Avatar and Star Wars in Social Studies

Using Avatar and Star Wars in Social Studies

By Tim Smyth

@historycomics historycomics.net


In my social studies class, we often discuss how pop culture mirrors events in society and that comics, tv shows, music, art, literature, and movies can thus be considered as societal artifacts. So when introducing WWII and Western Imperialism, Star Wars and Avatar are, to me at least, obvious allusions for the events of these time periods and their impact on current events. Not only do these movies serve as amazing tools of engagement by getting students immediately hooked, they also serve as powerful ways to make meaningful connections that will be long remembered. The number one comment I receive from former students is that they remember our lessons because we were able to make memorable connections.

Before I even begin to have students read in the textbook or get into historical details about imperialism, I put an image from the movie Avatar on the Smartboard and ask students to jot down a few sentences on what they know about the movie. (I also put the word imperialism in the Do Now description). If a student has never seen the movie, that is ok, they are allowed to discuss with their partners. They will begin to animatedly discuss the movie, and some will then begin to ask what this movie could have to do with the lesson for the day. I then ask students to write about the connection between this movie and the Age of Western Imperialism as I show a definition of the term on the smartboard. The students begin to make their OWN connections and raise their own questions, they don’t need to rely on me to explain everything and they are already engaged in the lesson. Next, I show a trailer for the movie and have students bullet specific connections they see or hear in the movie to the term imperialism.

All year, I focus on the skill of students being able to critically analyze source material and use textual evidence to inform their arguments. At this point, we have already done this by analyzing music lyrics, poetry, text excerpts, and comic books. Evidence doesn’t just come from a textbook for historians – it is all around us and comes in many forms. When we finish the trailer, students compare their lists with each other and discuss. The lists will differ and I remind the students that this is just fine as we all bring in our own perspectives and strengths. Some students will focus more on the images in the trailer and others on the dialogue. Some of the terms we find in the trailer:

New world, natural resources (unobtainium), “indigenous population called the Na’vi, they are very hard to kill”, village, savages, diplomatic solution, natives, going native, the strong prey on the weak”, “gunships against bows and arrows”, “that they can take whatever they want”, “this is our land” and more. The images are also discussed as students make connections to Native Americans on horseback with bows and arrows, hairstyles in braids, a white military destroying a population of non-whites, massive bulldozers against nature and animals, etc. “ This entire discussion comes out of a three minute movie trailer, but better than that, the students will never look at this movie the same way again. What is James Cameron trying to say with this movie? Is it about imperialism during 1870-1914, or are there some connections to today as well?

Still, without using the textbook, I next ask – is the USA an imperialist nation today? Do we fit the definition? We then conduct some online research and determine how many military conflicts the US has participated in (this surprises many students), how many military bases the US has around the world, where our aircraft carriers have recently traveled, and even comparing the size and cost of the US military to the rest of the world. Students begin forming their own opinions and discuss in their groups. I do not offer my opinion as I tell them that we will revisit this topic after we explore the historical age of Western Imperialism. We then finally open the textbook and begin to analyze the historical time period which will be sandwiched between current events and pop culture connections. The students WANT to read the textbook as their curiosity has been piqued. All this with a movie franchise that is planned to release sequels until 2025, and so the lesson will remain relevant.

As a quick add-on to the Imperialism lesson, I also have my students read a disturbing picture book titled An ABC for Baby Patriots, a British book published in 1899. There are many free ways to view this book in its entirety (http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00086056/00001) and so students can read it on their own and then share their opinions of the book. I use this activity as a culminating summative assessment for the students as it brings together the entire imperialism lesson. The students will go through each image and its corresponding text and decipher its meaning. This is yet another skill-based literacy lesson as the students need to provide both textual and visual evidence in their answers. After analyzing and discussing the meaning of the book, students are then placed into pairs and given a letter of their own to illustrate. They will create an original image and quatrain (a perfect chance for cross-curricular connections) together and we will put them all together into our own book. The class also chooses a title for their book and we compare it to the books made in all of my classes. The images my students have produced will take your breath away and they cover events from around the world.


