What They Carried: Discovering Refugee Experiences Through Objects

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Standards for this Guide

Read What They Carried in the Magazine


Intolerance is a catalyst for the violence, persecution, and displacement that over 65 million refugees on earth currently face. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) asserts that “through examination of instances of intolerance, students can deepen their understanding of issues relating to human rights while discovering their personal beliefs.  Exposing  the  conditions, causes,  and  consequences  of  human  intolerance is one  way  to  reduce  fear—a  common  impetus for  intolerance."* The close examination of individual refugee experiences is one of the most effective ways of achieving critical awareness of the personal consequences of human intolerance, and is a necessary step in the journey to empathy, compassion, and ultimately, change—both in classrooms and the wider world.

In these lessons, students will read and study the essay “What They Carried,” and use it as an entry point for social critique and the exploration of past and present realities of immigration, belonging, family, and refugees.

*Moss, Barbara (ed.). “Teaching Tolerance: Resources for Students and Teachers.” Voices from the Middle, vol. 20, no. 3, March 2013, pp. 52-56. National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/VM/0203-mar2013/VM0203Young.pdf


Standards met through this curriculum

Learning Outcomes/Essential Questions

Students will:

  1. Use textual evidence (including images) to analyze refugee experiences.
  2. Explore issues of immigration, belonging, family, and refugees, while demonstrating their ELA and history/social studies skills through reader response, narrative writing, and/or discussion.

Essential Questions:

  1. What are the conditions, causes, and consequences of human intolerance, and how can we effectively address these factors?
  2. How do war and conflict affect individuals, families, and communities?
  3. Why is it important to share and understand immigrant and refugee stories, and how might these stories shape the ways in which we live and relate to one another?
  4. What are the obstacles and opportunities that immigrants and refugees experience, and how can we best address these obstacles to create more equal opportunities for all?
  5. How do certain objects represent who we are and where we’ve been?

Depth of Knowledge (DOK)

Levels 1, 2, 3, 4

For more information on DOK, see DOK Slide Wheel


Democratic Republic of Congo facts and map

Rwanda facts and map

Iraq facts and map

Bhutan facts and map

Photographs by Kim Oanh Nguyen from “What They Carried” Essay

Computers/devices with which students may produce and publish their writing (optional)


Download All Files for this Guide (zip file)

Writing Scoring Guides

ODE Narrative Writing Scoring Guide (English)

ODE Narrative Writing Scoring Guide (Spanish)

ODE Writing Scoring Guide in Student Language (English)

ODE Writing Scoring Guide in Student Language (Spanish)


  1. Review all resources and decide which components you will include and how many lessons to allot for this curriculum. (Note: Almost every component can be used as a stand-alone piece or combined with other components.)
  2. Read and take notes on the “What They Carried” essay.
  3. Review and prepare your chosen handouts.
  4. Decide what formatting and length specifications, and writing process steps, you will require for the narrative writing assessment.
  5. Preview and prepare optional extensions.

Reading Strategies

  1. Model and instruct students to use the AVID® Marking the Text: Social Studies strategy as they read the article.
    1. Before reading, number the paragraphs. (A paragraph begins at any break in the text, even if it is not indented.)
    2. While reading, circle key vocabulary, dates, names, places, events, and important numbers/statistics.
    3. After reading, go back and re-read sections, underlining evidence, facts, descriptions, and cause-and-effect relationships.
  2. While reading, pause at various places and model the think-aloud strategy to demonstrate comprehension/summarization of the text.
  3. Model and instruct students to use the Learn-Read-Discuss strategy.
    1. Introduce major concepts of this curriculum using the warm-up. Ask students to use the think-pair-share strategy to discuss and process these concepts using the warm-up questions.
    2. Students read article (using teacher’s designated strategies).
    3. Students engage in individual reflection, then small- or large-group discussion, synthesizing information from the warm-up and article.
  4. You may choose to give advanced readers the SOAPS Text Analysis handout for tracking the author’s argument and purpose during their reading. Students’ observations using this strategy can be incorporated into later lesson steps, such as discussion and writing responses.

