of using BreakoutEDU is that the concept lends itself to being a versatile medium for any lesson idea. While plenty of open-source ideas can be found on their website, it is really easy to mix-and-match different types of lock boxes and padlocks with different clues and stories to build your own, content-specific game -- and that’s what we did.

Additionally, while any number of boxes, locks, and ciphers can be purchased through the BreakoutEDU website (or even by searching BreakoutEDU on Amazon), we by-passed some of the usual Breakout locks that you might typically see and instead replaced them by creating a series of Google Form responses that would only allow students to move along and “find” lock combinations by answering a correct series of questions. This is where the front-loaded content knowledge came into play.

The Lesson Plan

Even with good pedagogy in both English and history classes, it can be difficult for students to bring new information from one class to the other. It was important that students would be exposed to history in my non-history class to deliberately name similar concepts that were present across their humanities classes. Specifically, the goals were these:

  1. An introduction to Vietnam: This included a quick reference to background politics, the U.S/ vs. Communism, and allusions O’Brien would reference, like “My Lai” and the “Vietcong.”
  2. An anchor experience: Vietnam was the first televised war and we wanted to make sure that we were using this game to include experiences, information, and visuals. Our game would eventually take on three levels; the second would focus on more experiential elements like visuals and props that I could reference back to later as we were reading the text together.
  3. The feeling of separation:  Tim O’Brien often wrote about the feeling of being an outsider in his unit or having to make the decision to leave his family when he was drafted.  At one point, he writes about leaving after being shot and how much of an outsider he felt like when he returned. Having both a “draft” and “a soldier coming home” were non-negotiable experiences that we were trying to replicate through the game.

You can download my "BreakoutEDU - The Vietnam War" lesson plan here.

There are many ways teachers and education professionals are working to “gamify” their classrooms. When this happens, the impact on student engagement and enthusiasm is immediately noticeable and genuine. This is not to suggest that every single day could or even should be a game, but by gamifying this lesson, the inaccessible feeling of separation became accessible to students when it otherwise could not have been -- which unlocked the text. Gamifying lessons also helps teachers pull the strings of community, collaboration, and Ed-tech in novel and engaging ways.  

In the next blog, I’ll talk about how and why students bought into this lesson.

Looking for additional resources for your students? Explore PBS LearningMedia's Teaching the Vietnam War Collection.


Kevin Coughlin is a 2012 graduate of Suffolk University in Boston, MA, where he earned a BA in English Literature and a minor in Political Science.  As a government student at Suffolk, he first visited Washington, D.C. while enrolled in the Washington Center’s Inauguration Seminar in 2009.  In 2013, he began teaching in the nation’s capital as a part of the Alliance for Catholic Education -- the Master of Education program at the University of Notre Dame -- where he earned an M.Ed. in Secondary Education.  He now teaches at Nativity Preparatory School in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain.

Kevin Coughlin

Kevin Coughlin High School English Teacher

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