Studying Skywalkers: The Hero’s Journey in the Middle School Classroom

Craig & Hero's Journey

Craig Dickinson teaches the Hero’s Journey to Middle School students.

One of the best things about educating students is that “light bulb moment”; it’s the moment when a student makes the connection that the instructor is trying to present to his or her class. Now, imagine extrapolating that critical learning moment through an exploration of the Star Wars saga. One of my fellow Rogues from Star Wars in the Classroom does just that through his fascinating Star Wars unit.

Craig Dickinson has been teaching with Star Wars since 2009, using the beloved story to teach the Hero’s Journey and mythology, and the results are both inspiring and invigorating. Craig’s lessons have helped to shape a new generation of Star Wars fans, and to illustrate just how much Lucas’ mythology has to offer aspiring learners. I asked Craig to explain his pedagogical rationale for Star How did the idea of showing Star Wars to your students come about?
Craig: My idea to show Star Wars in class started after I watched the History Channel documentary “STAR WARS: THE LEGACY REVEALED.”  I’ve always loved mythology and I was fascinated by how thoroughly this program examined the mythological components of the Star Wars saga.  Being a fan of the films since 1980, I thought I knew them backwards and forwards, but this documentary inspired me to engage in a deeper study of the symbolism George Lucas had embedded in his stories and then share the insights with my students.
The more I studied, the more fascinated I became with Joseph Campbell and his “Hero’s Journey” concept. As I continued to research, I found that a great deal of my favorite stories also employed these motifs. I decided to make that the crux of my teaching of Star Wars, so every year I set out to give my students a working knowledge of “The Hero’s Journey” before we dive into our analysis of the films. How do you present the films to the class, and for what pedagogical purpose do you show them in this order?
Craig: I present the Star Wars films to my students using the 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 6 order which utilizes the Prequels as a flashback and clearly illustrates the myriad parallels between the heroic journeys of Luke and Anakin Skywalker.  I’ve always enjoyed the Prequel Trilogy’s call-backs to the Original Trilogy and this viewing order allows one to clearly see those echoes while still presenting the films as one cohesive narrative.
When I initially showed the films for this purpose, I screened individual clips from the trilogies to illustrate these similarities.  However, what I found was that several of my students had not seen the films and were confused by the jumping around.  Now, I just try to step out of the process a bit and let the stories stand on their own a bit more.  It’s a lot more organic and I feel like it creates a greater appreciation for the individual films.
A note from one of Craig's students after experiencing Star Wars.

A note from one of Craig’s students after experiencing Star Wars. How would you compare the reaction for students who had seen the films previously, verses those who had never seen them at all?
Craig: Since I’ve used this particular viewing order, I’ve discovered that students who have previously seen the films pick up on details and themes they had never noticed before while those who have not seen Star Wars explore the powerful narratives on a different but equally fascinating level.  This latter group of students often makes the most interesting observations and/or asks the most insightful questions because they truly approach the films with new eyes.
And since I teach 6th grade at a middle school that also serves 7th and 8th graders, I often have the pleasure of being visited by past students who come back into my room specifically to talk Star Wars.  Many of these students had not previously seen the films but have now become great ambassadors for Star Wars and it’s really fun to have them interact with my current crop of students who have yet to experience it. Of those who had never seen the films, what was it like to witness their “first step into a larger world”?
Craig: To me, there’s nothing more satisfying as a teacher to see the “light bulb” go on in a student’s eyes as they fully understand or appreciate a concept for the first time.  When you combine that with Star Wars, it’s exhilarating.  Despite the fact that the series has been in the public consciousness for 30+ years, I still encounter students who are unfamiliar with the Skywalker family dynamics, the Force, or even Yoda.  Getting to re-watch Star Wars with these students is almost like watching it for the first time.  It’s an amazing feeling.
One of Craig's students is moved to "tears".

One of Craig’s students is moved to “tears”. What kind of response have you gotten from parents of your students?
Craig: One of my favorite parts of using Star Wars in class is the parents’ responses.  Because I teach 6th grade, I have to send a permission slip home so that the students can view the films in class.  What I’ve found from the returned slips is that most of the parents of my students are roughly my age, grew up in the time when the films first came out, and are enthusiastic about their child getting to experience Star Wars.  I also usually get a parent or two who states that they wish they could come in during the unit and share in the experience. How will Episode VII affect this assignment in the future?
I’m extremely excited to see how this film will fit into the overall Star Wars mythology.  I absolutely thought we were done with cinematically exploring Luke Skywalker’s character arc, but now there will be so much more to examine.  There are so many questions right now about where our heroes have been and what they’ve been doing.  It will be fascinating to unpack that and I think it will add a whole other level to our class analysis of Star Wars.  I can’t wait!
For a more detailed examination of Craig’s lessons, be sure to check out his Rogue profile as Rogue 3 at Star Wars in the Classroom; a big thanks to Craig for his time and insights!
Dan Zehr is a high school English teacher with an MS in Teaching and Learning, and is a  member of the Rogues (as Blue Leader), a network of teachers that incorporate Star Wars in the Classroom.  He also runs Coffee With Kenobi (with co-host Cory Clubb), a Star WarsPodcast that analyzes the saga through critical thinking, analysis, interviews, and discussion.

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