Ken Burns Classroom

The Vietnam War Discussion Guide for Facilitators

Ken Burns Film: The Vietnam War

Subject: US History

Video Run Time: 1:15:58

Leading a group discussion is a form of mindfulness. Good leaders are mindful of the atmosphere they create to facilitate a productive discussion, as well as the kinds of questions they ask to elicit independent thought and curiosity from participants.

In this video and accompanying guide, The Vietnam War– a documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick-isused as the basis for a group discussion. The discussion approach used is a variation on the Socratic seminar as applied to nonfiction media.

The video includes clips from The Vietnam Warand followsthe discussion process with middle and high school teachers. The video and accompanying guide also includes additional information to help prepare group participants and facilitators for discussion, as well as strategies to assess students in a classroom setting.

As Ken Burns notes in the introduction to the video, many educators shared that the Vietnam War is a challenging topic to discuss in a classroom setting, in part because of the emotionally challenging questions involved. As Burns says, “We think it is crucial for teachers to pose those very difficult and thought-provoking questions, and we believe this webinar helps further that effort.”

Please download the full discussion guide and accompanying handouts to reference as you watch the video and build your own discussion plans.

Purchase the DVD at the PBS Teacher Shop and get a 15% discount! Use promo code VWAR15

Funding for this is provided by:

Members of The Better Angels Society


The Resnick Family Foundation

Setting A Purpose

There are various ways to organize a discussion. Do you want people to make personal connections to The Vietnam War? Or articulate whether they agree or disagree with what’s in the film? Or speculate on different outcomes of the war? A mindful discussion leader can guide the group in different directions, but an entirely rudderless discussion can confuse and frustrate participants.

Focus on establishing an understanding of the film as the foundation to build a discussion. Anchoring discussion in a common text and mindfully choosing a focus question to begin discussion sets a clear purpose and direction. Doing this will not prohibit participants from sharing personal connections, disagreeing with The Vietnam War,or postulating on how history could have flowed differently, nor should it. But focusing your discussion on interpreting the film will help mitigate the discussion from being dominated by large personalities and will, instead, promote critical thinking.

Focusing on the meaning of The Vietnam Waris democratizing. It puts everyone on safe, equal footing and encourages all to share their ideas, do their own thinking, and collaborate on an exploration of meaning that leads to deep and insightful discussion. It also sets a basic requirement for discussion participants to view the same selected portion at the same time to establish common ground. The Vietnam War is 18 hours long. No discussion can cover the entirety of the film, much less the war. Pre-selecting clips, setting a purpose, and establishing goals are key steps toward success.

Discussion Tips

Choosing the Clip

It is important that you select the clip you plan to discuss in advance and view it at least two times before you lead a discussion. The more familiar you are with the clip, the better discussion you will lead. You can choose suggested clips and questions in the Discussion Questions: The Vietnam War section. Or select your own clips and develop questions. For tips on this, visit Developing Your Own Focus Questions.

As a rough guide, choose a scene that represents no more than 25% of your overall time together. If you have 30 minutes total, use a 6-8-minute clip. For an hour, use 15 minutes. For 90 minutes, use 20-25 minutes. Ideally, show your group the clip two times. Showing the clip in class will help to ensure common ground. Once participants view it, they can jot down their own questions about it.

Arranging the Room

An ideal discussion group size is roughly 8-30 participants. Too few can mean a scarcity of divergent ideas; too many does not allow everyone adequate time or space to share their thoughts.

  • Set up the requisite media technology, i.e., something that can project and display the selected scene: a projector/laptop and a screen or DVD/TV monitor.
  • Ideally, arrange technical assistance to screen the selected scene for your group, freeing you up to focus on leading the group.
  • Arrange the room in a circle, or square, or some shape where participants can look each other in the eye. Having participants arranged so that they can see each other is crucial. It ensures a discussion where exchanging ideas flows more easily than a situation where people have to turn around to see each other. It also facilitates a dialogue between you and your group and fosters an environment where ideas are freely exchanged directly between participants.
  • Ensure participants have paper and pens/pencils or a laptop so that they will be able to take their own notes and respond to your focus question in writing.

Creating a Seating Chart

As participants introduce themselves, create a seating chart. Put people’s names on the chart according to where they sit, as opposed to making a list. During discussion, think of the seating chart as an aid that helps you manage discussion in three key ways:

  • It helps ensure that you encourage all to share and participate. Make check marks next to people’s names to track the first time they speak. As your discussion builds, the chart allows you to call on individuals you haven’t heard from by name and invite them to participate. You can always let people take a “pass” and let them know that you are not there to put them on the spot, but that you want to hear from everyone at some point. If you continue to make check marks each time someone speaks, the seating chart can also help to prevent people from dominating the conversation.
  • Use the seating chart to help you manage ideas during discussion. Now and then, jot down a key word or phrase next to the name of the participant who is speaking to help you remember what is said. Use their words as precisely as possible. For example, “Musgrave was a true patriot” or “music was manipulative.” This way, you can refer back to ideas. If someone else says, “I thought Musgrave should have kept his mouth shut,” you can refer back to the first person who said he was a patriot and ask if they agree or disagree. Ask someone else to respond to the idea of the music as “manipulative.” Use the seating chart to help you weave ideas together, ensure people are listening and responding directly to one another, and deepen the discussion overall.
  • If discussion is moving too fast for you to make check marks, it is moving too fast for your participants to digest the conversation. Take time and jot down a few notes to help create time and room for everyone to speak and everyone to listen.Your chart also gives you notes to use later if you are assessing student performance [see Discussion Assessment Rubric].

