Teaching Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five

In preparing this commentary, I asked a former student to proofread and chime in! Jenni Gish is a 17 year-old senior; her comments are in blue. 

I’ve been teaching Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five in my Advanced Placement Literature course for three years. This year (2016) was the best experience yet. My AP class, open to 11th and 12th-grade students, reads Slaughterhouse Five at the start of the second semester, after we’ve already read Dante, Shakespeare, Shelley, and reams of poetry. They’ve been well-trained in college-level reading skills and are adept at discussing a variety of literary techniques. They’ve also come to trust me enough to speak openly and freely about their reactions to anything we read, which is necessary when discussing Slaughterhouse Five.

Jenni: It’s important to have an open discussion. Teenagers have so many thoughts and questions that we feel we can’t talk about. They have to be addressed! It helps to have a safe environment to express this “loss, grief, and trauma”!

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I learned that there’s no way to prepare for how students will react to the book. I can expect students’ reactions to Hamlet and Frankenstein to fall into a certain range; not so with Slaughterhouse Five. Slaughterhouse Five has a much more visceral effect on students. Vonnegut’s ideas are new and amazing and liberating to students who are surprised by the matter-of-fact tone of Kurt Vonnegut’s frequently profound observations on life, authority, values, society, etc. While student reaction is tremendously positive, some students have more alarming reactions because events in the book have triggered their memories of loss, grief, and trauma.   

Jenni: This is SO true!

Slaughterhouse Five addresses nearly all the Indiana Academic Standards for reading literature in grades 11-12, including textual complexity (11-12.RL.1), structural elements and organization (11-12.RL.3.1, 3.2), multiple interpretations of text (11-12.RL.4.1), evaluating texts of cultural significance (11-12.RL.4.2); additionally, with the use of a few readily available non-fiction texts (literary criticism and/or historical documents), Slaughterhouse Five addresses the corresponding non-fiction reading standards.  Depending on your classroom activities, all the writing, writing process, grammar, and listening/speaking standards can also be met.

I’ve found that I cannot teach standard literary/rhetorical techniques with Slaughterhouse Five. Instead, I encourage students to identify patterns in the text: key words/phrases; recurring ideas; recurring events. We look for ways Kurt Vonnegut manages the passing of time and how he controls the unfolding of the story. We look at Billy Pilgrim’s experiences in Ilium, on Tralfalmadore, and in army/war/POW camp/Dresden to see patterns of experience. Students uncover the key words/phrases and Billy Pilgrim’s “triggers”.

The ideas I’ve shared here are aggregates of the ideas I have had or found— or that a student has had or found—about teaching Vonnegut.   None of these ideas/assignments are strictly academic projects; instead, they are an opportunity for creative student responses. My policy was to say “yes” to any ideas students had about any of the assignments or guidelines.  I often used graphic/visual art included in or inspired by Slaughterhouse Five as a starting point for students—a chance to see the images and/or text others chose to represent ideas from the book (a Google search provides plenty of options!).  That being said, the text is the final source and all their assertions must be supported with the text.

As a final note, I’ve listed the three primary inspirations for my lesson ideas in a Works Cited at the end.  Each provided some “seed” of an idea that I was able to grow into what you find here.

Lesson Ideas:

Anticipatory Set: Some conversation about big topics in the text:

  • the effect of war on society
  • the value of time
  • in what ways are our lives “pre-programmed”
  • how do people cope with traumatic events
  • in what ways is life fair/unfair
  • how can a person change his/her fate

I set up “stations” with each of the questions written on a large piece of craft paper. I let students work in their chosen groups of 3-4, and I assigned each group a color of marker. Students spent 3-4 minutes at each station, discussing the topic, commenting on other students’ responses, and adding their own. [I did not limit their language: students will list “drinking” “drugs” “sex” “cutting” as ways to cope with trauma. Stay alert to their raw responses.]

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Jenni: Thanks for not limiting us!

After each group had visited each station, they returned to their first station. Their next job was to assemble and arrange the info their classmates provided into some sort of infographic by looking for patterns, ranges, or groupings of responses. Each group presented their observations to the class. Of course I didn’t think to take pictures of these—but I did hang them up around the room. Since each of my classes did the same exercise, instead of displaying them up by class, I displayed them by question.

