Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Teaching with STAR WARS

At the end of each school year, I teach a unit that uses the Star Wars films as a review of several of the units we have covered during the year—namely Character, Plot, and Theme. Additionally, before the films are viewed, students are introduced to Joseph Campell’s “monomyth” theory found in THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES (Pantheon Books, 1949). In order to do this, I put together a PowerPoint presentation that consolidates Campbell's concept down to 12 stages and demonstrates how these stages could be tracked though not only A New Hope, but also through The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Avatar. 

With a working knowledge of "The Hero's Journey," my students and I then analyze an abridged version of The Hobbit before launching into a close examination of Episode 4. Once the actual viewing of the movies begins, there is a daily protocol to ensure that students are engaged and learning is taking place. Class begins with an open-ended discussion to either access prior knowledge or prompt the students to consider their own philosophy of life. Students then use specially-designed tracking sheets and are tasked with monitoring specific elements of the films such as Luke's heroic journey, color schemes, camera work, music cues and motifs, dialogue/body language, and general characterizations. At the conclusion of the film for the day, both simple comprehension and higher-level questions are presented to the students and then discussed. It is a fully holistic analysis of the films and a huge success with the students.

Over the years, I've worked my way up to including all 6 films and now utilize a viewing order of 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 6 which presents the Prequels as a flashback and allows the viewer to not only track Luke's journey but to see the parallels in his father Anakin's journey as well. Throughout the entire experience, students are taking notes and are expected to engage in small group and whole class discussions.

By sharing my experience on social media, I’ve become part of a larger community of educators who use Star Wars in the classroom; in fact, I recently officially joined “The Rogues” of Star Wars in the Classroom—a website dedicated to helping instructors use the films in their curriculum.  I also regularly collaborate with Dan Zehr, an English teacher in the Chicago area who first heard my story via voicemail on a podcast called “Full of Sith” and is the co-host of another podcast called “Coffee with Kenobi.” I was also able to share my Star Wars teaching practices on episode 9 of “Coffee with Kenobi” and I have since became a regular contributor to that show and will be writing reviews of the upcoming Star Wars Rebels animated program for the “Coffee with Kenobi” website.

Through Dan, I was also able to arrange to have Ian Doescher, author of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars speak to my classes via FaceTime. Additionally, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing my teaching of “Star Wars” on the “Star Wars Kidscast” podcast and on “Full of Sith” where I was able to share my process, lesson plans and student reactions.

As we move ever closer to Episode 7 and REBELS, I've even been able to share news in real time with my students.  For instance, yesterday's announcement of Lupita Nyong'o and Gendonline Christie being added the Episode 7 cast happened during class and I was to pass on the good news to my students--and it was especially exciting for several of the girls who are continually asking about more females in the saga.  We're all very excited about the future of Star Wars.  I'd like to think I've done my part to make that "we" a little bit bigger.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Prequels--Context Matters

For many, the Star Wars prequels represent at best a departure from their original vision of the Saga and at worst a perversion of everything they hold dear about the franchise. There are complaints about the acting, dialogue, an over-reliance on special effects, and of course racial stereotyping (and that's just Jar Jar). But seriously, as someone who introduces Star Wars to adolescents on a regular basis, I can honestly say that those without any prior attachment to the OT are much more likely to embrace the PT. I would also argue that for all the reverence the OT rightly receives, they are not perfect films either (but Empire comes mighty close). Time and nostalgia have clouded our minds to their shortcomings--such as they are. The Prequel Trilogy enjoys no such advantages and could only pale in comparison next to perhaps the most beloved film trilogy of all time.

Instead of focusing on what the Prequels are not--namely the Originals--we should turn our attention to all the wonderful things they gave us. Palpatine's rise to power. The creation of the Empire. The fall of Darth Vader. The Clone Wars in its many incarnations. Jedi in their prime. An exploration of the Sith. Podracing. "Duel of the Fates" played over epic lightsaber battles. Qui-Gon Jinn. And yes, even the controversial midichlorians as part of a further examination of the Force.

But most of all, the Prequels gave us a context, a deeper understanding of the role of Luke Skywalker in the OT. By seeing his father fail and pay the price of a living death as the puppet of Palpatine, we can finally get a true sense of how bad things could've gone for Luke. Not ready for the burden was he. Seeing the burden portrayed on the big screen only solidifies why.

They're great stories, these Prequels, regardless of the qualms some might have with them. And ultimately they serve to make the already great OT a richer and more complex tale of good vs. evil.

Is STAR WARS for Girls?

There has been a fascinating discussion about the role of women in Star Wars and all-too-frequent disconnect that occurs between the marketing and reality of female fandom. I have seen this firsthand in my classroom as it is almost always the female students who not only have never seen Star Wars but also are conditioned to think that it's not for them and/or they won't enjoy it. And yet, these girls always seem to be the ones who get the most out of it and express the most appreciation. For them, Star Wars is a long-forgotten or ignored gift waiting to be opened. Every year, these girls become my greatest "success stories" that I share with the next group of reluctant viewers. 

