Shooting the Moon & The Rocket: A Novel & Film Study Unit (editable)

Shooting the Moon & The Rocket: A Novel & Film Study Unit (editable)
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This is a 77-page Common Core-aligned literature and film study unit for use with the novel Shooting the Moon by Frances O'Roark Dowell, and the 2013 Australian film The Rocket directed by Kim Mordaunt.

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.

Set in a U.S. Army base during the Vietnam war, Shooting the Moon maps the evolution of 12 year-old Jamie’s understanding of the realities of America’s military involvement in Southeast Asia. “Combat-ready” and “hung-ho” for battlefield glory, Jamie would enlist if she were old enough, but when her GI brother starts sending her rolls of film from the front lines, she develops his pictures, and with them, a more nuanced and complicated sense of what war truly means.

Set and shot in the war-ravaged villages of present day Laos, Kim Mordaunt’s 2013 film The Rocket the tells the story of Ahlo, a ten year old boy determined to prove he is not “cursed.” To save his family from ruin, Ahlo enters a dangerous rocket competition with the help of a troubled former soldier who subsists on rice wine and an undying devotion to James Brown.

I teach The Rocket alongside Shooting the Moon because the works offer two very different perspectives on a moment in world history that still haunts us today. Shooting the Moon is set in a Texas military base during the Vietnam War; The Rocket is set in the Southeast Asia of today, decades after the war has ended, but still a minefield, both figuratively and literally. Indeed, the “sleeping tigers” America left behind in the mountains of Laos continue to “awaken,” with catastrophic consequences. Plot-wise the novel and film don’t have much in common, but they both wander similar thematic terrain and share an element of story structure the film’s Mentor Text exercise asks students to explore.

I developed this unit for use with my fourth and fifth graders, many of whose parents immigrated from Southeast Asia as children and have first hand experience with the hardships the characters in The Rocket face. Elementary grade learners are probably not ready for an in-depth exploration of the historical context of the novel and film, though this unit has sparked some class discussions about the war’s aftermath and why so many of my students’ families fled in its wake. Several of the questions here allow for a wide range of responses, including those that might reflect the understanding of historical context middle school readers are starting to grasp. If you will be teaching this unit in a middle school Language Arts class where a detailed exploration of the novel’s historical context is beyond the scope of study, your students may benefit from viewing the Crash Course in World History YouTube episode on the Cold War in Asia. To access it, click the following link or copy & paste into your browser:


• Literature Response worksheets for each chapter the novel with 8-12 questions about the reading. 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. For some chapters, I’ve included “Challenge Questions” for students who are ready for more complex literary and historical analysis. Several of the questions can also be used as prompts for longer writing assignments. Both the novel and the film raise some tough and complicated questions about family and adult responsibility, and explore some of the ethical dilemmas that war and poverty can often trigger (i.e., Are lying and deceiving 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.

• 7 pages of Film Response Questions for use with the film, split into three parts, each one corresponding with a thirty-minute segment of the film. Some of these questions check plot comprehension, others ask students to compare/contrast the film with the novel, and a few ask for deeper analysis. Some of the questions in the film response involve math and science, which may segue well into a chemistry unit on explosives and/or physics unit on propulsion.

• Vocabulary quizzes, one for every 2-3 chapters.

• 3 vocabulary practice crossword puzzles with solutions.

• A vocabulary study sheet, where all words are listed with easy to understand definitions and parts of speech.

• 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 Shooting the Moon 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 & Google Play-supported android devices. Directions for three flashcard games are included with the link.

• Several “Mentor Text Exercises” designed for use with a Writers’ Workshop program, including one involving the film. Each exercise asks students to read as writers—to pay close attention to character, conflict, point of view, and elements of craft—and apply the author’s or screenwriter’s writing techniques to their own works in progress.

• Flexible formatting. This document is in Microsoft Word so you can easily modify or delete questions or directions to fit your own class’s needs. The cover image, crossword puzzles, 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.


Despite the award-winning grace and bravery of the film’s screenplay and cinematography, some may consider The Rocket inappropriate for younger children. Before you decide to show this film to your class, consider the following: There is some brief, though realistic violence, no doubt the most alarming of which is the scene where Ahlo’s mother is accidentally killed. There are a few obscenities, though the film is in Lao so kids will be reading English translations of the bad words in the subtitles. The film opens with a graphic scene of Ahlo’s birth, and when I show it to my fourth and fifth grade class, I skip to the end of this scene at 4:23 where we learn the tribe considers twins a curse and discover that Ahlo’s twin was stillborn. I fill the class in on the bit of plot they miss: Ahlo’s grandma (Taitok) wants to get rid of the curse by killing him, but his mother (Mali) begs the woman to spare him, arguing that since his twin died, Ahlo is technically not a twin. The scene that follows shows the women burying the stillborn infant while Mali holds a very much alive Ahlo. You may want to skip part of the burial ritual following Mali’s death (19:42-20:16). This part includes some brief nudity. You also may want to skip the rocket-making scene from 58:55-59:35; here some old men crack jokes comparing their rockets to male genitalia.

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77 pages
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