Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again is the story of a young Vietnamese refugee girl, Ha, and her family’s escape from Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War. This novel follows the diaspora story of a family being forced to abandon their home, flee their homeland and move to new place. From the perspective of a 10 year old girl we experience life in Vietnam, a harrowing journey to America and the immense task of adjusting to a completely foreign place, language and culture. While young readers will benefit from learning the historical and cultural context surrounding the novel, they will also discover that Ha’s immigration story is quite a familiar one. Students will marvel in how universal Ha’s story of survival is. Lai’s mix of poetry and prose creates an emotional tale that will especially appeal to middle school readers.
Harper Collins Publishing has created synopses for several books. This one for Inside Out & Back Again includes a brief description, 15 detailed discussion questions, creative class projects, and background on author Thanhha Lai. While these synopses are only 2 pages long, most include innovative ideas that teachers could easily build on.
Another great resource for literature is Scholastic.com. Scholastic has a book group section that includes Reading Group Guides for several books. This guide includes pre-reading activities, questions for discussion and written response, vocabulary, and extension activities that include poetry analysis, interpreting similes, and family interviews/profiles. They also provide websites for students to research and explore major themes in the novel such as immigration in America.
This six-page study guide for Inside Out & Back Again has detailed descriptions of the plot, themes and conflicts in the novel. There is also a more in-depth biography of the author. The most beneficial aspect of this study guide are the 4 pages of detailed study notes and discussion questions with page numbers.
Engage NY has an 8th grade ELA module for Inside Out & Back Again that closely aligns with the Common Core Learning Standards enforced by New York State. This unit plan includes ideas on free verse narrative poems, character analysis, examining an author’s word choices, supplemental informational texts, an analysis essay, and creating a model “Inside Out” poem. This unit is over 500 pages which includes detailed plans of each assignment, application of learning standards, graphic organizers and rubrics.
NPR has an audio Immigration Series based on research conducted by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The segment entitled Immigration in America: The Vietnamese gives students a lot of background information on how the Vietnamese-American community in particle coped with the obstacles of immigrant life in the United States.
PBS has numerous clips of interviews with Vietnamese Americans and Vietnam veterans that analyze the costs and consequences of the Vietnam War. Even if you do not have time to show clips of this series in class, the website still is a helpful resource. The detailed information on each country’s role in Vietnam, descriptions of specific events, timelines, and maps provide a historical perspective that will surely help your students better understand Inside Out & Back Again.
"Getting Here: Journeys from Vietnam"
"Vietnam: Another View"
"Reflections on Vietnam"
"Reporters in Vietnam" Episode 3
"Vietnam Stories: Chuck Berberian"
“Our lives will twist and twist, intermingling the old and the new until it doesn't matter which is which.”
― Thanhha Lai, Inside Out & Back Again
I often find it useful when teaching students a piece of literature that has a historical, political, and/or cultural connection to provide the background information necessary to understanding the text. Below are links to websites to inform students about Vietnam, Vietnamese-American immigration, refugees, and various human rights issues. I suggest that teachers explore each website ahead of time to find what information is appropriate for both their students and their unit plan.
The American/Viet Nam War – an overview by Asian Nation: Asian American History, Demographics, and Issues
Vietnam Embassy in the U.S.
U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
American Friends Service Committee – information and resources about peace, human rights, and humanitarian service around the world
Digital Storytelling Videos by Immigrants and Refugees
Author Interviews & Book Reviews
Below are a collection of news articles, websites and videos that may be used to enhance your lesson plans.
Thanhha Lai's website has biographical information, interviews, discussion guides and book reviews.
The Inside Story: Thanhha Lai by Virginia Euwer Wolff
- The Inside Story: Thanhha Lai | School Library Journal
In this interview Thanhha Lai discusses her motivations for writing Inside out & Back Again and shares her own personal journey as a Vietnamese refugee following the Vietnam War.
Thanhha Lai's Acceptance Speech at the 2011 National Book Awards
Podcast of a Phone Interview with Thanhha Lai
- Thanhha Lai: Inside Out & Back Again | Sarika D. Mehta
Thanhha Lai is the award-winning author of Inside Out & Back Again. Thanhha Lai's semi-autobiographical book of prose poems won the 2011 National Book Award for Young Adult Literature as well as the 2012 Newberry Honor. I interviewed her for APA
Thanhha Lai reads from Inside Out & Back Again at the 2011 National Book Award Finalists Reading
A Sense of the Past Author Thanhha Lai talks to TFK about her latest novel by Brenda Iasevoli
- A Sense of the Past | TIME For Kids
Author Thanhha Lai talks to Time For Kids about her novel Listen, Slowly?. TFK is a reliable source for educational articles to be used in middle school classrooms.
I hope this compilation helps any teachers who are either teaching Inside Out & Back Again for the first time or looking for new, fresh ideas. As a teacher, I would suggest that you do not copy these plans word-for-word and use them as your daily script. Instead, use the various ideas as inspiration to shape and mold classroom lessons that fit your own teaching style and students. Good luck and have fun!