Many of my past students come back to my classroom to express their gratitude and excitement about the future of Star Wars (and also to ask when I'll be showing it again). Almost all of them are girls--and they usually bring gifts :) When it comes to demonstrating the positive and lasting impact that Star Wars can have, one needs to look no further than these girls. Disney and Lucasfilm would be wise to capitalize on this phenomenon and not assume that Star Wars is just for boys. After all, when I told all my students about Episode 7 last year, the one who fist-pumped was a girl who hadn't seen Star Wars and initially tried to beg off the assignment completely.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why I loved MAN OF STEEL

I've always been more of a DC guy than a Marvel guy.  This is probably due in large part to the fact that I was born in the mid-70's and grew up with things like SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, the WONDER WOMAN television show, and "Superfriends" as my primary exposures to the comics world.  Sure, I also watched the classic '67 Spider-man cartoon, but for the most part, Marvel was just not on my radar.  When I became a teenager, this trend continued with the arrival of Tim Burton's BATMAN in 1989 and THE FLASH live-action television show the following year.  DC was all I saw and all I cared about.  Marvel didn't have a big-screen success until BLADE in 1997 and didn't really impact the greater pop culture consciousness until 2000's X-MEN.  By this time, we already had 4 Superman movies and 4 Batman movies (the fact that the latter 2 in each franchise were subpar efforts notwithstanding).  The die was cast.  I was a DC guy, and despite Batman being almost universally lauded as the cooler character, I was always a Superman guy.

I'd always loved Christopher Reeve's portrayal of the Man of Steel and couldn't get enough of the first 2 films in his series (I own both the Richard Lester and Richard Donner versions of Superman 2 after all).  And while Superman 3 is atrociously bad, I still have a soft spot in my heart for THE QUEST FOR PEACE--probably because it was the last one Reeve made and includes Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor.  So when SUPERMAN RETURNS was released in 2006, I loved it.  I loved it for its reverential treatment of the Donner film(s) as a "vague history" (Bryan Singer's explanation of how it fit in the established canon and yet also superseded the third and fourth films). I still remember vividly how I got chills during the opening credit sequence when John Williams' majestic theme burst through the theatre's speakers and instantly brought back childhood memories of watching Christopher Reeve in action.  That film also got me onboard through the use of callbacks to the Reeve films as it included unused Marlon Brando footage as Jor-El and dialogue lifts both direct ("Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son.") and indirect ("Well, I hope this experience hasn't put any of you off flying. Statistically speaking, it's still the safest way to travel.").  The film was dripping with nostalgia for the original films, and I loved it for that.  But I also loved the new stuff too--especially the epic plane rescue (which still ranks up there with the greatest of superhero action sequences) and the bullet bouncing off of Supe's eye.  The combination worked great for me, but for whatever reason, it didn't resonate with the general public the way Warner Bros. and DC hoped it would--and so the "requel" failed to relaunch the franchise.

Seven years later, and on the 75th birthday of the greatest superhero ever, MAN OF STEEL was released.  Created as an answer to not only the supposed shortcomings of SUPERMAN RETURNS and GREEN LANTERN but also in the wake of Christopher Nolan's superb DARK KNIGHT trilogy, MOS redefined the character in ways that thrilled some and disappointed others. The film was incredibly polarizing despite being a financial success, and it's controversial ending caused an uproar that called into question the very nature of the character himself.  Does Superman kill? Should he? Is there a circumstance that justifies it? Never mind that SUPERMAN 2 had already shown Superman killing Zod (and that there were multiple examples of similar actions in the comics themselves). MAN OF STEEL's inclusion of "Kryptonian-icide"was deemed too brutal by many and was singled out as an example of the filmmakers' failure to grasp the character's true nature. 

Perhaps almost as damning in the eyes of most of MOS's critics was the portrayal of Kal-El's earthly father, Jonathan Kent, who many felt did not adequately prepare his adopted son to become earth's greatest protector. Some complained that his response of "maybe" to Clark's question about letting his classmates die in the bus accident revealed the elder Kent to be selfish and/or paranoid. I would argue that Jonathan's point--and one of MOS's most powerful themes--is that sometimes sacrifices must be made that appear to be cavalier in the short-term so that a hero can reach their ultimate destiny (and save countless more) in the long-term. In the modern-day universe of MOS, there is a considerable amount of paranoia about what the world would do if it found itself invaded by a member of an alien race--as evidenced by the cover-up of the Kryptonian spacecraft by Colonel Hardy and his men and by Perry White's warnings to Lois Lane about printing an article revealing the craft's potential origins.  Seen through this lens, Jonathan Kent's advice to Clark makes a lot of sense.  He is concerned with protecting Clark's anonymity certainly.  But also there is likely concern for the safety of those who would try to take Clark from the Kents by force.  Any who tried would face physical danger from a boy not yet in control of his powers, and if Clark seriously hurt anyone, he would then have to live with the consequences. Jonathan Kent is desperately trying to save his son from having to make those kinds of choices until the boy is ready to handle any and all fallout from them--even if it means sacrificing his own life to do so.

