Altimira Middle School braces for ‘The Force Awakens’

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A short time ago at a middle school not far away, a group of advanced English students appeared on campus bedecked in brown, tan, red and green robes, with hoods. The costumes were instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever seen “Star Wars,” as the uniform of the Jedi, protectors of the galaxy and masters of the all-powerful Force. All things considered, it wasn’t that strange of an occurrence, though it was particular well timed.

At Altimira Middle School, the real “force” of the moment is the level of sci-fi excitement two faculty members – both longtime “Star Wars” fans - have skillfully harnessed and transformed into a cleverly creative approach to learning, student outreach and overall campus morale-building. From the “Jedi English” class overseen by Bridget Pauls to the “Star Wars” adorned office of principal William Deeths, students at Altamira are well aware that the Force is with them.

The Jedi robes, part of a Jedi English project in which each student sewed their own garment and then was required to write an essay explaining everything that went wrong during the building process, is just one of many ways that “Star Wars” madness has invaded the current school year. The students of Pauls’ class were assigned “Star Wars” themed IDs at the beginning of the year – Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2, Millennium Falcon, Darth Vader, Boba Fett – and will soon be turning in reports giving detailed “historical” examinations of their characters.

“That’s the great thing about English,” she says. “As long as you are reading and writing, you can be reading and writing about anything.” Pauls says her students are learning as much about reading and writing as they would if they were assigned an essay on the fall of the Roman Empire. “Only in this case,” she says, “they are excited about it.”

“I’m giving them assignments to do over their vacation, and they aren’t even upset about it – because it’s ‘Star Wars,’” says Pauls.

Adding to all this interscholastic excitement, a large number of students, including many from outside the Jedi class - as a reward for academic excellence - will be attending a special private screening of the new “Star Wars” film, “The Force Awakens,” this Friday, at the Sonoma Cinemas.

Jedi robes, of course, are required apparel for the field trip, along with a business-style writing assignment.

“They all have to write a formal business letter to the manager of the theater,” says Pauls, clearly as energized as her students.

“Oh, I’m downright pumped,” says Pauls, who will be attending the screening, in her own hand-made Jedi robe, along with her students on Friday. “I’m not just excited about the movie,” she adds. “This whole Jedi English class has exceeded my expectations, and I’m so excited about what’s going on. The kids love it, and I love it. We’re making learning exciting.”

The class, which may be the first Jedi-themed middle school class in the nation, is also the first-ever accelerated English class for seventh graders at Altimira. The Jedi idea came about after Pauls, while planning the class, started referring to the advanced curriculum as being worthy of Jedi, and the idea took hold.

“When I asked Mr. Deeths if I could incorporate ‘Star Wars’ into the curriculum, he was totally on board,” she says. “Not only is he a ‘Star Wars’ fan, he allows teachers to be creative and weird.”

Creative and weird might be fair descriptions of what it’s like to visit Principal Deeths’ office, which is crammed with “Star Wars” collectibles and toys. According to Deeths, he is the most committed “Star Wars” fan he’s ever known.

“‘Star Wars’ was the first movie I ever saw,” recalls Deeths, who was 3 years old when his parents took him to see George Lucas’s seminal fantasy-science-fiction epic. “We saw it at the Cinema Theater in Corte Madera, down in Marin County, on that magnificent large screen. I learned later that that’s the theater where George Lucas apparently always took the employees of Lucasfilm to watch the first screening of new ‘Star Wars’ and Indiana Jones movies. That just made it more exciting.”

According to Deeths, seeing the movie - with its eye-popping space battles, beeping droids, light saber battles, and ominous larger-than-life villains and heroes - was as formative an experience as any he can remember.

“My parents quickly learned,” he recalls, “that if they ever wanted me to do something I didn’t want to do, like swim lessons, all they had to do was offer to buy me a ‘Star Wars’ action figure, and I’d go wherever it was they wanted me to go.”

Deeths still has most of those original action figures, between 60 and 70 of which are currently on display in his office at Altamira. This afternoon, as Deeths shows off his collection, he is listening to vinyl records on a portable phonograph, currently playing “Christmas in the Stars: The Star Wars Christmas Album,” a highly collectible item from 1980. When the catchy tune “R2-D2, We Wish You a Merry Christmas” comes around, Deeths turns up the volume, and gestures to the action figures on the wall.

“When I grew up, I eventually got rid of all my old toys—but I could never get rid of my action figures,” he says. “There was just something about ‘Star Wars,’ some deep connection to that movie, that wouldn’t let me get rid of them. I pick one up, and instantly I’m a kid again, waling into the store with my mom, finding the toy aisle, and seeing all those rows and rows of ‘Star Wars’ toys, and maybe one of them is ‘Walrus Man,’ because I really want ‘Walrus man,’ and Wow! Yes! Look! There he is! ‘Walrus Man!’ I go right back to that younger me, in an instant, the minute I look at one of these plastic figures hanging on my office wall.”

Those toys on the wall do more than just provide a bit of nostalgic interior decorating. As Deeths explains it, they also serve as a kind of icebreaker when students visit his office.

“Being sent to the Principal’s office is a scary thing,” he admits. “But it’s not as scary to go to the Principal’s office when that office is lined with ‘Star Wars’ toys. It puts kids at ease. They come in here – and a lot of times their terrified, or at least pretty nervous – and all of a sudden, they look up, and there are all these interesting things to look at. There are the action figures, and there are weird things all over, toys and bobble heads and all kinds of things. So suddenly my office is a fun, safe place. It makes kids feel more comfortable.”

It’s no surprise that Deeths is anticipating this weekend’s release of “The Force Awakens” with more than a little enthusiasm.

“Everything I’ve seen so far makes the new movie look absolutely fantastic,” he says. “When the trailer for the movie came out, at about 10 a.m. one morning on a Thursday, I called the entire staff in and made them watch it with me. That moment at the end where Han Solo and Chewbacca appear, and Han says, ‘Chewy. We’re home,’ I literally had the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I was so emotional. I think it’s going to be great. I’m very, very excited.”

Contact David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.

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