Star Wars Thursday: In The Classroom Edition

Star Wars Thursday: In The Classroom Edition Welcome back to Star Wars Thursday! As I head back to the teaching this fall, I wanted to share a great website called Star Wars in the Classroom . Since I love to use Star Wars references to help me teach, I knew this would be a great resource. The main page is a great quick hit for recent Star Wars news that relates to instruction. Many of the other pages include lesson ideas, and links to Star Wars books, music, and art.

This week I have an interview with Thomas Riddle, the creator of the site. Next week I’ll share some great Star Wars themed books that can help spark interest in specific areas like Shakespeare and history.

Maria:
What is it about Star Wars that turned you into a fan? Do you have any favorite early memories to share?

Thomas:
I was 8 years old when Star Wars was released in 1977, a wonderful age for seeing it for the first time on the big screen. When the film began, I remember reading the words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” and then this massive explosion of music. I still remember trying to keep up with reading the opening crawl and then… everything changed. A planet, a spaceship racing towards it, and from the top of the screen, this massive machine that kept growing and growing until it covered almost everything. Laser blasts! Explosions! Talking robots, (no one knew the term “droid” then)!

I had no idea what was happening. “Good guys wear white, so these must be the good guys,” I thought. As quickly as it began, the fight was over and through the smoke of battle, in walked this hulking figure in black. “Wait, these guys work for HIM; they’re the BAD guys! The good guys just lost! What?!” And just like that, I was sucked into an adventure unlike anything that I, or anyone else for that matter, had ever seen before. A boy, a princess, an old man, and a pirate with Bigfoot as his friend. Weird creatures, super cool spaceships, lots of action, a giant battle at the end, and the heroes won medals for their bravery. What more could an eight-year-old want from a movie. I’ll never forget my dad looking at me and stating unequivocally, “There’ll be another one.” I said, “No there won’t. Why do you say that?” “Because,” he said, “Darth Vader got away.” I was never so glad to be wrong in all my young life.

After the movie, we went to my grandparents’ house to visit but all Pam and I wanted to do was reenact everything we’d just witnessed. We precariously balanced on the curb of the driveway so as not to fall to our deaths as we crossed the bridges in the Death Star. Having made our escape, we ran into the house and leapt into my grandparents’ recliners that served as our X-Wings, jerking hard upon the side levers of the chairs that allowed us to lock s-foils in attack position. Needless to say, the Death Star was destroyed once more. Thus began my life-long fascination with Star Wars.

Maria:
Who shot first?

Thomas:
Han. No doubt. Next question.

Maria:
Who is your favorite character?

Thomas:
For years it has been Yoda. I love his wisdom and the inner peace that he exudes. However, in recent years, I’ve grown very fond of Obi-Wan, especially as we’ve seen more of his story unfold in the prequels and The Clone Wars. He has a very dry sense of humor, a deep commitment to his beliefs, and compassion for all (even that Binks fellow). Of course, I’m very excited to read John Jackson Miller’s new book.

Maria:
What is your favorite lesson that incorporates Star Wars?

Thomas:
Over the years, I’ve used Star Wars to teach numerous topics, but my favorite use of the saga is in teaching mythology to students in world and/or ancient history courses. The lessons we explore are based on the concepts of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” as found in “The Power of Myth” and “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Mary Henderson’s “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth” was very influential as well. To accomplish this, we watch the Original Trilogy over the course of a school year. At the beginning of the year, as we study the significance of storytelling and the oral tradition, we watch “A New Hope.” We identify the mythic elements of “The Call to Adventure” and compare the archetypes found within this section of the story with others that students are familiar with. Around mid-year, as we study the history and culture of ancient India and China, we watch “The Empire Strikes Back,” specifically to make comparisons between the concepts of Taoism and the Force (Yoda is a terrific example of a Taoist sage) and examine the second stage of the Hero’s Journey known as the “The Dark Road of Trials.” Finally, we watch “Return of the Jedi” after studying the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Terrific historical connections to be made here and we also complete our application of Campbell’s motifs to this final chapter of the story. By this point, students have studied twenty-six mythic elements that are found within three stages of the Hero’s Journey. Their final assignment is to apply each of those elements to their lives and explain how they are on their own heroic journey.

Maria:
Can you share a story about how using Star Wars helped a student make a connection with the topic you were teaching?

Thomas:
Well, there are numerous examples of students benefiting from the connections that we made to Star Wars, especially in terms of studying ancient histories and cultures. Most western students have little understanding of eastern philosophies, but comparing Yin and Yang to the light and dark sides of the Force always helped light bulbs pop up over their heads. And there are great connections to Rome and Nazi Germany, but I saw the greatest benefit in my classroom when the Original Trilogy to teach the symbolism around the Hero’s Journey.

It’s hard to pinpoint a specific story, but by-and-far the most rigorous, yet most popular assignment that I gave each year was the Hero’s Journey writing prompt. As mentioned, students were required to describe, in detail, how each element applied to their life. This required a few paragraphs for each of the twenty-six elements we examined, a lengthy task. For many, it forced them to take a long, hard look at themselves. Who are your “hero partners” and who is your “wise and helpful guide?” What is your “magic talisman?” What “masks” do you wear and why? What is your “monster combat” and what will be your “final victory?” I encouraged them all to share their papers with their parents, and most of them did. Each year, I would have parents even send notes thanking me for the assignment because they learned things about their child that they wouldn’t have known otherwise.

Maria:
What made you decide to create a website to share your ideas online?

Thomas:
I’m a firm believer in collaboration and the Internet, particularly social media, has made this easier than ever. I understand the necessity of engaging students in learning that is relevant and rigorous but straying beyond the textbook or prescribed curriculum to do so is uncomfortable for some and overwhelming to others. So, we try to make that easier for teachers. Having experienced success over twenty-plus years of teaching with pop culture such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, I enjoy sharing these ideas with others. So in 2007, Wes Dodgens (a fellow “Star Wars/Indy Teacher”) and I launched the website, “Adventures in Learning with Indiana Jones” ( http://www.indyintheclassroom.com ). During that time, we were very fortunate to work with Lucasfilm on their release of the Young Indy series and were even able to visit Skywalker Ranch in 2010. While we maintain the Indy site, last year we decided that it was time to promote learning with Star Wars as well.

Maria:
What can we expect to see added to the Star Wars in the Classroom site in the next few months?

Thomas:
We hope to expand our sections on mythology and history while adding resources in the areas of science and technology, art and design, and educational “best practices” in general. We would love to feature the work that teachers are doing around the nation in creating challenging learning experiences that include Star Wars in some way, shape or form. Our goal is to create a network of teachers that can learn with and from one another as we all strive to improve our craft for the benefit of our students.

Maria:
I wish you’d asked me about…. is there anything else you’d like to share?

Thomas:
…the time that we ran into George Lucas in the kitchen of the Main House at Skywalker Ranch because my oldest son wanted to chat with the chef…but that’s a story for another time. Star Wars Thursday: In The Classroom Edition

I’m so jealous of his trip to Skywalker Ranch! Be sure to check out the great work that Thomas and Wes are doing over at Star Wars in the Classroom. Have you used Star Wars to help teach your students or children important lessons? Have a great week – and may the Force be with you!

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