I strongly recommend pairing fiction and non-fiction texts to teach both English Language Arts and Social Studies Common Core standards in middle school. For several years, I've looked for a fiction text that I felt captured the milieu of the Vietnam War and its social nuances in a way that students could connect with the story.
I recently finished reading this gem, Everything Else in the Universe, and at last, I felt like I'd found a fiction text to pair with a non-fiction text set in this time period. The author, Tracy Holczer, says a teaching guide may be in the works for the paperback edition. When it's available, I'll post about it.
In the meantime, I checked the usual pay-for-teaching-resources websites, and still, nothing's been offered for sale. Yet. I say "yet" because this is an awesome book, very teachable, and it hits many of the CC standards for ELA in 7th and 8th grades, and SS in 8th. And students will love it! If anyone identifies a CC-aligned, teaching resource for this novel, ELA or SS, even if it's offered for sale, please share it with me!
Everything speaks to middle school students, and yet also captures what it was like to live during the era, with the contrast of the two characters - one whose father comes home forever changed and the other whose father dies. It is heartbreaking, both in the main character's longing for life with her dad to go back to way it had been (and of course it never will), and the secondary character who hides the fact that his father is killed in Vietnam just a few weeks short of coming home.
Until teaching materials are available for Everything, I would recommend teaching Inside Out and Back Again. This text is for slightly younger audiences, although the historical context requires a considerable amount of background knowledge about Vietnam and the war, and it is in part based on the author's own life, although she notes it is historical fiction.
Again the free verse format, as in Hesse's Out of the Dust, makes for a quick read, and lends itself to listening to the audio book and following along in class. Students identify quickly with the main character's struggles to fit in and define herself. The reading level is not difficult, and captures even your most challenged readers.
There are many great teaching guides available commercially for this one. But I particularly liked the free one offered by University of Queensland Press (see the Teachers Notes link in this post). The Discussion Guide by the publisher, Harper, is also helpful, and there are loads of other free resources just a Google search away.
The story is written from the point of view of a Vietnamese girl, recently arrived in the U.S., during the Vietnam War.
I also taught this book, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, which is equally gut-wrenching non-fiction. It hits CC Social Studies 8th grade standard 1SS.C9.PO4, and most of the English Language Arts reading standards for informational text, 8th grade. Because of the extreme polarization of opinions about the Vietnam War, this text particularly lends itself to teaching 8.RI.6, or determining an author's point of view, or perspective, and purpose in a text and analyzing how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.
The epistolary, or letter, format facilitates quick readings and in-class discussions, with connections to major world events of the era and to the Vietnam war. Letter writers are often refuting or affirming viewpoints about the Vietnam war, and thus students begin to see the many viewpoints, or perspectives, of the conflict and can make comparisons rather quickly. When I taught in Catholic school, students focused on the letters to and from chaplains and some of the more weighty issues - last rites, confession - contained within.
Unlike most books that I used in class, with this one, I photocopied and distributed individual letters, instead of reading the entire book. My classroom was arranged in table groups of 4-5 students, and each group read a letter collectively and discussed it, before answering questions. Each group read a different letter.
You will want to read the letters in advance of teaching them, and choose them carefully, depending on what standards you are emphasizing. There is also, as with most readings about this time period, a significant amount of swearing in the texts. You know your classes best, so choose the letters that work best for your students' ages and maturity levels. You may even want to send home a brief letter to parents, or include a statement in your beginning-of-the-year syllabus warning parents. There are plenty of letters with no profanity, so if a parent objects, alternate letter readings are quick and easy to locate in the book.
In table groups, students read, discussed, and analyzed the letters in the context of their studies about the Vietnam war in Social Studies. Students identified the events on a "Vietnam timeline" that I found at this UNC Database of K-12 resources. There are many excellent free readings, lesson plans and other classroom materials at this site. I wrote to the contact person and obtained free, editable Power Point presentations, as well.
Groups were given 10-15 minutes to read and complete the following questions. Students then discussed each letter as a group, sharing out unfamiliar terms, connections and explanations.
We did this a few times, with the longer letters, as a full-class activity until students were comfortable reading and analyzing a letter independently. You have to scaffold how to do this, because students today are frequently unfamiliar with reading or writing letters. For many, this may be an introduction to personal correspondence as a tool / resource in researching and understanding history. Here are some additional scaffolding materials, in case your students need additional help.
Once students were comfortable reading and analyzing the letter format, they moved to reading 2-3 of the shorter letters a week as bellwork. Again, I only photocopied a few at a time and rotated them through the class table groups.
ADDED BONUS: This unit served as an opportunity for my students whose parents were in the military to really shine. They were able to explain ranks, sergeant vs. lieutenant, for example, and military units, such as divisions, brigades, battalions, etc., and other terms and norms with which their non-military peers were totally unfamiliar.
Students were then asked to research and write an informational, five paragraph expository paper about a topic relating to the Vietnam War. I gave my students ample time to research their topics in a computer lab. Again, a notice home to parents that students will encounter mature materials while researching these topics is needed in most classrooms.
I also used this as an opportunity to direct students to research resources, like specific, dependable websites that are available for free with a library card through our local library, including Gale Student Resources in Context and EBSCO MasterFILE that they would be able to use in high school. This assignment addressed ELA W8.7 and W8.8 CC standards.
An added benefit of teaching a text like Dear America is the plethora of resources available to teach it. There are many commercially available teaching guides, several video representations, and audio book recordings. Be sure to send home a parental notice, prior to showing the documentary in your classroom and check with your school's movie policy. The HBO documentary version is rated PG-13, but there is language (it's part of the era, there's no getting around it) and violence. Be prepared for some parents to opt out and ask that their children go to a co-worker's classroom, instead of viewing.