It is here that MOS finds its closest ties to THE DARK KNIGHT.  While there are clearly cosmetic connections to the Nolan Batman films (non-linear story telling, a Hans Zimmer soundtrack, Oscar-winners in supporting roles,etc.), the portrayal of how a hero is defined by his choices is the biggest reason that MOS can be seen as a sort of spiritual sequel to the 2nd of Nolan's Batman films.  For just as Bruce Wayne decides to continue to keep his alter ego a secret even as the Joker promises to kill people as long he does, Superman is forced to face a similar dilemma in turning himself over to the US government and ultimately to Zod.  By doing so, he potentially sacrifices himself to save others.  It's an incredibly selfless act, if a bit naive.  But in stark contrast to Batman's decision, it is undoubtedly the one Superman would and should make, and the beauty of it is that both character's choices are heroic in their own way. What is more is that Kal-El can only make this decision because of how his earthly father raised him and protected him.  He is ready now to make the hard choices as a man because he was spared having to make them as a boy. He exudes confidence even as a surrenders himself, and even if he's not quite the Superman we're used to, it's clear he's on his way.

In fact, the way the way the film deals with the concept of identity is another one of its strongest points.  Not content to simply re-hash the "how does Lois not know that Clark is Superman" trope, MOS reinvents that whole dynamic by having Lois discover Clark's alien heritage early in the film and makes the intrepid reporter both his confidant and a true force to be reckoned with. Consequently, this version of the Superman mythos gives us a Kal-El who must develop two secret identities.  Of course, there's the "big, blue boyscout," but the Daily Planet's own Clark Kent (who is not fully formed until the final scene) is very clearly another construct that Kal-El needs in order to reach his true destiny and become the hero both his fathers thought he would be.

Which brings us to the end of the film.  This is the point at which the most criticism is aimed, and I believe unfairly so. Some people have gone so far as to blame Superman for the destruction of Metropolis, but I find this argument problematic as he was literally halfway around the world battling the world engine when the siege on the city began. By the time he arrived, most of the damage had been done and most of the citizenry had either evacuated or already been killed. Some say that he should have led Zod away to continue the fight, but doesn't the fact that the fight extended into space only to return to Metropolis take the steam out of that argument? In any case, Zod was not someone to negotiate with at this point in the film. Instead, he was a warrior bred for a single cause--the protection of Krypton--and he wasn't about lighten up or change his mind after being denied his only chance to preserve his race. As he himself stated, there was only way to stop him--to kill him.

Throughout Kal-El's journey to becoming a hero, he faced several difficult choices, or tests if you will.  But now, he was faced with the choice of watching Zod slaughter a family and continue the rampage on Metropolis or end the general's life, have that blood on his hands, and become the last of his species (unless Supergirl shows up as has been rumored). Both are impossible choices, but Superman makes the one that is the least selfish--just as he always has and always will--and clearly suffers emotional anguish in the aftermath. He sacrifices his own innocence to save innocents. Could there be a more selfless act?

Does Superman kill? He did this time, but you can be absolutely sure that he will do everything in his power to not be put in that situation again. He will grow from this. He will get stronger. And he will be the hero we all want and think we deserve. That's why I love Superman. And that's why I love MAN OF STEEL. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Obi-Wan Kenobi's Bum Rap

Obi-Wan Kenobi never had it easy. His master Qui-Gon Jinn was a Jedi whose revolutionary views on the "Living Force" continually put him at odds with the Jedi Council and put Obi-Wan in a position of having to choose where his loyalties lay. But when Darth Maul struck down the venerable Jedi Master, Obi-Wan was put into an even more impossible situation--training the supposed "Chosen One" even if it meant directly defying the Jedi Council. This was compounded by the fact that Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had not even been in agreement in regards to the training of Anakin Skywalker. From the beginning, Obi-Wan felt that the boy was dangerous, but as a loyal Padawan, he could not refuse the dying wish of his Master.

Having only recently been promoted to the rank of Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan was now immediately responsible for the training of potentially the most powerful of all Jedi. There was no way he could have been ready for that burden even he actually thought he could train Anakin as well as Yoda could have. Still, Obi-Wan did an admirable job training Anakin in the Jedi arts and eventually the pair moved beyond the traditional mentor-student roles to forge a father-son/brother relationship. 

