A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…
(Easter 1993: Sweatpants under shorts. It was totally the style back in the day. Promise!)
Way back in 1991, George Lucas (the legendary filmmaker behind the original Star Wars films) founded the George Lucas Educational Foundation with the goal to highlight proven strategies, tools and resources for creating lifelong learners. While many educators might not know of GLEF as Lucas keeps his involvement kinda low key behind the scenes, it’s likely that you’ve seen “The Force” of his work in action across the vast digital cyberspace that is the broader galaxy of online educational research. Namely, because in a “Luke, I am your father” like plot twist — the George Lucas Educational Foundation just so happens to be the parent company behind the website Edutopia.org.
Keep this Foundation in mind, young Padawans. Because our story will return here momentarily.
But first — a quick bit of personal history from the same era.
As for me? The early nineties were a bit of a “growing pains” story, if I’m being kind. Though I’d played rec league soccer and baseball and been pretty decent at both (before everyone hit their growth spurts), the last few years before middle school were… awkward. In 1991 I’d been pegged as one of the brightest kids in my second grade class. By 1992 I’d started taking piano lessons. And in 1993 — my time in fourth grade also just so happened to be the same year that I got my first pair of glasses.
Good grades + musical instrument + GLASSES?!?!
Well, that was pretty much the kiss of death of any aspirations of being voted “The Coolest Kid in School.” And so by dumb luck or four-eyed fate, team sports kinda faded to the background for me. A generation too late for Dungeons & Dragons and still about a half a decade too soon for Harry Potter, I gradually found myself obsessing over, of all things, Star Wars.
When I look back at it, I guess I probably first learned of the vague murmurings of a thing called “Star Wars” in the late eighties since a few of my older cousins had been really big into the films about ten years earlier. Keep in mind that in an age before YouTube and Disney+, becoming a Star Wars fan in the early 90’s was a LOT harder than it is today. To set the stage: the last film in the original trilogy had left theaters nearly a decade prior, while the first installment of the prequel trilogy was still almost a decade away. The once insanely popular Star Wars toy line had ceased production in 1985. And even if I managed to watch a few scenes from the movies here and there when visiting the homes of relatives over the years, my family didn’t even get our own licensed VHS copies of the films until 1995 (and I mean the ORIGINAL original films, not the 1997 re-releases where Greedo shoots first!).
So why the fascination with Star Wars then? Believe it or not, I think my lifelong love affair with this out of this out-of-this-world franchise all started with a book.
In just sixteen short pages, The Empire Strikes Back: A Pop-Up Book (published in 1980) recounted the story of a guy named Luke Skywalker. I watched in awe as this brave “Jedi” trekked across “the icy slopes of Hoth.” I turned the page and followed this hero to a far away swamp where he learned what appeared to be some sort of space Karate from an ugly green alien named Master Yoda. And I hung on every word (and every paper pop-up action) as this planet-hopping good guy did battle with the clearly evil Darth Vader in a thrilling laser sword fight on a space station somewhere high above a place called Cloud City.
I guess you could say that the book was pretty much your standard fare for pop-up books of the time (“Turn the page to see Luke’s Tauntaun spring to life in 3D!” or “Pull the tiny paper tab to watch the Millennium Falcon blast away to safety from inside the gullet of a slimy space monster!”). And by the time George Lucas launched his Education Foundation in 1991, it was nowhere near grade-level appropriate for a student who’d moved on to “big boy chapter books” like Where The Red Fern Grows. Still I swear that I must have gone back and re-read that silly Empire Strikes Back pop-up book every bit of a thousand times or more throughout countless nights of my childhood. THE ACTION LITERALLY JUMPED RIGHT OFF THE PAGE! I remember vividly how it flooded my brain with excitement and wonder. I had never seen anything like it. This dinky 3D kids’ story was an invitation to enter a world that was larger than life — and I couldn’t wait to learn everything that I could about this Galaxy Far, Far Away.
Sadly, in the early 90’s, the popularity of Star Wars was in a bit of a lull.
George Lucas was quietly hard at work on other, decidedly non-Star Wars related endeavors like the super-popular Indiana Jones franchise and his behind-the-scenes work with The George Lucas Foundation. And without a ready stream of Star Wars action figures available to keep our imaginations connected to the then-dormant stories of Luke Skywalker, kids my age had to get super creative. With the original Kenner toy line almost a decade out of production, there was absolutely no way that my cousins were letting me get my hands on the treasured playthings of their childhood. Instead, what few Star Wars action figures I managed to get my hands on were, at best, a rag-tag collection of B-Team supporting character oddballs like the Gamorrean Guard that we happened to pick up one time quite by accident from a flea market in the Poconos. And without even a Chewbacca or C-3PO to carry the heavy lifting of reenacting the epic adventures from the films, my few Star Wars action figures typically found themselves joining forces with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the rugged soldiers from G.I. Joe. After all, action figure stories were pretty much anything goes.
But still, my fascination with all things Star Wars remained.
My folks took notice of my fandom and were eager to encourage me to continue geeking out over all things Star Wars with some reading material that was a bit more grade-level appropriate. And so between my tenth birthday in November of 1992 and the Christmas and Easter holidays that followed soon after, my parents got me a really nice set of THE OFFICIAL COLLECTOR’S EDITIONS of the original Star Wars movie scripts from the now-defunct Premiere Magazine. Complete with full-color movie poster artwork in cutaway, gold foil embossed covers that I’m certain my mom and dad must have obtained via mail order, the scripts felt like an honest-to-goodness museum-worthy piece of history. To a kid who just turned ten who had spent years obsessed with the hard to come by pieces of Star Wars memorabilia, these things were magic. To this day almost 30 years later, I have them proudly displayed in a place of honor on my book shelf beside the Catechism of the Catholic Church and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
No joke. They’re that special to me.