Discussion Guidelines

At the beginning of your discussion, state your purpose and discussion plan. Use the following example as a template to develop your own:

I am aiming to have a discussion to help us all better understand the scene we watched. To begin, I am going to ask an open-ended question that has more than one plausible answer based on the scene. This is a question for which I can’t figure out the best answer myself. During discussion, my role will be asking questions only. I won’t answer questions, make statements, or judge your answers. In fact, I need your help to better understand this scene myself. Therefore, during discussion, I want my follow-up questions to help you:

  • Articulate and develop your ideas
  • Support your assertions with evidence from the film
  • Consider different ways to understand the scene by listening to your fellow participants
  • Listen carefully to other participants and respond to them directly

Opening Reflection

After an initial viewing of the clip, pose your opening “focus” question. Then play the clip again, giving participants ample time to reflect and write their initial responses. Encourage them to note anything that comes to mind from the clip that supports their individual response, and to be ready to offer those moments as evidence during discussion.

Asking Follow-up Questions

During discussion, do your best to only ask questions and avoid making statements. The discussion belongs to your group, not to you. Think of your role as “chief listener.” Remember that your group is there to learn from the film and each other. Whether you agree or disagree with what you hear, you can always ask questions about how they arrived at their thoughts.

During discussion, leaders use follow-up questions in direct response to participants’ ideas and comments.

Follow-up questions help participants:

  • Generate, clarify, and develop ideas
  • Provide and explain evidence for ideas
  • Listen and respond to the ideas of others

Below are some examples of how follow-up questions work toward these ends.


To generate new ideas, leaders often have to solicit them by asking questions:

  • Can you read us what you wrote for your answer?
  • Can anyone add to that idea?
  • Does anyone have a different answer?

Participants do not always say exactly what they mean. Or they may have challenges articulating their idea. Or they may use unfamiliar terms. As leader, if you do not understand a comment or notice puzzled looks from others, help participants elaborate or clarify what they are saying. Ask:

  • What do you mean by that word?
  • Can you tell us more about that idea?
  • How does that idea connect to the opening question?


As participants work to interpret the film, encourage them to back up their ideas by relying on the film for support. As leader, ask for participants to expand on their comments and provide evidence (and not just when you think an idea is unsupportable). Use follow-up questions to encourage participants to find examples from the film, and to connect their personal experiences or prior knowledge to the film.

During discussion, consistently ask:

  • What did you see that helped you come to that conclusion?
  • Can you recall that moment?
  • (If possible) Can we all look at that part again? (And then replay that part of the scene.)

To help participants connect their personal experience to the film, ask:

  • Does your experience remind you of anything in the film?
  • How does that experience help you understand the scene we just watched?
  • Does the film support or challenge your own experience?

To help participants connect evidence from outside sources to the film, first ask for the source, and then ask:

  • What did you learn from that (book/article/film) that can help us understand this scene better?
  • How does that information affect your understanding of this scene?
  • What is the connection between that information and this scene?

Help participants build strong interpretations by considering alternative ideas that might contradict their explanation. Ask:

  • If you think that about [one part of the film], what do you think about this part?
  • If you think that is true, then why does the film also state…?


Help participants listen and respond to one another and to build onto and connect different ideas. Ask:

  • What do you think of that idea?
  • Have you heard an idea you agree with?
  • Why do you disagree with that idea?
  • How does your idea relate to her/his idea?

There is no single best follow-up question to ask in a given moment. The key is for facilitators to listen carefully and pursue ideas that help build deeper understanding of the film’s meaning. By listening and asking follow-up questions, you model how to interact in a civil discussion and create opportunities for meaningful dialogue.

As your group gains experience, encourage participants to ask follow-up questions of each other and respond directly to each other, so that each can assume a greater role in deepening the discussion.

Closing Reflection

Lead the discussion until you have about 5 minutes left. Then ask participants to think about what they’ve heard and reflect on their original answers: Has your original answer grown or changed based on what you heard during discussion? What was a new idea that you heard that intrigued you?

Bring your discussion to a close by having people share what they’ve learned. Ideally, your group will be more intrigued about the subject as a result of the discussion. This discussion is meant to be one part of their engagement, and it is helpful for you to be able to offer more ways for them to engage further. Visit kenburnsclassroom.orgfor additional ideas for engaging with The Vietnam Warseries.

About The Authors

Bill Siegel

As an educator, Siegel served as vice president for school programs with The Great Books Foundation, leading more than 1,000 staff development workshops for K-12 educators nationwide. Siegel is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker. He was director and producer of the Emmy-winning T​ he Trials of Muhammad Ali​, which premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and has screened worldwide. Siegel co-directed and produced T​ he Weather Underground,​ which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004. Siegel is currently working on a documentary series on the history of U.S. government propaganda and the new Cold War of weaponized information, titled ​America Sells Itself.​ Siegel earned a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University in New York.