Captivating Ways Students Are Learning About The Vietnam War

By Education Intern, Rae Rudzinski

Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, India, Iraq, Liberia and Nigeria are only some of the areas of the world where Chris Livingstone’s students hail from. Some of her middle school students have never been in school prior to sitting in her class, while other students have been bounced around from public school to public school. Others have never learned to read. Yet as diverse as her students and their learning needs are, Livingstone reports one common theme as she watches her students learn about the Vietnam War and era: “It seems to give them some kind of understanding of themselves.”

Poem written by student in Livingston's class. Original photo by Horst Faas

Poem written by student in Livingstone’s class. Original photo by Horst Faas

Chris Livingstone teaches middle school language arts to ESL (English as a Second Language) students at Brogden Middle School in Durham, North Carolina. Like all teachers, Chris is faced with the daily challenge of reaching and teaching a classroom full of students with learning needs as diverse as their cultural backgrounds. Despite these challenging circumstances, Chris describes her unit on the Vietnam era as “wonderful.” From reading and writing poems, to exploring songs, to using some of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s education materials, Chris found all kinds of ways to build her own unit on Vietnam. “I just looked for materials that would help us talk, read, and write, learn more of the language, and see more in the world,” she says with ironic simplicity.

For example, Chris had her students read the young adult novel Search and Destroy by Dean Hughes, a historical fiction book about a character living during the Vietnam War. Then, her students made a Facebook page from the perspective of the character featured in the novel. They listened to Marvin Gaye, worked with political cartoons, and studied geography. Her students wrote their own poetry at the end of the unit based on real Vietnam War photographs. “Every day was different,” she explains.

Livingstone found the use of visuals- photographs and videos- as one way to help make the content accessible to her diverse student population.“We spent a couple of days napalmusing the famous photograph of the Vietnamese girl running with her clothes burned off. We read the story of that photograph being taken, we watched an interview with her, and then we connected that back to the Marvin Gaye song ‘What’s Going On.’ Because the photo’s subject talked a lot about mental burning, we were able to talk about figurative language, which lead into the poem ‘You and I are Disappearing’ [by Yusef Komunyakaa]. Often my classes would start off something like that- with some kind of visual warm up where they would write something.”

Within her Vietnam era unit, Chris also led her students in a mini-unit on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, where the school’s counselors gave an informational talk on the signs, symptoms and causes of PTSD. In addition, Chris says she found a lot of poems based on the Vietnam era that allude to PTSD. “They’re generally compassionate kids, they are really caring people,” Livingstone says of her students. “And when somebody raises their hand and says, ‘I think I’ve gone through this, too’ that’s a very powerful moment. They’re able to learn more about themselves.”

Besides helping her middle school students develop into better writers, readers, and thinkers, Livingstone also knows the unit on the Vietnam War and era gave her students a more global perspective, especially when it comes to current events. If nothing else, Livingstone is proof that no matter students’ ages and backgrounds, the benefits of teaching the Vietnam War era extend beyond classroom.

You can also teach the Vietnam War in the classroom. Get information on lesson plans here. Learning activities and assessments can be found here.