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Making the ‘Force’ a Presence

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As movie critics and theatergoers argue over the aesthetic values of the newest “Star Wars” film, one group of Los Angeles first-graders is debating the series’ ethical values.

Much of the curriculum in teacher Ellen Brown’s classroom orbits around math, literature and social studies lessons that she said are shaped by George Lucas’ five space movies.

So while fans line up for tickets to “Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones,” her 6- and 7-year-olds at the Mirman School in Bel-Air clamor to answer game show-style quiz questions about personal values and moral themes depicted in the movies. “Values for 5,” shouts out Alex Wissmann, 7, who sits beneath “Star Wars” posters and a wall covered with pupil-written essays based on the film. A boom box plays the familiar John Williams score to help set the mood.

With a flourish, Brown pulls a card numbered “5" that is taped to the blackboard. “The rebels had to work together to be successful,” she reads from the back of the card.

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“It shows cooperation!” Alex answers.

“Responsibility!” chimes in 7-year-old Natalie Rawson.

“Courage!” pipes up Revel Rosa, also 7.

“That works for me,” Brown shoots back. “The movie shows us that it is a lot easier to go along, but the rebels said the Empire is doing things that hurt people, so they did something about it.”

Brown, a slight and 40ish Van Nuys resident who resembles the children’s book figure “Miss Frizzle,” looks like she should be stepping off “The Magic School Bus” instead of a Nebulon-B Light Cruiser starship.

She has taught parts of her classes around a “Star Wars” curriculum since 1981, when she and a friend, sixth-grade teacher Anita Russell, devised the intergalactic study plan. Russell uses the movie curriculum to teach literature and language at Fairfield School in Van Nuys.

Brown’s class is made up of high achievers capable of working at up to the third-grade level. That makes them prime pupils for arithmetic problems based on galactic light-year measurements and droid robot-bolt numbers.

Jedi Knight characters illustrate social studies lessons with “light-side traits” such as perseverance, forgiveness and kindness and “dark-side traits” that include self-doubt, revenge and anger, said Brown, who shows “Star Wars” movie tapes to her students.

Parents sometimes roll their eyes when they first hear of the movie-themed lesson plans. “But before it’s over, they’re saying, ‘May the Force be with you,’” Brown joked.

Encino parent Susan Wolf is a believer. Her 12-year-old son, Brandon, was in Brown’s class five years ago. “It’s stayed with him. It’s a real thought-provoking experience,” Wolf said.

Barry Ziff, a Cal State Los Angeles education professor who has worked with Brown in the past, said the “Star Wars” lessons encourage bright students to become risk-takers, something they need “to make the most of opportunities that are available to them.”

Recess ends Brown’s “Star Wars” lesson. Instead of light-saber sword fights, there is a spirited playground handball game. Still, the kids have “Star Wars” on their minds.

Six-year-old Tom Roush visualizes himself as Luke Skywalker. So does Adam Zucker, 7.

“I’ve learned that good is stronger than evil,” Tom said.

But sometimes there can be close calls, Adam added. “My heart was beating so fast in ‘Return of the Jedi’ when the Empire was throwing lightning bolts at Luke. But Darth Vader saved him just in time.”


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