• Teaching Tips

Studying Semantics with Tim O’Brien

by Mary Cotillo
November 8, 2012
photo: loco's via photopin cc
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I find myself making a different sort of list than usual. I live by lists—things to do, things to buy—but now I am making a list of things for which I am thankful. I have, of course, listed my children. I love my job and am grateful for my wonderful colleagues. When I think “big picture,” I think I am most thankful to have been graced with the life I have lived. What luck, to be born in America, to have the freedoms I have. And I am overwhelmingly thankful for those who sacrifice to allow me to continue to live this way.

Thirty years ago, on November 13, 1982, people with similar feelings of gratitude erected a monument to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam. In recognition of that occasion, I offer you this lesson. It’s been a student favorite since I started teaching it over eight years ago. I hope your students enjoy it as well.

My literature anthology includes the Walter Dean Meyer’s short story “The Treasure of Lemon Brown.” I augment my instruction of that story with a (highly edited) excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” There are edited excerpts available “out there,” and I’m sure you can find one that suits your needs. I stray from the traditional edit because I teach eighth graders, and I have no desire to explain that Lieutenant Cross doesn’t really want to touch Martha’s knee all night long. But I digress…

The kids love the O’Brien piece, especially the boys. Read it aloud, and you could hear a pin drop. They are entranced, hanging on every word.

So, the first day of the lesson, I read aloud and let them ask questions, and we process together. We identify the physical things the soldiers carry, and then discuss the heavier emotional burdens. We discuss how the things the soldiers carry reveal their character then I haul out my overstuffed pocketbook and demonstrate how I can use the contents of my purse to reveal details of my character. For example, the comb, brush, nail file, nail polish, and three tubes of lipstick reveal my vanity, while the armless Darth Maul action figure and receipts from Justice make my maternity evident. I use these items to springboard into emotional weight; I carry the love a mother has for her children and the insecurities all women have about their appearance. (Eighth grade girls eat that up.) Then the students go through their own backpacks, compiling a list of physical items they carry with them and matching them to corresponding emotional weight. For homework, they draft a one paragraph “Things I Carry” piece.

In class the next day, I introduce them to the word “syntax”—the purposeful use of language for effect. While I’m sure you could go quite in depth with this lesson in high school, I limit my focus to four devices: asyndeton, polysyndeton, anaphora, and parallelism. With each word and definition I present, I provide a passage from “The Things They Carried.”

Asyndeton is the deliberate omission of conjunctions. So I use the sentence “They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha, candles, grease pencils, The Stars and Stripes, fingernail clippers, Psych Ops leaflets, bush hats, bolos, and much more.” We read it aloud as written, then again, trying it out with “and” inserted periodically. We discuss the change in rhythm and how the lack of conjunctions makes the list seem longer, more overwhelming, and the effect that has on the reader.

Polysyndeton is the use of multiple conjunctions, especially where some could be omitted. For this, I use “They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds.” Again, we read it aloud as written and then again leaving out the conjunctions. We discuss how the syntax impacts the reader.

Anaphora is the repetition of a phrase at the start of neighboring clauses. That’s easy; simply pick any two or three sentences with multiple uses of “they carried.” Discuss how the reader is reminded over and over again just how burdened the soldiers really were by the repetition of the phrase “they carried.”

Parallelism—giving two or more parts of consecutive sentences the same structure to provide the whole piece with a definite pattern—is also easy: “Mitchell Sanders carried a set of starched tiger fatigues for special occasions. Henry Dobbins carried Black Flag insecticide. Dave Jansen carried sandbags that could be filled at night for added protection. Lee Strunk carried tanning lotion.” (If you’d like a nicely formatted handout to use with your cherubs, email me at, and I’ll send one along.)

After the ideas are defined and exemplified, students revise their original piece, gradually adding in each device. To add another layer, students can then swap drafts with other students for them to identify the syntactic devices in each other’s writing. They can type up a final draft and have a well-written, highly personal piece of writing for their portfolio.

A handy side effect of this lesson: syntax is a helpful to get around the sticky issue of grading personal writing. If you feel you must grade the final product, you can grade for style, not content, and that should help students understand you’re grading the writing, not them.

Oh, and one last word of advice? Have the tissues handy for when you read them.

Mary Cotillo is an 8th grade ELA teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, MA. Mother to two children, she enjoys engaging in light saber battles and hanging out on soccer fields. She earned her National Board Certification in 2009.

© 2012 Mary Cotillo. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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