Instructional Plan

  1. Introduction:
         Tell students that they will complete a warm-up activity to help them better understand the essay they will read (Listen-Read-Discuss strategy). Lead students through steps of the warm-up.
  2. Vocabulary (optional differentiation):
    Vocabulary words and phrases/concepts:
    1. Tutsi (¶3)
    2. Kitenge* (¶7)
    3. Maize (¶8)
    4. Tangible (¶9)
    5. Agatete* (¶10)
    6. Visas (¶11)
    7. Eid al-Adha* (¶13)
    8. Distraught (¶61)
    9. Negotiations (¶22)
    10. Ngultrum* (¶23)
      1. Frontload vocabulary and concepts from the essay prior to reading. Provide definitions or ask students to look up and record definitions on their vocabulary charts. (Note: The starred* vocabulary terms are concepts, slang terms, or foreign words that may not be found in a traditional English dictionary. You may choose to discuss and provide examples of each of these terms, or ask students to research them online.) As an alternative, delay adding definitions until after reading, and ask students to use context to determine preliminary definitions as they read.
      2. Ask students to identify and circle vocabulary words in the essay as they read.
      3. After reading, review and clarify vocabulary words, and ask students to complete a vocabulary chart for each word.
  3. Reading:
         Present the notes chart handout and model how students should take notes as they read. After introducing the reading strategies you will use, read the essay with students or ask them to read silently. If reading aloud, pause to review, synthesize information, and model note-taking at various points during the reading process. After reading, conduct an informal assessment of comprehension by reviewing students’ notes in a think-pair-share or mini-discussion format.
  4. Reader response:
         Lead students through the “Reader response” instructions in the last step of the Warm-up/Reader Response handout. Give them time to complete their responses, then consider using a think-pair-share format or conduct a class discussion to review the questions.
  5. Object narrative writing assessment:
         Help students break down the narrative writing prompt and discuss the specific requirements you have set for this assessment, along with the timeline and steps of the writing process (pre-writing, drafting, editing, revising, publishing) students will complete. Consider sharing your own object story or another example story as a model, or remind students they can look back to the “What They Carried” essay for ideas on content and structure.  
         Give students time to brainstorm and share their ideas during the pre-writing stage, and use think-pair-shares, exit slips, and/or other methods as informal assessment. You may also ask students to bring in their objects (as appropriate) to facilitate their writing process, or ask them to accompany their writing with a photograph or original artistic rendering of their object(s).
  6. “What They Carried” photo analysis (optional extension):
         Project or provide handouts of the photographs from the “What They Carried” essay, and give students time to examine each image and answer the analysis questions. You may provide scaffolding for analysis by first asking students to identify the colors and basic elements of each photograph before moving into higher-level questions. Conduct a think-pair-share or other structured discussion of the images.
  7. “What They Carried” post-discussion:
         Ask students to prepare all of their notes and previous work on the “What They Carried” essay. Share the discussion rubric and give students additional instructions on discussion expectations and format. Set up instructional time to include discussion preparation, the discussion itself, and de-briefing after the discussion. You may want to have students turn in their notes for a writing portion of the overall discussion grade.


ELL and SPED Supports: Scaffolded assignment options, vocabulary, reading strategies

TAG Extensions: Photo analysis, leadership opportunities during discussion and/or Socratic Seminar, “Making Peace With Chaos,” “A Return Passage,” “Small Man in a Big Country,” additional resources and related reading

SOAPS text analysis handout to use during reading

Assessment/Student Performance Tasks

  1. Reading notes/reader response and discussion (Formative)
  2. Narrative writing assessment (Can be used as formative or summative)
  3. Post-discussion (Can be used as formative or summative)

Additional Resources/Related Reading

Refugee Experience in Teen Literature Reading List

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (United Nations Refugee Agency)


U.S. Visa and Executive Order 13780 Information:




U.S. Asylum Law:



Optional Extensions

Making Peace With Chaos

A Return Passage

“Small Man in a Big Country”