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This is a 94-page Common Core-aligned literature study unit for use with the novel, Goodbye, Vietnam, by Gloria Whelan, and the poetry collection Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Set shortly after the fall of Saigon, Goodbye, Vietnam chronicles the journey 12 year-old Mai and her family make on foot then by rickety boat from a jungle village in Vietnam to the hustle and bustle of a Hong Kong refugee camp. Tensions between tradition and the cold realities of state socialism drive the plot and conflict here. Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again covers similar geographic and thematic terrain so I teach the works together, interspersing chapters of the novel with poems from Lai’s collection. You do not need a copy of the poetry collection to teach this unit. All poems the unit looks at in depth are reprinted here.

NOTE: This unit does NOT include an answer key. Though some questions here are designed to assess comprehension, the overall objective is to promote discussion, critical inquiry and the development of argument-building skills. Most prompts here are open-ended so a variety of responses will be "correct," depending on how well-supported they are. If you are looking for a unit with multiple choice or fill-in-the-blanks questions you can quickly match against an answer key, this is not the right unit for you.

Both works explored here feature young protagonists who leave behind a familiar but dangerous uncertainty for one that holds the fragile promise of opportunity. Whelan’s work is fiction, while Lai’s poetry echoes her childhood experience as a Vietnamese “boat person” in the 1970s.

I developed this unit for use with my fourth and fifth graders, many of whose parents have first hand experience with the hardships the characters in these works face, leaving Vietnam after the war as children, spending grueling weeks at sea in leaky boats then months in refugee camps before finding a permanent place to call home. Elementary grade learners are probably not ready for an in-depth exploration of the Cold War, though this unit has sparked some class discussions about the war in Vietnam, and the crackdowns on religious freedoms and economic opportunities that followed the North’s victory, both factors that spurred many of my students’ families to leave for a new life in America.

Many of the questions here allow for a wide range of responses, including those that might reflect the sort of nuanced understanding of historical context that middle school readers are starting to develop. If you will be teaching this unit to middle school students in a Language Arts class, where in in-depth inquiry into historical context is beyond your scope of study, your students may benefit from viewing the Crash Course: World History YouTube episode on the Cold War in Asia. Scroll to 5:20 for a 6-minute section devoted specifically to the war in Vietnam.

If you would like to continue your literary exploration of Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War, you may want to check out this companion unit: Shooting the Moon and The Rocket: A Language Arts Unit for Use with the Novel by Francis O’Roark Dowell and the 2013 Film Directed by Kim Mordaunt.


• Literature Response worksheets for each 5-8 page section of the novel with 8-10 questions about the reading. Page numbers correspond with the Kindle edition. Some of the questions are designed to assess reading comprehension (or listening comprehension if you read the novel aloud); others are intended to hone critical thinking and writing skills. Several of the questions can also be used as prompts for longer writing assignments. Both the novel and poetry raise some tough and complicated questions about family and adult responsibility, and explore some of the ethical dilemmas that poverty and homelessness can often trigger (i.e., Are lying and stealing ever the “right” things to do?) The Lit Response questions ask students to articulate their thoughts on these issues and write about personal experience. There are some questions geared toward English Language learners that ask students to decode idioms with which native English speakers will probably be familiar.

• Vocabulary quizzes, one for every 2-3 chapters. Rather than ask for definitions, instructions here ask students to use each vocabulary word in their own sentences because I’ve found that this exercise tells me a lot more about how much students understand the words than asking them for definitions does. Since the document is in MS Word, however, you can easily change the directions to create assignments that meet your own objectives.

• 4 vocabulary practice crossword puzzles with solutions.

• A vocabulary study sheet, where all words are listed with easy to understand definitions and parts of speech (not dictionary definitions that can often be confusing).

• A reproducible “Word Work-up” Frayer model-based graphic organizer for in-depth study of individual words. This page features questions about word origin, prefixes, suffixes, synonyms, antonyms and parts of speech.

• A link to a set of Goodbye, Vietnam vocabulary flashcards stored on From this URL you can download a PDF copy of the flashcards, or let students use the “study session” feature on the website or the Flashcard Machine app for ipad or android devices. Directions for three flashcard games are included with the link.

• Several short “Mentor Text Exercises” designed for use with a Writers’ Workshop program. Each exercise asks students to read as writers—to pay close attention to elements of craft—and apply the mentor author’s writing techniques to their own works in progress. Passages from Goodbye, Vietnam and poetry from Inside Out & Back Again serve as springboards for these exercises.

• THE THINGS WE CARRY, THE THINGS WE LEAVE BEHIND: WRITING THE BORDERLANDS, a detailed, 2-week lesson plan for an in-depth mentor author study. This lesson plan includes suggestions for introducing each lesson’s reading, discussion and/or writing session, excerpts of the mentor texts under consideration, questions to guide discussions, and prompts to nudge students into their own poetry writing projects. Along with passages from Goodbye, Vietnam and poems from Inside Out and Back Again, this lesson also spotlights a short section from the story, “The Things They Carried,” by Vietnam vet and award-winning writer, Tim O’Brien. Though his audience is not children, the passage excerpted here is kid-appropriate and resonates thematically with the other works. The passage itself is not violent, though it does mention weapons—a topic that intrigued and motivated some of the boys in my class who had been reluctant writers prior to this unit.

• Flexible formatting. This document is in Microsoft Word, so you can easily modify or delete anything here to fit your own class’s needs. The cover image, crossword puzzles, poems, and “Word Work-up” worksheet are embedded PDF files so they will take a little longer to load. Keep in mind that if you make changes that alter the document’s pagination, the page numbers on the Contents page might become inaccurate, but will probably stay close enough for you to find what you’re looking for.
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