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Back-to-School Video Pick of the Decade: The October Sky

By Bob Pearlman

Most movies about school are rarely about learning. From Blackboard Jungle to Clueless to Carrie, Hollywood's school films usually tell the story of teen sex or violence. When they do focus on learning, as in Stand and Deliver (Jaime Escalante) to Lean on Me (Joe Clark) to Mr. Holland's Opus, it's rarely about the kids and their learning but instead about the hero teachers and principals who inspired them. October Sky, a film that came out this year and is now in the video stores, changes the subject in two ways. First, it tells the story about the kids, and second, it tells a real-life story of how kids learn best, through real-life projects inspired by what author and subject Homer Hickam Jr. calls "passion, planning, and perseverance". These are Kids who Know and Do!

October Sky is the true story of four Coalwood, West Virginia, high school students who, inspired by the site of Sputnik crossing the West Virginia sky in October, 1997, set out to build a rocket. Through trial and error and multiple mishaps and setbacks, they eventually launch a rocket 4 miles into the sky and present their project successfully at the National Science Fair. Along the way, they corral adult help and mentors throughout the community to help them learn, design, and forge the rocket, the combustion, and the instruments needed to succeed.

This is the decade's (millennium's) great Back-to-School Movie. It is the story not just of real-ife learning, but of real learning through project-based learning. If you're a teacher, administrator, or other educator, see it now to inspire a great year. Then show it to your kids, and tell your colleagues about it.

And if you want to learn more about the Rocket Boys, read "The Rocket Boys" by Homer Hickam, Jr. (Delacorte Press, 1998). You can also go on Hickam's web site. I highly recommend reading his 1999 West Virginia University Commencement Speech to learn more about Hickam's educational philosophy.

October 13,2009: Recommendation from Keith Jaeger, National Universty, of a great teaching lesson at http://www.teachwithmovies.org/guides/october-sky.html to go along with the movie.