Thomas Riddle and Wes Dodgens have spent much of their teaching careers channeling one of the most revered educators of all time: Yoda, the tiny green Jedi master from the Star Wars movie franchise.
They’ve also followed some of his advice: “Always pass on what you have learned.”
Riddle, who is assistant director of Roper Mountain Science Center, and Dodgens, a social studies teacher at Mauldin High School, have been using Star Wars in their classrooms for more than a decade to make their lessons fun and meaningful.
But they’re also helping other teachers do the same. Dodgens and Riddle are co-founders of “Star Wars in the Classroom,” a website dedicated to helping teachers incorporate the popular science fiction saga in their lessons.
“We’re not fans of the sit-and-get approach to education, which forces students to sit in a chair and listen to their teacher lecture,” said Riddle. “We’re using pop culture to engage our students in learning, and it’s actually working.”
Yin, Yang, and Yoda
Riddle discovered the benefits of using Star Wars in 1995 when teaching ancient world history at Mauldin High. Struggling to find a way to communicate the concept of yin and yang to his students, he introduced Yoda as a Taoist sage.
Eventually, Riddle formalized his loose references into a coherent curriculum centered around Mary Henderson’s “Star Wars and the Magic of Myth,” called “Star Wars and the Hero’s Journey,” that involved teaching the entire original film trilogy as part of a study of ancient world history.
“One of my best assignments actually required students to apply each stage of the Hero’s Journey to their own lives,” said Riddle. “They also analyzed the three films and compared them to the mythologies of ancient civilizations.”
Dodgens, who joined Mauldin in 2004, also began to notice connections to the Star Wars films. “During my first years of teaching, I would throw in references here and there, but I never showed the films,” said Dodgens. “Thomas was the first to help me realize the full potential of using Star Wars in the classroom.”
In 2007, Riddle became a social studies curriculum consultant and accompanied Dodgens to a professional development conference. Before the conference, the duo met each other to discuss travel plans and get acquainted.
Upon entering Riddle’s office, Dodgens noticed a collection of Star Wars action figures on display. Dodgens, a lifelong fan of the saga, recognized “Blue” Snaggletooth, a rare action figure discontinued because it featured the wrong color scheme.
“I knew we’d be good friends from that point on, because he knew his stuff,” said Riddle.
Inspiration from Indy
Bonding over their shared passion for Star Wars, Riddle told Dodgens about the lessons he had created during his time at Mauldin. “I loved the idea and began looking for more ways to use ‘Star Wars’ in my own curriculum,” said Dodgens.
Since then, the duo has used Star Wars to bring greater meaning to their lessons, such as Hitler’s rise to power and the fall of the Roman Empire. They have also used the films to teach American westward expansion and Shakespeare.
But oddly enough, Star Wars wasn’t their first collaboration.
In 2007, with permission from Lucasfilm, the duo launched “Adventures in Learning with Indiana Jones,” a website helping teachers use “The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones” television series, which followed Jones on his coming-of-age adventures, where he meets historical figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway.
The site includes various resources, including profiles of historical figures, a chronology of events, and more. “It was meant to inspire students to learn about the historical figures and events featured in the series,” said Riddle. “But the series lost traction after the release of ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ in 2008.”
In 2010, Riddle and Dodgens loaded up their families and ventured to northern California to tour Skywalker Ranch, the workplace of Star Wars creator George Lucas. “We bumped into George, and he knew about the Indy series,” said Riddle. “He loved the fact that we were using the series, which was really cool to hear.”
Inspired by the encounter, the duo started planning “Star Wars in the Classroom.”
When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, the duo decided to launch the site. “We knew Star Wars was making a comeback after the purchase, which meant more content for our site. But we needed a platform that allowed us to share ideas,” said Dodgens.
Riddle and Dodgens created the site and uploaded their own lesson plans, which included subject areas ranging from social studies to science. In 2013, they launched a professional learning network that allowed other teachers to share their Star Wars lesson plans.
They’ve since found similarly obsessed teachers in classrooms across the country.
The network, also known as “The Rogues,” now includes 700 teachers in 30 countries who are either using Star Wars or hope to. “Our goal was to foster collaboration and discussion amongst educators,” said Dodgens.
“One of the best moments is when you throw an idea out there and a teacher uses it from the other side of the world. You don’t know the teacher or kids, but you’re touching their lives through Star Wars,” said Riddle.
Danielle Lopez, a fifth-grade teacher at Davis Magnet School in Southern California, has used “Star Wars in the Classroom” since 2014. Lopez, who decorates her classroom with posters and toys, organizes her class into Star Wars planets and uses droids to break down engineering concepts for math and science students.
Lopez said the site is a great resource for teachers to trade ideas and build a community from their shared passion. “I love connecting with other teachers that share my love of Star Wars … ‘Star Wars in the Classroom’ has the focus of Star Wars, but has people that specialize in so many different areas.”
Kevin Tiller, a physical education teacher in Massachusetts, discovered “Star Wars in the Classroom” in 2014 and created a Star Wars themed gym for his elementary students. It includes decorations and activities designed to engage students. For instance, students can create lightsabers from pool noodles and use them to keep floating balloons in the air.
“I’ve sprinkled Star Wars throughout my lessons here and there but never tried a themed curriculum until I found ‘Star Wars in the Classroom,’” said Tiller. “It sort of validated my interest and made me feel more comfortable about taking it on.”
A Force for Good
But Star Wars does more than educate students, according to Riddle.
In 2014, Riddle and Dodgens launched the Serve Like a Jedi campaign to encourage teachers and students to participate in community service. “Star Wars fans are known for being generous,” said Riddle. “We wanted to bring attention to that.”
Lopez and her students participated in 2015 and raised more than $750 for relief efforts in Nepal when an earthquake killed thousands of people. Students earned the money by doing extra chores, selling candy, and more.
As for the future, Riddle and Dodgens plan to create and publish lessons for “Star Wars in the Classroom” as additional films and shows are released. They’ve also talked about incorporating other popular film sagas in the classroom.
Dodgens said he’s previously considered Harry Potter and other popular film series.
“I’ve purchased domain names, but I’m not sure if it’s going to happen. We’ll have to wait and see,” said Dodgens. “Star Wars really offers a treasure trove of ideas for teachers and has the potential to last much longer than other films.”
For more information, visit starwarsintheclassroom.com.