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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Letters Home From Vietnam

One of the struggles with teaching the Vietnam War is perspective.  How can we look back as historians and history teachers and support the decision of the United States to enter a country that was asking for its independence from foreign colonial powers for years?  When I have time to spend to look solely at Vietnam, I like to start off by looking at Ho Chi Minh's Declaration of Independence and discuss with students the ideas of the Enlightenment and why Ho Chi Minh would select, copy, downright plagiarize Jefferson.  We usually lead to a discussion about what freedom and liberty are and then discuss the events that lead up to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Once students have a general background about Vietnam, the film Dear America does a good job of showing what the fighting was like in Vietnam.  The film uses actual footage shot by the military and other civilians, with voice overs from many prominent stars reading letters that were sent home to America from the soldiers in the war.  It even includes songs, both pro-war and anti-war from the time period.  You could spend a great deal of time analyzing the different songs, letters, and footage seen.

I generally pose a set of questions for students to think about and respond to while they are watching the film.  I often change the questions for different sections I may be teaching in order to focus on the interests of the students in the class.  Recently, I had a group of 20 boys (in my class of 25) and a majority of them played the game Modern Warfare.  Before watching the film, we brainstormed, using the game, what many of them knew about war, the Vietnam War, weapons, the enemy, military slang, etc.  I then crafted a set of questions that had them focus on the reality of war.  This allowed them to analyze the Vietnam War as a time period in history, but also allowed them to make a connection to the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We were able to have a very thoughtful discussion not only about the Vietnam War, but about how video games are designed, marketed, and create a false reality of war.  I was only able to do this because I had a great understanding of the interests of my students and knew their interests in studying history.  Make sure you set up an environment in your class that allows you to do the same.

I also like to read selections from:
an American history textbook and then compare it to the chapter from Lies My Teacher Told Me
Dear America has a text that you can purchase that has many of the letters in it too.


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