This year, I added the historical fiction book All the Broken Pieces to the 6th grade’s foundational unit in History and Social Studies class because I wanted students to think about ways the identities of the characters in the book might shape their perspectives on the Vietnam War. Throughout the years, I have made it a priority to help students question the role of identity in our interpretation of historical events as well as challenge students to understand the context of various positions within our society.
This beautiful book-in-verse is the story of a boy named Matt, adopted from Vietnam by a family in the United States. His biological parent was a soldier who fought in the Vietnam War and abandoned him. Sixth grade students have the opportunity to think about why Matt is bullied by classmates who sneer, “My brother died [in Vietnam] because of you.” What has shaped those bullies’ perceptions? Why does Matt relate more to his piano teacher, who fought in the Vietnam War, than his teacher at the adoption agency who focuses on Tet, carnivals, fairytales and legends from Vietnam? And why did his biological mother, Phang My, assume that a multiracial Vietnamese child would have a better life in the United States?
We will think about these characters’ identities in this foundational unit before we do the more difficult work of thinking about how our own identities shape our perceptions about the history we are learning this year.
Another major theme in History 6 is challenging ourselves to find counter-narrative perspectives often omitted in history and even currently. Around Columbus Day, students analyzed children’s history books and questioned why they made no mention of Columbus’s enslavement of the Tainos and portrayed the encounter as one that was friendly and heroic. How was the Vietnam War portrayed in dominant media at the time? What convinced Barry Romo, our guest speaker, that it was his duty to “fight the Communists”? Why did he change his mind later? Students got the opportunity to learn from a veteran who changed his perspectives on the war and gained a better understanding of what happened.
The day before Romo’s visit, the 6th graders participated in a simulation to make more concrete for students what it looks like for the wealthiest 10 percent of the U.S. population to have about 76 percent of the wealth. We used chairs to represent this wealth and classmates to represent the U.S. population. What about our society has allowed for such wealth disparity? We asked ourselves which perspectives justify this disparity in wealth distribution and which perspectives might challenge it? We wondered if war had a role in maintaining inequality and what might happen if those nine students in the simulation who represented 90 percent of the U.S. population had worked together to obtain chairs (wealth) to have a comfortable seat. “Is it Communism if everyone has their own chair?” one student asked and “Is that what Barry Romo thought he should fight against in Vietnam?”
Romo explained, “I was taught in my Catholic school to hate Communists. We read books written by Thomas Dooley that portrayed all Communists as evil. When I went to Vietnam, I saw something different. Communists were 12-year-old children, 70-year-old women and farmers who wanted a better life.” I wondered if the students thought about their own experiences with learning about Christopher Columbus and how their perceptions changed after reading primary sources, such as Columbus’s journals, in which he described enslaving Tainos.
The students listened to Romo describe his experiences in combat and his decision to throw away his medals after witnessing the horrors of war. “I feel very guilty about what I did in Vietnam and joined the anti-war movement while the Vietnam War was still going on. I was awarded for killing people in the war and considered dangerous [by the U.S. government] once I started opposing war.”
Students wanted to know what it was like to be in combat, the jobs he held after the war, the effects of being in combat on his health, if he felt remorse and even his favorite color. My hope is that they return to class feeling more connected to the characters in our book and thoughtful about how identity and dominant and counter-narratives shape others’ and eventually our own perceptions as well as the humanity of people who are impacted by war. So much of history involves war, conquest and resistance. My hope is to bring these seemingly abstract ideas as close as the chairs the students sit on each day.