Star Wars is also another ongoing movie franchise that I use to make connections to WWII, the rise of Hitler, Nazism, propaganda, and dictatorships. The most immediate connection is made through the term “Storm Trooper” which is what Hitler called his SA, or Brownshirts, who intimidated his political opponents. In addition to the SA, the propaganda machine was everywhere in Nazi Germany and we look at pictures of Nazi Germany with their many displayed blood flags and propaganda posters throughout their controlled lands. These displays of strength are clearly displayed in many of the Star Wars scenes.  They can be compared to the historically accurate propaganda posters displayed in one of my favorite movies, Swing Kids, released in 1993. This movie is loosely based on groups of teens in Nazi Germany who listened to banned American Swing Music as a form of rebellion. This resonates with teens as we connect with music as generational rebellion and I even share how my own father made me return my Public Enemy CD. Students are left speechless at the end of this movie and quite a few tears are shed.

Similarly, I show clips from the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, (widely available for free online or for purchase on DVD) and compare it with film clips from Star Wars. I show one scene where Hitler is seen walking through packed stadiums of his supporters, when even farmers wield their spades as arms, and salute him as he slowly walks through the crowds. He and his officers then walk past Nazi Blood Flags and large fires to speak to their supporters. I then show two scenes, one each from Return of the Jedi and the Force Awakens. The connections are easy to make as the Emperor walks through his assembled forces when he arrives on the Death Star in Return of the Jedi. The connection to Force Awakens is also powerful when General Hux gives a speech to his assembled forces – the words, the flags, even the colors are all direct connections to the Nazi rallies. The actor who portrayed General Hux, Domhnall Gleeson, is eerily reminiscent of Hitler and we split-screen his rant with that of Hitler.

As part of this discussion, we also play a clip from Revenge of the Sith when Padme says, “so this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.” This is when Palpatine “reorganizes” the republic into the First Galactic Empire for a “safe and secure society.” This allows us to make direct connections to Hitler’s emergency powers in the Enabling Act of 1933, following the Reichstag Fire and how the Nazis reorganized the German government to consolidate “temporary” power. I then make a quick aside to the concept of habeas corpus in the United States Constitution whereas a person under arrest must be brought before a judge and evidence produced. This is a crucial constitutional right in stopping the possibility of dictatorship in the United States, but it can be set aside by a president as, according to the Constitution, “The Privileges of the Writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” This Suspension Clause leaves wide latitude in the definition of “rebellion” or “public safety” and President Lincoln suspended this right during the Civil War in the attempt to round up Confederate spies. While this may seem a reasonable application of the clause, President Franklin Roosevelt used it to place American citizens of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps on US soil during WWII. We also discuss under what circumstances this clause might be used today, in events such as 9/11. Do we trade safety for security? (This is also a tie-in to Marvel’s Civil War comic…)

One other piece of “pop culture” I use with WWII and propaganda was actually produced by Walt Disney. The films, Der Fuehrer’s Face and Education for Death, are examples of US propaganda intended to help reinforce negative ideas of Nazi Germany and to help unite American feelings. This leads us to a more open discussion of the idea of propaganda and its use, both positive and negative. As societal artifacts, we analyze the racial stereotypes (bright yellow Japanese figures with buck teeth) in Der Fuehrer’s Face and even the homophobic portrayal of some Nazi soldiers in the film. Education for Death is unlike any Disney film I have ever seen with its terrifying portrayal of schools in Nazi Germany that shows how the youth were brainwashed into following Hitler’s evil ideas. The films are funny at times as well and the students learn much from them. Again – they make meaningful connections to the lessons and remember these important concepts long after leaving my classroom meaning they are better able to connect history to current events.

Pop culture is everywhere and just begging to be used in our classrooms. Make these connections with your students and they will gain a much deeper understanding of history and the world around us. Make your class the one that is talked about at home and remembered for years to come.

