Using Avatar and Star Wars in Social Studies
By Tim Smyth
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.