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Teaching Guide

Teaching Slaughterhouse-Five

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In this guide you will find

  • an activity getting students unstuck in time by figuring out the twisty turny timeline of events in Slaughterhouse-Five.
  • reading quizzes for the whole pilgrimage of Billy Pilgrim.
  • essay topics exploring war, death, and sci-fi.

And so it goes.

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  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop's teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

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Instructions for You

Objective: Figuring out what happens when in Slaughterhouse-Five is tough enough for teachers. That means that keeping it all straight can be a real doozy for students. But it's important to do so in order for students to figure out why Vonnegut chucks chronology out the window in the first place. In other words: why all the wacky time warps?

In this activity, you'll ask your students to reconstruct the timeline of the novel by creating an illustrated catalogue of scenes that can be rearranged in two ways: (1) in the order events appear in the novel; and (2) chronologically. The goal here is to get your students to think critically about Vonnegut's experiments with time as a source of meaning in the novel.

Length of Lesson: 2 class periods—one to introduce the project and let students get started, and one for them to present their work.

Materials Needed: 

Step 1: Lead your students in a discussion of time in Slaughterhouse-Five. To start, ask a student to read aloud the beginning of Chapter Two, which retells Billy Pilgrim's life story in miniature. Then ask your students,

  • In what order does the rest of the novel present these events?

NOTE: If your class is a bit more advanced, you could introduce the difference between good old fashioned linear, realistic narration, and what came after it—the postmodern rejections of those conventions. For inspiration, be sure to check out Shmoop's discussion of genre in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Then, to get the discussion moving, ask your students the following questions:

  • What is the effect of reading a novel in which we know everything that happens from the outset? How would the novel be different if it were told in chronological order? Would it lose anything? Gain something?
  • How does the novel's nonlinear form relate to its content—a story about a man who has become "unstuck in time"? Or to its major theme and central event: the bombing of Dresden?
  • How does the novel's structure relate to the Tralfamadorian way of thinking about time? 
  • Does Vonnegut advocate the fatalism of the Tralfamadorians, i.e., an acceptance that "when a person dies he only appears to die," or that "All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist" and thus there's nothing we can do about it (2.15)?  How can you tell? And what do you think about this idea?

Step 2: Now it's time to introduce the assignment. Tell your students that they'll be reconstructing the chronology of the novel by making an illustrated catalogue of scenes, storyboard style. Then give them the following instructions:

"Choose twelve scenes from the novel. For each scene, do the following:

  1. Draw a picture of some aspect of the scene. Don't worry, this isn't a test of artistic ability. Rest assured, cartoons, stick figures, etc. are a-okay. 
  2. Add a fun, informative caption.
  3. Place two numbers in the top right corner of the picture. The first number should correspond to the order in which the novel presents events. The second number should correspond to when the event occurred in chronological order. (You might want to write down the different orders of your scenes in list form, before you number them.)
  4. Clip your catalogue of images together using a brad or paperclip. That way, it can be arranged in either order. Congratulations—you've constructed a transformable timeline!

If you need some help piecing together the order of events, Shmoop's got your back. Take a look at Billy Pilgrim's timeline or our analysis of the novel's plot."

Step 3: Students can begin working on their catalogues in class and finish them for homework. Give them a due date and let them know they should come into class that day ready to share their work and discuss the process.

Step 4: When the catalogues are complete, have your students present them in class. After they present, you can discuss the process with them by having them consider the following questions:

  • Was this harder than you thought it would be? Easier? What made it so?
  • Did you get confused as you completed the project? What about when you were reading the novel? If so, do you think that's a common experience? And if not, how did you manage to keep it all straight?
  • Does the meaning of the novel change for you when you think about it chronologically, versus the way it actually appears in the novel? 
  • Why might Vonnegut have chosen to narrate the novel in a nonlinear way? Does it add something?

(California English Language Arts Standards Met: 9th & 10th grade Reading Standards 3.2, 3.6, 3.8, 3.9, 3.12; Writing 2.2; Listening & Speaking 1.1, 2.4; 11th & 12th grade Reading Standards 2.2, 2.4, 2.5, 3.1, 3.2, 3.5, 3.7; Writing 1.6, 1.7, 2.2, 2.6; Listening & Speaking 2.3.)

Instructions for Your Students

Be honest. You had a bit of trouble keeping the chronology of Slaughterhouse-Five straight. Ain't nothin' to be ashamed of, students. Millions before you have had just the same problem, and we think Kurt Vonnegut wanted it that way.

Lucky for you, today's activity is going to help you figure out what happens when, and why it's important. You'll reconstruct the timeline of Slaughterhouse-Five by making your own illustrated catalogue of scenes that can be arranged in two ways: (1) in the order events appear in the novel; and (2) chronologically.

In the process, you tackle some heavy-duty questions like,

  • Hey Kurt, why all the wacky time warps in the first place?
  • And what are we supposed to get out of reading out of order anyways? Does it mean something?

Fair warning: this might get confusing. But hey, that's half the fun.

Step 1: Join your teacher and classmates in a discussion about the nonlinear structure of Slaughterhouse-Five. Check out the beginning of Chapter Two, which recounts Billy Pilgrim's life story in miniature. In what order does the rest of the novel present these events?

Once you've had that refreshed, you and your class should discuss the following questions:

  • What is the effect of reading a novel in which we know everything that happens from the outset? How would the novel be different if it were told in chronological order? Would it lose anything? Gain something?
  • How does the novel's nonlinear form relate to its content—a story about a man who has become "unstuck in time"? Or to its major theme and central event: the bombing of Dresden?
  • How does the novel's structure relate to the Tralfamadorian way of thinking about time? 
  • Does Vonnegut advocate the fatalism of the Tralfamadorians, i.e., an acceptance that "when a person dies he only appears to die," or that "All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist" and thus there's nothing we can do about it (2.15)? How can you tell? And what do you think about this idea?

Step 2: Here it is, the moment you've been waiting for. Now, you get to make your own timeline and figure it all out at last.

Choose twelve scenes from the novel. For each scene, do the following:

  1. Draw a picture of some aspect of the scene. Don't worry, this isn't a test of artistic ability. Rest assured, cartoons, stick figures, etc. are a-okay. 
  2. Add a fun, informative caption.
  3. Place two numbers in the top right corner of the picture. The first number should correspond to the order in which the novel presents events. The second number should correspond to when the event occurred in chronological order. (You might want to write down the different orders of your scenes in list form, before you number them.)
  4. Clip your catalogue of images together using a brad or paperclip. That way, it can be arranged in either order. Congratulations! You've created a transformable timeline!

If you need some help piecing together the order of events, Shmoop's got your back. Take a look at Billy Pilgrim's timeline or our analysis of the novel's plot.

Step 3: You can get started on your images in class and finish them up for homework. Listen up for the due date and make sure your catalogue is ready on time so you can present it to the class. 

Step 4: Present your catalogue to your classmates. And while you're at it, make sure you think about the following questions:

  • Was this harder than you thought it would be? Easier? What made it so?
  • Did you get confused as you completed the project? What about when you were reading the novel? If so, do you think that's a common experience? And if not, how did you manage to keep it all straight?
  • Does the meaning of the novel change for you when you think about it chronologically, versus the way it actually appears in the novel? 
  • Why might Vonnegut have chosen to narrate the novel in a nonlinear way? Does it add something?

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Common Core Standards  

The following standards are covered in this course:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.6

WANT MORE HELP TEACHING SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE?

Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary    Themes    Quotes    Characters    Analysis    Questions    Quizzes    Flashcards    Best of the Web    Write Essay    
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