Not that long ago, in a primary school just down the road, a young boy - let’s call him Luke Schoolboy – was in a rut. Disenchanted with Darth Teacher’s regime, rebellion was most definitely in the air. Bringing his encyclopaedic knowledge of Star Wars into his timetable, however, turned this Phantom Menace into a Jedi Master. As the latest film instalment hits our cinema screens this year, bringing Star Wars into the classroom is a sure way to get your rogue ones engaged in literacy lessons.
Luke Schoolboy is a character many primary teachers would easily recognise. Year 5, disengaged with his work, disruptive and simply not making any progress, especially in writing. With this in mind, I was asked to design for him a creative writing intervention with the aim of engaging him, not in battle, but in practical, fun lessons to give him the skills to make him a better, more independent writer. There was only one topic that would do it: Star Wars.
Initially, he was not convinced. “I hate literacy,” he said with a scowl. “But”, he added, brightening, “I do like Star Wars… so I guess I’ll give it a go.” And give it a go, he did. Over the next few weeks we developed strategies for writing complex sentences, learned how to write a realistic setting, selected high quality vocabulary and plotted out a short story. All of it about his favourite characters and films.
The more Luke wrote, the more engaged he became and the confidence flowed into his writing. (Or was it the Force?) In a few short weeks, he had gone from a miserable clone, dragging his feet to school to a boy transformed - bounding into class, eyes shining, finally relieved that something he was learning at school actually resonated with him. The darkside was well and truly banished.
I know what you’re thinking: it sounds like a farfetched Nerf-herder’s tale. Well, see for yourself. You can listen to Luke Schoolboy’s Star Wars story here.
In the meantime, here is some advice for how to engage your reluctant writers with a literacy topic that is out of this world…
First, you’ll need to choose the right book to use. Many of the Star Wars novels are too complex for primary school children and many of the graphic novels are too adult or too niche to be suitable. Skywalker Strikes and Vader (both Marvel) are two excellent modern graphic novels that are ideal for Year 5 and 6. They follow the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia in their battle against Darth Vader and the evil Empire. Handily, they are broken into short scenes, usually two pages long and they feature great characters doing interesting and exciting things. Perfect for bringing to life in a short, snappy pieces of writing. Allow the children plenty of time to read the stories to get to grips with the plot.
Before the children can write anything, they’ll need plenty of descriptive and technical vocabulary. Finding the right adjectives and adverbs to describe the evil Lord Vader, the heroic Han Solo and the mindless Stormtroopers is a good starting point. To make the writing convincing, however, children will need to know the names of the weapons and equipment carried by characters as well as names for their species, languages, allies and enemies. Get your hands on a Star Wars character encyclopaedia to help with this – unpicking the pages of character profiles is a great way to develop reading comprehension skills whilst building the language to write with. Making a vocabulary poster for each character will help embed new language and it will make an amazing working wall.
Setting the scene is also important for getting the right feel for your stories. Fortunately, most of the scenes either take place inside a space ship or on a planet. We watched selected scenes from a New Hope (Episode IV) and took notes on things we could see in the two settings. Once we had a list of features and descriptive vocabulary, it made writing a story intro a lot easier!
Using drama to bring the scenes to life from the graphic novels was one of the most fun aspects of the whole project. Photocopy a key scene from the novels such as a lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader or a daring escape. In pairs, replace the dialogue in the speech bubbles and get the children acting out the scenes considering tone of voice, body language and so on. If you’re feeling brave, let the children choose different scenes in pairs. A little more work for you, but much more engaging for the children as they can take real ownership of a story.
Getting the class writing is much easier than it might first appear, but break it down into manageable sections. Allow the children to write short powerful descriptions of the characters that appear in their scene, and also of the setting. When they come to write the full story, they can incorporate these descriptions into the action and dialogue.
One interesting twist is to get the children to invent their own characters to replace the key actors in the stories. Replacing Darth Vader with a new, even meaner Sith is a lot of fun, especially considering the possibilities for costumes, special abilities, weapons and, of course, a cool name. Our groups created robotic Siths with four arms, humanoid Jedi and blaster-toting bounty hunters!
Finally, to crown it all, the children need to give their epic adventure a title and, of course, choose an episode number before performing them out loud to a backdrop of the glorious Star Wars soundtrack.
So what are you waiting for, kid? Grab your blaster and join the battle for the galaxy!
Star Wars Volume 1: Skywalker Strikes by Jason Aaron (Marvel Worldwide, 2015)
Darth Vader Volume 1: Vader by Kieron Gillen (Marvel Worldwide, 2015)
Stefan Kucharczyk is a primary school teacher and a creative writing consultant based in Leeds.