We revisited the questions at appropriate times during reading/discussion. Most enlightening was how their responses changed over the course of the book. For example, students began to question how their lives were pre-programmed (graduation-college-job-marriage-kids-house…). (Some of this can be attributed to second semester seniors becoming anxious about their futures.) Again, Vonnegut’s observations provided a perspective students had not previously encountered—some eye-opening moments! (Inspiration/source: Brian Perrin)

Jenni: By far one of my favorite ways of discussing. Also responses can remain somewhat anonymous so that opens more free and raw responses and thoughts.

Favorite Lines: This was a running assignment, and we shared as often as we could in class. Students were given a stack of post-it notes and instructions to mark any sentences they felt were particularly thoughtful, profound, shocking, truthful, or otherwise worthy of note. I begin class by asking students to read aloud their favorites.

Classroom discussions proceeded organically from these exchanges, oftentimes initiated by students themselves. This was also a good time to address questions about plot, character, setting, etc. 

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Jenni: I always loved [these discussions] because we have important things to say at times. And, I love quotes!

Single Sentence Animations:  Select a single sentence from Slaughterhouse Five to animate/bring to life for this project.

  1.  Using iMovie or Moviemaker, create your own animation that includes the text of the sentence and corresponding images organized to highlight the meaning of the sentence itself.
  2.  You must include appropriate music.
  3.  Your job is to convey the emotional/logical/rhetorical meaning of the sentence.
  4.  Your video should be between 45 and 60 seconds long.
  5. Include Chapter and page number
  6. CITE YOUR SOURCES for image, music, etc.

I created a GoogleSite for our SSAs, and each class period had its own page. Students added theirs to the appropriate page. Click here to go to our GoogleSite. Alas, not everyone followed all the expectations for citing sources, etc. (Source: Where the Classroom Ends)

Jenni: Not one of my favorites, only because I am awful at techy stuff, but it was cool to see students’ creations!

Mind/Body Maps: A study of how Billy Pilgrim’s experiences affect him physically and psychologically. Students select from a range of items to create their maps and use excerpts from the text to support their choices.

Students were encouraged to use any format they found appropriate to their work. I used nearly everything to turn the English hallway into an art display! The entire student body was able to see and comment on their work. And not one item was damaged or vandalized.

  • Appearances: Consider how Billy appears to others on the surface and what you know about his inner self. Do these images correspond or clash? What does this tell you about him?
  • Equipment/Accessories: What items does Billy need/acquire/possess? What & why?
  • Evolution: How does Billy change over the course of the book?
  • Conflicts: With whom/what does Billy struggle? How can you illustrate these conflicts?
  • Geography: Obviously locations matter to Billy. How do those locations tie into various elements of his personality? Do certain locations associate more specifically with certain physical/psychological/emotional traits? How can you demonstrate that?
  • Motivations: What is his most important goal? What drives his thoughts and actions? How can you illustrate it?
  • Qualities— What are Billy’s most admirable qualities? What are his worst? Can you show it?
  • Symbols—What objects can you associate with Billy that illustrate his essence? Of course there are objects in the book you can use, but are there other objects that especially seem to correspond with Billy?
  • Thoughts: What thoughts and ideas dominate Billy’s mind? How do those ideas relate to Billy’s physical/geographical locations? How can you demonstrate those relationships?
  • Ups and Downs—Identify the high and low points of Billy’s life and determine causes and effects.

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Jenni: This was one of the coolest creative but super educational lessons I’ve ever been part of. I learned so much from other student’s creations. Plus, it showed me things I hadn’t realized or thought of before.

(Inspiration/Source: Sandra Effinger—MsEffie’s Life Savers. This is an incredible resource!)

A previous version of this commentary was posted on the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library website in June, 2016.

Work Cited

Perrin, Brian. “Reading Slaughterhouse Five to Battle Senioritis” www.talkswithteachers.com

Sandra Effinger—MsEffie’s Life Savers; www.mseffie.com

Where the Classroom Ends; www.wheretheclassroomends.com (I think this site no longer exists).