Still, he was never able to help Anakin deal with the younger man's issues with attachment. But perhaps that was due to his own issues on the subject, for as Anakin struggled mightily adhering to the Jedi code forbidding love, Obi-Wan adhered to this tenet to a fault (with the possible exception of Satine Kryze). Even after his time in exile reorienting himself to the nature of the Force under the tutelage of a now-joined-with-the-Force Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan still couldn't see how Luke's love for his fallen father might be the key to finally destroying the Sith. Although he had earlier claimed that "only a Sith deals in absolutes," Obi-Wan's ardent refusal to consider an alternative to killing Vader forced Luke to disobey his former Master in his quest to save his father and prevented Obi-Wan from seeing that Anakin's redemption from the Dark Side could result in the elder Skywalker finally embracing his destiny as the "Chosen One."

All this being said, Obi-Wan's final act in the Star Wars saga was to aid Anakin in his journey to becoming one with the Force. Perhaps as a way to atone for his failings as a mentor, Obi-Wan seems to finally embrace the redemptive nature of the Living Force and allow for the possibility that the universe is not as unforgiving as it might appear. For if there is hope for the soul of Anakin Skywalker, perhaps there is for all those who failed him as well.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A galaxy not really that far away.

What an amazing time to be a Star Wars fan!  Not only are we getting new movies and a new animated show (Rebels), but the fan community has never seemed more vibrant or interactive. There are countless blogs, websites, and podcasts to express one's fandom. But even more amazing is the give-and-take between the fans and the creators of Star Wars. As many of the writers, actors, and actual Lucasfilm employees grew up on George Lucas' epic series, the line between fan and and creator is being blurred to unprecedented levels. And with the proliferation of social media platforms, one can legitimately interact with virtually any segment or creative force behind the making of Star Wars product. 

Just recently, I was able to not only take part in a wonderful discussion on the podcast "Coffee with Kenobi," but have had the pleasure of being an active participant in the show through listener emails since the beginning of the show and will now be taking on bigger role in the "Coffee with Kenobi" family. One of the show's hosts, Dan Zehr, is a teacher like I am and he and I have been able to collaborate on curriculum and have struck up a friendship. All because of a shared love of Star Wars and the interactivity of a podcast called "Full of Sith"--another wonderful show that balances listener participation with great Star Wars access. These fine folks--especially the writer Bryan Young--took an active interest in the way I teach Star Wars in my classroom and by playing my voicemail, helped me to connect with Dan and Corey at "Coffee with Kenobi," the actor Sam Witwer, and several others. 

And that's another thing--it's a self-perpetuating phenomenon. Because of those interactions, I've been able to swap birthday greetings with John Jackson Miller (author of Star Wars: Kenobi), discuss Stormtroopers with Pablo Hidalgo, and have Ian Doescher (author of "William Shakespeare's Star Wars" speak to my classes--just to name a few of the wonderful opportunities afforded me by the nature of current Star Wars fandom. 

Next up, I'm very much looking forward to being a guest on "Star Wars Kidscast" with Chris Hamilton to discuss topics related to using Star Wars in the classroom. It'll be about a galaxy far, far away, but it's never felt closer. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

SAGA Thoughts...

So, I just recently presented the entire STAR WARS saga (so far) to my 6th grade students. It was a huge success, and believe it or not, I picked up some new things--despite having seen the films dozens of times. 

One of the things that was most interesting to me about the Prequels was that they continually showed the fallibility of the Jedi Order and its members--specifically, the issue of attachment in regards to the Jedi. 

On the one hand, a lack of attachment allows a Jedi to put their mission first without having to worry about the safety or welfare of loved ones. This has much in common with the concept of superhero secret identities. If one has nothing to lose (or nothing known), one cannot be as easily compromised by one's enemies. 

But on the other hand, is it realistic to expect anyone to be 100% selfless and without attachment?  And if Anakin was allowed to have a normal relationship with Padme, couldn't he have gone to the Jedi Council for help with his visions?  Maybe he doesn't end up going to the Dark Side if this is the case. 

And what of Luke?  He and Leia wouldn't even exist if not for Anakin's attachment to Padme. Clearly there are upsides to this attachment. 

Both Anakin and his son Luke struggle with this issue--probably due in no small part to their Jedi training starting so late in life. Both disobey their masters in regards to attachment and suffer serious emotional and physical injuries (right hands) because of it. 

But, ultimately it is Luke's attachment to his father that saves Vader from the Dark Side as he disobeys Yoda's and Kenobi's orders to kill the Dark Lord. What's more is that Vader's love for his son saves Luke from Palpatine and is probably the biggest reason he is able to return from the Dark Side and become Anakin Skywalker again. 

So, attachment causes pain for the Jedi, but also is the reason the Force is brought back into balance. 

Can't wait to see what's coming in 2015 with Episode 7.