Young Jedi

I was eight when Star Wars came out in 1977, captivated by Darth Vader, enamored with my action figures, and astounded (and secretly delighted) that Han shot first.

Somewhere in my parents’ garage I’m certain there is a shoebox of old Topps cards with stills from the movie. Long ago my seven year old son pirated the action figures he found at Grandma and Papa’s and they now play alongside his more contemporary Jedi and Sith.

What’s the same between my response to Star Wars and my son’s is the stirring of imagination and creativity. Just as my eight year old self laid out Star Wars cards in a facsimile storyboard, mapping out new adventures for the heroes, my son builds Lego spaceships not yet seen in a movie.

photo 2Later this week he and I will go to our first Star Wars movie in a theater, and beyond looking forward to watching his eyes widen above his tub of popcorn, I’m excited to see the adventures it inspires when we get home and he whooshes his X-wing through the living room.

It was that rollicking spirit of adventure that pushed me as a teacher. Learning is doing, and I always felt like some of what I did as a teacher was building a set and setting a scene that my students could flesh out with their own imaginations.

I lectured little and questioned much. I sought out the poems and stories I brought to my English classes from the less visited corners of the universe. A favorite of mine was “Autobiography” by John Barth, a marvelous little short story that got students really thinking. Borges and Murakami joined Walker and Morrison for Bistro Day. Students left the classes we shared knowing Kurosawa as well as Keats.

Along the way, I felt confident that I could help them be stronger writers and readers through the work I did with students every day, but to get them to really be creative and critical thinkers I felt I had to do more. I had to reach for that magical feeling I’d felt sparked by the Mos Eisley cantina and the ice planet Hoth.

photo 2 (1)So…

On a stage purchased for my classroom with a grant one of my seniors wrote, we acted out Shakespeare, pausing to ask questions and understand characters. Then, even better than me directing, students broke into groups and staged their own Tennessee Williams one acts. They brought to what they did imagination, interpretation, and the energy that comes when the ideas are their own and they know that there will be an audience.

We went outside to read Wordsworth beneath trees, to the track to run a stade or two during our ALIlliad unit (a mashup of Greek epic and Muhammad Ali worthy of a future post all its own), and we worked (and played) together to form experiences designed to spark that feeling of magic that can happen with great art and good company.

It was that feeling I first got in 1977, and sometimes felt I helped my students feel too …occasionally in space.

Every other February my classes and I celebrated “Space Week.” All fall and early winter I asked my students for ideas. What could they bring to Space Week? What should we do this year?

How young is too young for Space Week? My then one year old daughter visited wearing a Space Fez!

How young is too young for Space Week? My then one year old daughter visited wearing a Space Fez!

As the countdown ticked away -we started a hundred days out- students thought about the possibilities. Light saber battles, alien abductions, and a celebration of Valentina Tereshkova all found their way into one Space Week or another. Once I grew a beard and dressed as Obi Wan Kenobi for a student video. Caroling “Fly Me to the Moon” became a Space Week tradition.

Year after year my students embraced the spirit of adventure. They looked into the unknown and said “I want to try this.”

And we did.

Now, as a principal, I see similar forays into the greater galaxy all around me: great teachers whose students build rockets, design robots, and sculpt public art. Gifted and inspiring teachers celebrate their students’ imaginations and help provide opportunities (from poetry slams to pottery wheels) to take the controls of their own learning. Those teachers are always nearby, sometimes offering the wisdom of Yoda, and sometimes making subtle adjustments with the quiet beeps and whirs of R2-D2 tucked behind the cockpit.

At its best, education is a lot like a seven year old holding a toy spaceship and whooshing through the living room.

I wish for my own kids an education that is filled with teachers who choose to inspire and nurture creativity, a sense of wonder, and an appreciation for adventure. I spent most of my teaching life trying to make my classroom feel like the Millennium Falcon, and I’m given hope as I see the teachers at my school and the inspiring work they do with students every day.

photo 5Kindle our imaginations and we’re all second graders walking out of Star Wars. Give us freedom to play as we learn, to imagine, to dream, and to pilot our own ship. Give students that and…

Whoosh!

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