The Ultimate Middle School Math Movie

October Sky Middle School Math MovieThe only movie that I ever show in my math classroom is October Sky.  It is a fantastic movie not only because of the inspiring story of Homer Hickam, but also because of the messages it presents to students to work hard and to never give up.  Oh yes, the importance of MATH is also highlighted in the movie in several scenes.

In this post I will give an overview of the movie, highlight some of the teachable moments, and explain how I have used October Sky as a source of inspiration and enjoyment in my classroom.  I also include a link to a printable October Sky worksheet that you can use with your students.

The Inspiring Life of Homer Hickam

Based on a true story, October Sky is the story of Homer Hickam’s determined journey to escape his fate as a coal miner in Coalwood, West Virginia.  He tries out for football, like his athletic brother Jim, because he sees football as a chance to escape Coalwood via athletic scholarship.  However, Homer is not a football player.

Later, motivated by the Russian Sputnik satellite launch and his interest in rocketry, Homer decides that he is going to build rockets.  The efforts of Homer and his friends (the “rocket boys”) are intensified when their teacher, Miss Riley, tells them that county science fair winners are invited to compete in the National Science Fair.  She informs them that college scholarships will be given out to winners.

Can’t Just Dream Your Way Out of Coalwood

Needless to say, Homer is excited about this new found opportunity.  However, Miss Riley says to him,

“Homer, you’ve got a great mind but science requires math and it’s never been one of your favorite subjects.  Can’t just dream your way out of Coalwood, Homer.”

Not discouraged by this truth, the rocket boys begin to seriously pursue the knowledge and expertise necessary to launch a successful rocket.

Challenges Along the Way

Along the way Homer and his friends face a number of obstacles to their success.  Each time, however, they persevere.  They continue learning and working and they never give up on their dreams even in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems.  As my math students watch the progress of Homer and the rocket boys they see a visual representation of persistence and determination.

It’s What We Want For Our Own Math Students

Homer’s example is one that we would love our own students to imitate.  As math teachers, we strive to teach our students to stick to it, to not give up, to try another approach, and to embrace the struggle that often occurs as students attempt to solve mathematical problems.

We see in this film that the problem solving process usually includes peaks and valleys, struggles and successes.  At one point in the film Ike Bykovsky says to Homer, “You don’t give up, do you?” and Homer replies, mostly to himself, “I can’t.”

Helping Our Students to Believe

In speaking with his father later in the movie Homer says, “I come to believe that I got it in me to be somebody in this world.”  Isn’t this the exact same belief that we want our students to have when they approach a difficult word problem in our math classes?  It is our teaching, combined with student effort and perseverance, that will help them to be confident in meeting the challenges of math problems and of life.

From my experience, students who believe that they can do math are usually more successful in solving problems and in applying mathematical concepts that we have taught them.  These students have a growth mindset and believe that with hard work they are able to change their abilities. Less successful students are often unmotivated because they have a fixed mindset and believe that their abilities are unchangeable.

Teaching Students the Difference Between a Growth Mindset and a Fixed Mindset

Homer Hickam definitely had a growth mindset.  He tried and failed many times to develop a rocket that would fly high into the sky.  However, he continued to read, to learn, and to discuss his challenges with others.  He believed that he could change his ability to launch a successful rocket and this belief, combined with his consistent hard work, ultimately led him to success. Homer’s growth mindset allowed him to achieve extraordinary results.

Our students need to be taught the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  Without a growth mindset much of our math instruction will fall on deaf ears.  Below is a 10 minute video that discusses the power of belief and its relationship to student success. This Tedx Talk is given by Eduardo Briceno.  You may even want to show it to your students.

Homer’s Story and the Story of Our Students

I love the movie October Sky because it shows the journey of a young man who was determined to make something of himself and to use his abilities to tap his true potential.  Our math classes are filled with students who have the potential to change their own lives for the better and to make a mark in our world.

This movie may just provide the spark of inspiration that they need to dream a bigger dream for themselves.  We, as their teachers, can help them along this path.  Like Miss Riley in the film, we can make a difference in the vision and success of our students.

How I Use October Sky in My Math Classroom

I show October Sky toward the end of the school year, after our testing and main curriculum have been completed.  The movie is 1 hour 48 minutes long and takes me nearly three class periods to show.  Since the movie was released in 1999 most of my students have not seen it prior to our classroom showing.

October Sky includes great music from the 1950s and my 6th and 7th grade students really enjoy the film.  It is rated PG due to “language, brief teen sensuality and alcohol use, and for some thematic elements.”  Homer’s father’s favorite phrase when he is frustrated (which is often) seems to be “son of a bxxxx.”

There is only one part where I will strategically make a quick announcement in class so that students do not hear one of the boys tell Homer that this rocket better fly or he can kiss his chance of losing his virginity goodbye.  October Sky has been approved for use in my district for many years and is a fantastic film.  My recommendation is to watch it first and then make your own decision as to whether or not you would like to show it in your classroom.

Printable October Sky Student Worksheet and More Resources

I took notes on my most recent October Sky viewings and have created a student worksheet that you can use to facilitate discussion and to help your students to see some of the more important themes in this movie.  You can download the October Sky Worksheet here.

If you have not seen October Sky and would like to get a copy of the movie you can find it at my Amazon.com link by clicking October Sky (Special Edition).

October Sky is based on the book Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam.  You may have some students who would like to read the actual account.  To obtain a copy of the book from my Amazon.com link click Rocket Boys (The Coalwood Series #1)

Share Your Teaching Experience with October Sky

Please leave a comment in the comment section below and share your experience using October Sky in your classroom and any ideas or tips that you think would benefit your fellow teachers.  To prevent spam comments are moderated and your comment may not show up until after I get home from school, etc. :)

God bless you,

Mark

 

 

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Comments

  1. Sarah M says:

    I am showing this movie to my 10th grade Intensive Math classes during Final Exam week (mostly because we already took the EOC). I am so excited to find this worksheet to go along with it! We live in a very rural community where many students feel they are just going to work on the farm or in the field or be a truck driver…most don’t even want or believe they can go to college. I’m hoping this movie inspires them!

  2. Marina P says:

    I show this movie in my 8th grade physical science class every year, in October if possible, and have since it first came out.
    Despite the passing of time, the kids always love it, and we can refer to it over and over again in a myriad of ways.

    It connects to freedom from Want (Homer’s in a dying coal town), to perseverance, to satellites (planets, the moon, space trash), history (cold war, space race, funding for education), war veterans and racism.
    I could go on, but I also want to thank you for pointing out the math connection, which I – like Homer- have had to learn in order to do what I love. I also appreciate the mindset link as either a precursor or follow up activity.

  3. Michelle says:

    My neighbor, the ELA teacher reads this and show the movie with 8th graders. I never have considered collaborating with him and making the connections to math. Thanks for the idea.

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