The Force of education; Washington teacher uses Star Wars to teach future generations

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WASHINGTON, Ill. (WMBD) — Using lessons from a galaxy far, far away, in a classroom right here at home.

One local educator is using his Jedi teachings to benefit future generations.

“I think the important thing about teaching Star Wars is that it’s just a particular vessel that I use to promote critical thinking and intellectual honesty,” said Washington Community High School English Teacher Dan Zehr.

Zehr, also known as Dan Z, began teaching 15 years ago.

“The first time I ever taught something, I taught Revenge of the Sith, back in 2005, the movie had just come out,” he said. “I thought, ‘what a perfect parallel between history, literature, and film.’ Popular culture, I think, is an untapped resource we should use because that’s where students are and that’s what they care about.”

Zehr lets his high school students view the Star Wars films in class, has them analyze the movies, and then speak and write about them.

“Almost half of my students have never seen a Star Wars movie. Their parents have, or they’ve heard about it, but for some of the students who are not familiar with it and might be skeptical or just think “oh ok, this just has something to do with school,” Zehr said. “I show them the machete order, which is episodes 4, 5, 1 2 3, and then 6.”

Zehr was approached by Disney earlier this year to write “The Star Wars Book.”

“I almost felt like in many ways it was the book it was born to write,” Zehr said.

The book consists of curated essays looking at how Star Wars works. It’s a popular addition to the lore that earned Zehr a book signing at Eli’s Coffee Shop in Metamora over the weekend.

“The thematic elements you piece together from the saga,” Zehr said. “I teach mythology anyway and I’ve always been such a big proponent of Star Wars as a modern American mythology.”

Zehr said showing Star Wars to students causes even the most reserved students to engage in conversation, leaving an impact on their lives.

“There’s that great reveal of Anakin suddenly turning to the Dark Side. I can visibly remember students who had never seen any of these films when they see Anakin’s turn and what happens with the Jedi. Putting their hand on their desk and saying “oh no.” Just that visceral emotional reaction, I’m getting goosebumps just thinking of it,” Zehr said.

“It moved them, then you know what happened? A lot of those kids are sometimes the most quiet, reserved kids in the class. Suddenly, they can’t stop talking about what we’re talking about. They want to think, they want to participate,” Zehr added.

While Dan Z is a huge Star Wars fan and expert, he said his students don’t have to be.

“Sometimes students are a little trepidatious, because they’re gonna be in my class, so they have to like Star Wars, well they don’t. What they have to do, is they have to think, Zehr said.

One of his current students, Washington senior Carter Grieco, is a huge Star Wars fan. Grieco said Zehr’s teachings are strong in The Force.

“When you have a teacher that you can relate to with something personal that’s not through the school, it becomes much easier to come to them with any questions about schooling,” Grieco said. “Because you know this person is a person outside of school, they do more stuff than just teach. That they’re not just a person who’s here to judge and give grades.”

Zehr said Star Wars promotes ever-relevant themes like hope, friendship, and family. His goal is for students to be proud of who they are.

“The reason I like this so much is because it shows students it’s okay to be yourself, it’s okay to be passionate about who you are and never apologize for your success and what you want to do with your life because you can make good things happen in unlikely ways,” Zehr said.

Grieco plans to go to Illinois State University to major in Biology and minor in Spanish. He said the Star Wars extended universe is vast and helps expand the minds of students.

“It’s an entirely different universe. You can get encapsulated in the million different avenues it goes down,” Grieco said. “I always watched the Clone Wars growing up. That one was definitely a favorite. that was the only movie or show that was there as a kid. But Rogue One was phenomenal. It doesn’t feel forced, the character development is great.”

Grieco said some of Zehr’s best lessons are about creative writing and how to properly construct a hero or a villain.

“There are well-written heroes and poor written heroes, and he does a very good job at breaking that down,” Grieco said. “He is very good at picking apart movies and films and even music and showing us how we can use that in that class. I personally don’t have his creative writing course, now I’m wishing I would have taken it. But because he has such a vast knowledge of Star Wars, it grants access because he knows how character development is supposed to work.”

You can like Coffee with Kenobi with Dan Z on Facebook. We’ve got the link here.

Years ago, Zehr was approached by Lucasfilm to write blogs on StarWars.com. He was also in a Target commercial for Rogue One, the film which is on the timeline between Episode 3 (Revenge of the Sith) and Episode 4 (A New Hope). You can view the commercial here.

He has been invited to the Star Wars premieres where he’s met the likes of Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Kathleen Kennedy (President of Lucasfilm), Alden Ehrenreich (portrays a younger Han Solo in Solo), and George Lucas (Creator of Star Wars, Lucasfilm).

So what’s next for Dan Z?

“What’s next for me is whatever comes my way. I really believe you have to be ready for it,” Zehr said. “I said, you know, I don’t really know what the ceiling is but I know I’m not going to make one because I’m just going to keep charging through. Because I really believe the more good you put out in the world, the more good will come back to you.”

“It has grown beyond my wildest dreams. It’s very much a paradox, while I can’t believe it’s happening, I very much can believe it’s happening because I believe I’m tapping into who I am which creates good opportunities.” Which I think students can connect to as well,” Zehr smiled.

At the end of the school year, Zehr has his students write a 5-minute segment that airs on his podcast Coffee with Kenobi. The podcast gets 40,000-50,000 weekly listeners according to Zehr.

“They can pick any aspect from any of the Star Wars films, books, or comics, and they have to record a 5-minute segment and I make them practice it, I make them script it, and it’s a lot harder than they realize. So then I take it, I put them into the shell, so their voice gets to be heard by 40,000-50,000 people a week,” Zehr said.

Zehr said Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader and Rey “Skywalker’s” storylines are the most powerful in all of Star Wars.

“I think his (Anakin’s) arc is the most well-rounded, and he’s the most Shakespearian, but I also feel like Rey in the new trilogy, played by Daisy Ridley, is tremendous as well. Because what she learns throughout her arc is that, ‘I don’t have to have a famous last name, I don’t have to be associated with someone else. I can create a name and forge a path for myself,’ and sometimes students, to no fault of their own, have an upbringing that they wish they didn’t have. You can still create a path, make choices for yourself, make yourself better than what came before you, and really excel in ways you never dreamed possible,” Zehr said.

Zehr made the podcast seven years ago. It airs every Thursday. It can be found on Apple, Spotify, and Google.

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