Representation In Comics

On 7/21/2019, Marvel announced, at San Diego Comic Con, that a new Thor movie would be released in 2021, starring Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, Thor. Not only would there be a female Thor, but Valkyrie, as played by Tessa Thompson, would also be the first LGBTQ+ character in the Marvel cinematic universe. At the end of Thor: Ragnarok, Valkyrie was given the mantle of kingship and, as  Thompson said at SDCC,  Valkyrie would be “looking for her Queen.” This new movie, Thor: Love and Thunder!, will be released in November 2021. The director is the inspired Taika Waititi. There were many other exciting announcements, but I am going to focus on the impact of Jane Foster as Thor, as she is one of my all-time favorite heroes. She is also the favorite of my youngest daughter, who routinely dresses up as Thor for Halloween and comic cons. When this new movie was announced, I could not wait for her to wake up the next morning as to share the news with her and my other two children.

I travel the country giving workshops to educators on how, and why, to integrate comics in the classroom. I spend a lot of time discussing the fantastic increase of representation in comics and how important it is for students to see themselves in literature, as characters, authors, artists, etc. As a mid 40’s straight, white, CIS male, I know now how privileged I was growing up in that almost all of the positive heroes I saw in comics, movies, TV, etc. looked like me. So many adults haven’t read a comic since they were kids and haven’t been aware of how this has changed in modern comics. The movies simply had not caught up to the comics, and many only knew what was being done in the movies. However, this too is changing.

I was lucky enough to be asked by PBS to write two articles about how/why I use comics in my classroom, and this topic is discussed in both –



I was also interviewed for the local newspaper on this topic – even making the top fold on the front page! The text of the interview is here – http://www.montgomerynews.com/amblergazette/news/comics-in-the-classroom-how-one-wissahickon-teacher-uses-comic/article_aceed392-c658-5dfb-bec2-e339fecacd56.html

My family attends many comic cons, and my son said something to me at San Diego Comic Con that just struck me – he said – “Dad, look, anyone can be a hero (as he looked around at the many cosplayers). Boys can be princesses. Girls can be Captain America. Anyone can be anything they want.” If nothing else, this shared sentiment by my children has made all of these trips worth it. My kids have grown up in a house of books, including comics. To them, having a gay Iceman, black Captain America, Queer and Latina America with two moms, “overweight” Faith, bi-racial Spider-Man, Latina Green Lantern who suffers from anxiety, a 16 year-old Muslim, Pakistani American girl from Jersey City, etc. is all just the norm for them. And this is what gives me such hope for the future of our global society – that this will all become the norm.

This hasn’t always been without complaint or outrage from some. I am a member of many online comics groups and even created a Facebook group for Comics Teachers. I see people comment both in support and against what some see as a political agenda or forced political correctness. That these changes in comics are ruining their childhood and will destroy the comics industry. The argument is just not there for me – the traditional Spider-Man, Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America, are still there. I have even gotten into a debate with a teacher who thought that Thor could not possibly be a woman as it flies in the face of historical Norse Mythology. Seriously? There are many Thors throughout the comics canon – including THROG – a frog Thor. This is all acceptable – but a female? Nope, that’s just going too far!  There really is no way to argue with these folks and I honestly don’t waste my time. I KNOW the power of this representation with my own kids and with my students. These people who are complaining are not the ones buying a lot of new comics today and they will fade over time.

I’ve even been seeing that Natalie Portman can’t possibly be Thor because she is took skinny, not strong enough. Ha! This reveals a true lack of understanding of what makes Jason Aaron’s Jane Foster Thor so truly powerful and inspiring. Jane Foster is not just battling intergalactic monsters, she is also battling an internal monster – breast cancer. Every time she picks up the hammer to become Thor, the chemo therapy she is receiving stops working. When she fights to save us, she chooses to do this, knowing that it will accelerate her cancer. The letters to the editor for this run have been full of thanks from women seeing the bravery in themselves and their female relatives also fighting this cancer.

