Studying Skywalkers: Star Wars in the Classroom

The Empire Strikes Back vintage poster with Boba Fett

Vintage poster from 1980 that adorns my classroom wall.

As an educator at the Secondary level, it’s imperative that you keep your students engaged and interested in the curriculum, as you navigate the distractions that life may provide at any given moment.  While attending college to become certified as a high school English teacher, I was constantly told that students need to be met where they are at in their lives, and heard catch phrases like “edutainment” to describe the pedagogical approach that many are encouraged to pursue.

This is one of many reasons why incorporating Star Wars into the curriculum is all at once gratifying, exciting, and rewarding. It’s wonderful to see how integrating the saga can inspire students to explore other worlds, analyze complex themes, examine characters and characterization, and think critically about that galaxy far, far away. Navigating the saga encourages empathy and creativity that is essential to molding young minds to become something greater than themselves. Just as Luke Skywalker looked into the twin suns of Tatooine for an outlet to other worlds, and to find his place in the universe, each student is encouraged to make similar connections for the betterment of his or her own world.  Star Wars is an excellent avenue for this.

When teaching English to high school students, I try to integrate Star Wars into the curriculum as much as possible.  Think about it … Mark Twain, Shakespeare, and George Lucas. Individuals with creative minds who explored new and exciting ways to understand the complex fabric of humanity, and all that it entails. Students should be examining interesting characters and complex themes, as they use critical thinking to understand how to walk in other people’s shoes, which indelibly leave a footprint on their psyche.

When I teach Hamlet, I share the concept of what a tragic hero is for a Shakespearian audience: someone of great stature and importance in the culture, who exhibits a tragic flaw that leads inevitable to his or her fall from grace. Outside forces may contribute to the descent, and the tragic hero recognizes his or her flaw by the end, thereby rousing sympathy from the audience. This recognition is too late to stop their fate, making it all the more powerful for those experiencing the story.

Anakin Skywalker falls from grace in Revenge of the Sith

A tragic hero.

No one exhibits this more strongly than Anakin Skywalker. The saga is replete with characteristics that Anakin exhibits, which readily classifies him as a tragic hero: the chosen one, with great ability, prowess, and esteem, whose pride and passion lead to him donning the cloak and armor of Darth Vader. Anakin/Vader recognizes his tragic flaw at the end, and once it comes to fruition for him, true pathos is felt by the audience, as Luke gives his final goodbye, moments before the second Death Star is destroyed.

Students are apt to make this connection, as I promptly show them Episode III after an intense study of Hamlet. Students are asked to take copious notes regarding Anakin’s character, and to analyze what makes him fit the mold of Shakespeare so readily. I have even addressed this with Ian Doescher (author of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars), and he readily agreed!  Ultimately, students may present a paper, presentation, or many other assessments to demonstrate why Shakespeare and Star Wars are such a beautiful fit.

Of course, The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell is the quintessential example, as my British Literature students discover, once we explore the mythos of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. After reading excerpts from Morte D’ Arthur, and viewing clips from myriad films, I introduce A New Hope to my students, asking them to discern if Luke Skywalker fits the twelve criteria of what make an epic hero. As the class watches A New Hope in class, they are asked to complete an in-depth film analysis by which they are to observe how and if Luke Skywalker, as well as A New Hope,  fit the mold.

To no one’s surprise, Luke Skywalker meets all of the criteria beautifully.  If you have not looked at Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, you will be captivated with how Lucas crafted his epic to meet the standards of this famous work.  In fact, Campbell famously stated that Lucas was his best student, and it is not very hard to see why.  Once students put the pieces together, I ask them to write a paper stating why they feel the way that they do, and it is a thing of unadulterated joy to read, as students disseminate their insights and findings, often with vigor and enthusiasm.

George Lucas and Joseph Campbell

George Lucas and Joseph Campbell.

Occasionally, I encounter students who … gasp … have never watched Star Wars, or think of it as that movie their parents liked. More often than not, the experience helps to bring to light for them why this ubiquitous film has weaved itself into the zeitgeist of popular culture, and this is wonderful to see.  Not to mention, of course, that for a few days a year, I get paid to talk about and watch Star Wars. Not a bad gig!

Perhaps just as intriguing, this year at parent/teacher conferences, I received more questions and comments about using Star Wars in the classroom than on any other topic. Overwhelmingly, parents were delighted that the movie they had loved as children is being used as an educational tool, and it reinforced the excitement and emotion that Star Wars provided for them. Once they became aware that critical thinking skills are honed through these experiences (as encouraged by the Common Core standards teachers are required to adhere to), many were ready to sign up and take the class! As an educator, getting buy in from parents truly is priceless.

Naturally, I am not the only teacher to incorporate Star Wars into the classroom. Craig Dickinson was on our show, Coffee With Kenobi recently, and he explained how he shows the entire saga to his sixth grade class in a non-chronological order. His students make connections to The Hero’s Journey as an entire story.  Craig and I collaborated together, and it was fascinating to learn that while we both taught to very different age groups, we both were using our passion for Star Wars to help students learn, analyze, and think at a critical level.

The Star Wars saga is full of pedagogical applications that resonate with students at a primal level; there is much potential to be explored.  Not only does George Lucas’ story resonate deeply with audiences, it also taps into the things we love about stories and storytelling: adventure, potential for something greater than ourselves, hope, and redemption.  The many lessons the saga provide are not to be taken lightly, as Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and many more offer a chance for students to explore the gravitas of the sprawling space epic, as well as the joy that keeps bringing us back for more.

Dan Zehr is a high school English teacher with an MS in Teaching and Learning. He also runs Coffee With Kenobi (with co-host Cory Clubb), a Star Wars Podcast that analyzes the saga through critical thinking, analysis, interviews, and discussion.

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