Educators - Rocket Boys Guide

There are over 400 middle schools, high schools, and colleges using Homer Hickam's memoirs in their classrooms last year. To assist educators who wish to utilize Rocket Boys (aka October Sky), The Coalwood Way, or Sky of Stone, we are including materials that other teachers have shared as well as inspiring mail and links.

Please feel free to share this guide and reproduce it any way you wish!
We would love to hear from other educators about your experiences with the book(s) or receive original classroom material that could be shared. Please write us at

See our Reading Group Questions also!

Teacher Dr. Z's Web site at at Binghamton High School is dedicated to studying Homer's book October Sky. They are one of more than 400 schools using the story of Coalwood in their classes. Have a look at this school's site though, it is PRODIGIOUS!

October Sky Teachers' Guide
This guide is courtesy of Dell Publishing, an imprint of the BantamDell Publishing Group.

"October Sky rewards every mother and teacher who ever told children they could be anything they wanted if they worked hard enough." --Orlando Sentinel

The #1 New York Times bestselling memoir, October Sky, is the true story of Homer "Sonny" Hickam, Jr., a boy from the mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia. In 1957, when Sonny was just 14 years old, Sputnik raced across the Appalachian sky. It left in its wake one boy's desire to build rockets; a dream that he ardently pursued with the help of those around him.

October Sky offers many readers­­parents, teaching professionals, school administrators, and childcare-givers, among them­­a way to teach and foster the concepts of hope, passion, confidence, self-realization, and the power of following a dream.

"400 schools in Canada and the USA [are] using Hickam's autobiographical October Sky to teach lessons that go beyond typical classroom learning." --USA Today, 11/21/00

"I teach English III (juniors) in a small rural town in East Texas. I used your story to teach my students that their dreams are reachable if they are willing to work hard and make sacrifices." --Sharon Porter, teacher, Wills Point High School, Wills Point, TX

"October Sky is a book about teenagers. In the story in order to accomplish what they would like, they had to teach themselves trig, calculus and physics. It's about character development, career choices, sticking with what you believe." --Michael Buchanan, teacher, Chattahoochee High School, Alpharetta, GA

"This is the third year I have taught October Sky in my classroom. I have developed 10-15 projects related to the novel, including activities demonstrating group dynamics and teamwork. Our students have been through so much. I really feel that Homer's book helps us to look not only up, but also to the future!" --Kiki Leyba, teacher, Columbine High School, Littleton, CO

"As a community college, many students come to us underprepared and lacking in self-confidence, and October Sky offers encouragement in a way that teachers can't. Not only are the students reading good prose, but knowing it is a true story brings alive their own hopes and dreams. When writing about it, some identify with Homer, but others with Quentin, Roy Lee, Sherman, O'Dell, and Billy. I heartily recommend the book to teachers." --Moselle Ford, professor, Amarillo College, Amarillo, TX

October Sky by Homer Hickam
ISBN: 0-440-23550-2
$6.99/$9.99 in Canada 448 pages

Also available in trade paperback as Rocket Boys
ISBN: 0-385-33321-8
$12.95/$19.95 in Canada 384 pages
Both editions include 8 pages of photographs

*All page numbers cited refer to paperback edition of October Sky.
KEY POINTS for today's educators for teaching and applying the lessons of October Sky:

When the book opens, Sonny is a 14-year-old student. He is a real boy of high school age going through real boy problems, including hormones. In him, your students may find a peer. Ask them to draw comparisons between themselves and Sonny and the Rocket Boys. How do their surroundings compare? Their home lives? What do they have to overcome? (For example, Mr. Hickam recently received a letter from one girl equating her life in a poor minority community with many teen pregnancies to his youth in Coalwood. Her parents feel she is destined for early motherhood in the same way that Sonny's father felt he was destined for the mines.)

October Sky is an excellent way to teach about the many steps it may take to achieve a goal. Sonny's idea of building rockets starts as simply a dream, then he brings in the other boys, even approaching Quentin, the school nerd. The Rocket Boys first approach rocketry as a test, then as a challenge to defy expectations, and only much later as their entrée to the state science fair. Highlight the importance of incremental steps in your students' lives. Help them to understand that all dreams require perseverance. Show them that an incremental approach has validity in all walks of life, academic and otherwise.

Use October Sky to show students the importance of a well-rounded academic education. Not only do the Rocket Boys need science, but it turns out they must study mathematics, and use their English skills to write and prepare their Science Fair proposal and display materials. What they learn helps them with their rocket-building project, and ends up permeating all they do. Quentin points this out to Sonny, saying: "Our work with rockets will change us in ways we would not have predicted. You, for instance, have actually learned an orderly way to think. When I first met you, I would not have believed that possible."(p. 209*) --The boy's teacher Miss Riley seems to regards education as a challenge and adventure. Sonny rises to meet the formidable task. As he says, "I had discovered that learning something, no matter how complex, wasn¹t hard when I had a reason to want to know it." (p. 168) That challenge is taken to the next level by Miss Riley when she gives him the book Principles of Guided Missile Design, saying, "All I've done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what's inside it." (p. 232) Discuss with your students what this means to them and their future studies.

When Sonny thinks of giving up rocketry altogether, Miss Riley tells him: "You've got to put all your hurt and anger aside so that you can do your jobS. Your job, Sonny, is to build your rockets." "Why?" "If for no other reason, because it honors you and this town."(p. 296)

Discuss the concept of "civic pride." How do the Rocket Boys help the town? Why are they celebrated in the newspapers? in church? and in the Big Store? and by both sides of the unionization conflict? Why do so many attend their rocket launches? Is it just because the football team is on yearlong suspension?

Discuss the idea of "catalyst" with your students. It has many meanings within this memoir. There are the catalysts that spur Sonny to action: first the news of Sputnik and then his mother's challenge to try ("I believe you can build a rocket. [Your father] doesn't. I want you to show him I'm right." (p. 52)). There is also a catalyst, in a scientific sense, in the fuel that sends the rockets skyward. As O'Dell says, "A rocket won't fly unless someone lights the fuse. (p. 105)" How important is it to have catalysts in all endeavors? Would the boys have gotten to the science fair without them?

After reading the book, you may want to show your students the Universal Pictures feature film October Sky, which is based on Homer Hickam's memoir. October Sky is an anagram for the original title of Hickam¹s book, Rocket Boys. The paperback edition of the book now carries the more familiar movie title. When viewing the movie, your students will notice differences between it and the book they have just read. That's because the movie is about "30% Hollywood." Discuss with them what is different and theorize as to why Universal may have made the adjustments and additions.

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