When my daughter showed her Thor costume at school (third grade), many boys laughed and told her that Thor could not be a girl, that he was a man. (Notice the subtle GIRL vs. MAN, here?). Her response was to tell the boys that they needed to read the comics. I gave her some comics to take in and show them. She also corrected these boys when they called Jane Foster the “female Thor.” – “She’s not FEMALE Thor, she’s THOR”. Love it! She and her sister also corrected me at dinner one night when I was talking about PRINCESS Leia. They were quick to tell me that she is GENERAL Leia.

Today, I celebrate the news of the new Thor movie by wearing my shirt –

And this brings up another point about representation and our societal prison cells of gender norms. I often see girls wearing male hero paraphernalia, t-shirts, backpacks, even full on costumes. Many see this as cute, as normal. But when the opposite happens – when a male wears that of a female hero, he is seen as lesser than, as being “unmanly” (whatever that is). I proudly wear items to my presentations and in my classroom that represent female heroes – Wonder Woman tie, Bat Woman suspenders, Ms. Marvel shirts, and more. I have often been stopped by women telling me how great it is what I wear these items – but this shouldn’t be such a big deal. I’ve not seen someone make a big deal when a female wears a Captain America t-shirt.

When I told my kids that I had exciting Marvel movie news, my son excitedly asked me if they were making a Ms. Marvel movie. When I said no, he was disappointed. I love that this Muslim girl is his hero.

I have many pictures in my classroom with my family and our favorite comics authors/artists we have been blessed enough to meet throughout the year. I had an exchange student from Kuwait in my class, and she stayed after class to talk to me about the picture of us with G. Willow Wilson (author of Ms. Marvel and many other great books). She told me that it was the first time she felt accepted at our school and wanted to talk more. This showcases the importance of our students seeing themselves in our classrooms.

I also connected with a shy African American student who came to talk to me about Miles Morales. He was more impressed that Spider-Man looked like him than did the US President at the time!

Is there still work to be done? Absolutely. While Loki is gender fluid, we need more characters who are transgender, nonbinary, questioning, and more. We need to increase the representation in the front offices of comics companies. But things are so much better than when I was growing up. When I was in school, no one was gay (or so I thought). I had never heard of the word transgender. We are getting better and we need to keep increasing the visualization of all types of heroes. One great example is a conversation I had with my kids at Denver Pop Culture Con. One of the favorite series in our house if Phoebe and Her Unicorn, by Dana Simpson. I was lucky enough to present with her and other creators during a panel on fairy tales in comics. (I was the diversity on the panel – certainly a first for this white guy!). My youngest, who is a HUGE fan of Dana, had a question. Yep – Dana is transgender. My daughter asked what this meant and I explained to my 2nd, 4th, and 6th grade kids in about one minute what this meant. It was not a complicated conversation. It was not a topic only for adults. My kids basically said “ok” and that it was great that she was happy. I really love all of her books – it’s a modern take on Calvin and Hobbes  – witty, funny, heart-felt, and imaginative.

Also pictured here are Tracy Edmunds – a fantastically inspiring educator on all things comics in education. Check out her website – tracyedmunds.com

Also – Nidhi Chanani – author of Pashmina and amazing artist. Pashmina is a wonderful book about Indian culture and a favorite in our house.

To get copies of The Mighty Thor run written by Jason Aaron and drawn by Russell Dauterman, you might still be able to find single issues at your local comics shop – I have every one. As an educator/librarian, a cheaper and longer lasting option, is to order the collected series (there are five hard bound volumes). The ISBN for the first volume is 9780785195221. This is a great way to teach about the impact of current events and pop culture as artifacts. I have a lot more to say on the subject of representation in comics, but I will stop now and thank you for taking the time to read this much.

Thank you to G. Willow Wilson, Jason Aaron, Brian Michael Bendis, Sara Pichelli, and so many other visionary authors for their willingness to give us the heroes we need and deserve. (You need to watch G. Willow Wilson’s Ted Talk on the fears she had creating Ms. Marvel, I show it to my students every year – https://youtu.be/piWo4200G0U)

I also wrote another blog post on my learning about the term Blerd and the awesome @TheBlerdGirl https://historycomics.edublogs.org/2016/10/12/blerds-the-beauty-of-nerdism/