But getting back to the early 90’s — I was knocked all the more senseless when my folks got me a copy of Heir to the Empire, a 1991 novel written by Timothy Zahn which marked the first installment of a George Lucas-approved trilogy about the continuing adventures of the Star Wars universe, this time centered on the saga of the twin children of Han Solo and Leia Skywalker. I remember devouring the Zahn novel and being fascinated that other people could write REAL LIFE BOOKS that told their own Star Wars adventures set in the very same worlds of the original screenplays! The Pop-Up Book simply retold the story of the second film. But Zahn’s novel? He was imagining new stories! He was playing pretend! He was throwing a bunch of familiar faces in with a brand new cast of characters!
It was just like playing with my own hodgepodge collection of action figures.
I know this might sound strange, but Zahn’s novel gave me permission to start making up all sorts of new stories in my own Star Wars fandom. I remember being SO EXCITED when my fourth grade teacher, Ms. Riddle (great teacher name, no?) asked us to create our very own board games inspired by whatever choice book we were reading. At the time I was in the middle of George Lucas’ novelized Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (what else?!) — and I put HOURS into making a board game that I just couldn’t wait to share with my classmates! Creating little paper cutouts of each of the figures. Stealing old dice from other games that were just collecting dust in the closet. Crafting tiny handmade “Use The Force” cards to get you out of sticky spots along my custom-made game board. Even designing miniature light sabers that players would carry along their journey as they moved their pawns through a paper-thin storyline where they’d complete their Jedi Training everywhere from the deserts of Tatooine to the swamps of Dagobah (alright, so I might have taken a few creative liberties and borrowed a few things that weren’t actually in the book. But it worked for Timothy Zahn, right?).
The action was intense! The battles were epic! And if you were truly brave (j/k — it was a game requiring zero skill whatsoever, with an outcome entirely dictated by the luck of whatever dice you rolled and the cards that you drew at each new square along the path) — you’d be the first to reach the end of the board where the Millennium Falcon was waiting to blast you away to safety (incidentally, the dramatic rescue idea was totally something that I stole from The Empire Strikes Back Pop-Up book… but that’s neither here nor there).
My fourth grade board game was basically a glorified Candyland knockoff… but it had THE FORCE, dangit! And in this humble origin story of “student-centered learning” and “project based assessments” long before either of those terms were ever an educational buzzword, my love of playful instructional design had been forever inspired.
Through my love of Star Wars, my journey to the Gamification Dark Side had begun.
(January 2020: My parents made the trip down to Orlando, Florida to cheer me on at the Walt Disney World Marathon. Naturally, we had to check out the all-new Star Wars rides!)
And so, to jump our story through hyperspace and take us back to the present day…
Last year I published EDrenaline Rush and launched this website to share resources from the book and the continuing adventures of my game-inspired approach to lesson planning. And last week, I was blown away to see that my work was prominently featured in an Edutopia article titled “Meaningful Summer PD at Home.” Here’s what they had to say:
GAMIFY YOUR CURRICULUM
As one year ends and another looms, most teachers seek out ways to enhance curriculum and find new ways to engage students. Gamification is the process of motivating students to learn by framing activities and curricula as games. How great would it be to start the year off with some friendly competitive learning through a digital escape room or the mad dash of a scavenger hunt?
A great source on this topic is John Meehan’s book EDrenaline Rush. Loaded with ideas for class engagement based on theme parks, mud runs, and more, the book is a great introduction to the world of classroom gamification. Meehan’s website also provides adaptable free resources for gamification in the usual classroom setting as well as in distance learning. From Fortnite review battles to Netflix binge learning, it’s a treasure trove well worth checking out.
My Jedi training had come full circle: my playful approach to pedagogy had been recognized by the Education Foundation founded by the one and only George Lucas himself.
I realize this is a super nerdy and very long-winded way of sharing a simple update that I’d received a shout out from another website, but I wanted to share this story as a fun sort of peek behind the curtain regarding my design process and the work that I do. I’m really honored that the good people at Edutopia thought enough of my work to take a moment and say such nice things about it on their site. While I realize that this is just one short article and there are thousands of other things yet to be done both in my own career and in the broader world of education, it does my heart good to know that I’m making even some small impact in this noble profession by helping classrooms wherever they might be across this Galaxy Far, Far Away.
To close today’s post, it’s probably worth noting that George Lucas sold the rights to Star Wars to the Walt Disney Corporation in 2012, which sadly would go on to erase the Timothy Zahn stories from their place in the official “official” Star Wars canon. But by becoming a part of the Disney family, the Star Wars franchise has gone on to inspire new stories, new films, and entirely new themed amusement park lands that will continue to spark wonder and excitement for generations to come. As a guy who literally wrote the book on how theme parks can inspire powerful levels of student engagement throughout our classrooms, I really can’t think of a better way for teachers to take a final cue from this real world example of how often our lives can imitate art.
In EDrenaline Rush, I quote Walt Disney, who once said: “Around here we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things because we’re curious… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” I believe that the exact same thing can and should be said for the attitude and hunger that we bring to our teaching practices. Enthusiasm is infectious, and our students notice when we go the extra mile on their behalf.
When I see nice things said about my work by outlets like Edutopia, people often ask me how long I’ve been at this whole “game-inspired” lesson planning gig. In truth, there’s a big part of me that’s still stealing lesson ideas from the imaginative play and silly games I was making up when I was a kid. And for what it’s worth, I think I’m still making most of it up as I go.
Sometimes, it all starts with a Pop-Up Book.
Took six months. But WOW. These were totally worth it. pic.twitter.com/JiyKUId9ly
— John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) August 2, 2020