Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Using Star Wars to Teach Biomes and Ecosystems

A big part of "Playing Like a Pirate" is using pop culture to teach. Whether it's music, video games, movies or television, you'll get kids on board if you indulge in pop culture from time to time. Or if you're me, all the time. One of the many things I love about the Star Wars movies is the planets. With few exceptions, each world in that far away galaxy is a single biome. It's simplistic, but you've gotta admit, if you're going to be going from planet to planet in a movie, it's nice to be able to look out the window and see snow, sand, or forest and know where you are.

Using those different planets can help students understand the concept of biomes and ecosystems, and have a little fun with it at the same time. In between the movies and television series and video games, there have been dozens of planets represented on different sizes of screens.

If you need a refresher for some of the major ones that are seen most often in the movies, there are handy videos on YouTube that will help you see which planets you might want to include. Chances are very good that most of your students have seen several Star Wars movies...they can help you out too.

For students studying biomes and ecosystems, there are key things they could be looking for in these single-biome worlds of Star Wars. The landforms, flora, and fauna of each world are unique to those worlds, but have distinct similarities to creatures and environments found on Earth.

Three planets I'd use as examples: Tatooine, Hoth, and Naboo. Each is well-known, and both Tatooine and Naboo are featured in several movies, showing us more of their environment than some of the other worlds. By showing video clips from the films, or links to websites (where geeks have obsessively written about the plants and animals of these fictional planets), students can get an idea of what biomes are represented.

Tatooine is a desert planet, and is prominently featured in Episodes I, II, IV, and VI of the Star Wars series. Prominent creatures include banthas, rancors, womprats, dewbacks, and the sarlaac.

Hoth is an ice planet, seen only in Episode V. We only meet two indigenous species, the tauntaun and the wampa.

Naboo is a temperate world, featured in Episode I and II. We see forests, grasslands, and even aquatic biomes here, breaking the Star Wars rule of "one planet, one biome" -- but we see fambaa, kaadu, opee sea killer, falumpaset, and other creatures.

After learning what a biome is and studying Earth's biomes and ecosystems, students can extend those skills by analyzing the fictional worlds. Some sample questions and activities:

  • What physical factors do we see on that planet? Temperature? Water? Humidity? Light? Landforms?
  • What ecosystem niches are represented in what we see of that planet? Producers? Consumers? Herbivores? Carnivores?
  • What niches are missing (simply not seen) in what we see of the planet in the movie? 
  • What Earth plants or animals could fit into those empty niches?
  • Design a Star Wars-style creature that would fit into the empty niches. 
  • How do the humans (or other sentient aliens) interact with that biome? 
  • Pick one of the Star Wars creatures and imagine what would happen if it were introduced into their equivalent ecosystem on Earth -- would it be successful here?  
  • Design a human outpost for that biome that would complement the existing ecosystem, being in harmony with the surroundings. 
  • Write a short story from the perspective of one of the Star Wars creatures, describing a day in their life. 
Pretty much every real world biome is represented by a Star Wars planet -- some other examples:

Endor - Temperate Forest
Dagobah - Swamp/Marshland
Kashyyyk - Rainforest
Yavin 4 - Jungle
Kamino - Aquatic
Jakku - An Awfully Tatooiney-Desert
Geonosis - Also Desert, But Like, Different 
Lothal - Grasslands 

...and then a few that push the envelope a little, but still have ecosystems of their own:

Mustafar - Volcanic
Bespin - Gas Planet/Cloud Ecosystem
Asteroid Field - uh...big spinny rocks in space
Coruscant - Completely Urban Planet

UPDATE: I guess Disney wants money, because they keep making Star Wars movies. Some more planets and biomes from recent films:

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (I loved this waaaay more than I thought I would)

Lah'Mu - Volcanic, Contaminated Water and Soil
Ring of Kafrene - Two planetoids connected by an artificial city
Jedha - Rocky Desert in "Permanent Winter"
Yavin 4 - Jungle
Scarif - Tropical Beaches

Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Controversial movie, but incredible planets and biomes)

Ahch-To - Rocky Islands in a Cold/Temperate Climate
Cantonica - (another) Desert, but this one with an artificial oasis, complete with sea.
Crait - Red mineral planet crusted with a coating of white salt.

Ahch-To is probably my favorite of these worlds, and the most applicable to teaching students about biomes or ecosystems -- there are porgs and caretakers and Thala-Sirens, and we see how they interact with each other, and how Luke and Rey both interact with them. It's perhaps the closest thing we see to a complete ecosystem in the Star Wars movies, and I mean, porgs. PORGS.

Incorporating any one of those into your standard science lesson about biomes and ecosystems would grab your students' attention, help them think outside the box, and (best of all) deepen their understanding of the principles, structure, and vocabulary of the real science you're teaching them. If you're looking for a lesson they'll remember, look to that faraway galaxy. Help you, it will.

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword Graphic Novel Review

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword. Barry Deutsch. Amulet Books, 2010 142 pages

With as many comics and graphic novels as I read (according to Goodreads, 728 and counting), it surprises me when I come across one I haven't heard of before. Let alone an entire series. But that happened last week, when I stumbled upon a book that wasn't on my radar, but I love both as a teacher and as a human (those things don't always coincide).

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword manages to combine feminism, Orthodox Judaism, humor, adventure, and myth all in one graphic novel. Mirka is an eleven year old Jewish girl living in Hereville. She's got a stepmother who's always on her case, an older sister who's pushing marriage on her as hard as the opening act of Fiddler on the Roof, an annoying younger brother, and seven (count them, seven) little sisters/stepsisters. The brother Zindel is the most important one for this story, and the other siblings are just bit players. Mirka, who spends too much time knitting and debating her stepmother (who switches sides of an argument at whim to play devil's advocate) for her taste, wants to be a dragonslayer. She's told she shouldn't, she can't, she's a girl, she should be focusing on other things--but she knows what she wants to do with her life.

When she comes across a witch's house, she sees her chance to use some magic and some luck to take her further along the path of becoming a dragonslayer. The book does a good job of introducing the fantastic without it seeming outlandish. That there's a witch in Hereville, that there are dragons and demons, seems ordinary to the characters, so it's ordinary to us. That doesn't mean they're not frightening.

I've seen Mirka described as a feminist, which is a loaded term these days. Actually, has it never not been a loaded term? In this case, it seems to mean three things: first, that her older sister's obsession with marriage comes across as silly to Mirka. She knows it's important, but it will come along if it comes along -- it's not the highest thing on her agenda. The second is that Mirka stands up to bullies. She does it for herself, she does it for Zindel. She's strong enough and self-assured enough to take a stand. The third is seen in those arguments with her stepmother -- she's quick-witted, and even though she feels frustrated and shut-down sometimes, she's learning to speak up for herself, and not be cowed by the authoritarian figures in her life. I don't necessarily see those three things as being exclusively "feminist," but I do think in "traditional" households, they're traits that are encouraged more in our sons than our daughters. And traditional in this case can mean an Orthodox Jewish household, but could just as easily be Catholic or Muslim or Mormon or Evangelical Christian.

The traditions of Orthodox Judaism take center stage in Mirka's story, and author/artist Barry Deutsch does a good job of explaining these traditions to the gentiles in the reading audience. The dialogue has frequent yiddish words and phrases, and while most of them are understandable in context, there are footnoted definitions of each of them as they're introduced. There's a Shabbos/sabbath celebration midway through the book, and each of the parts of the preparation for and celebration of the day are lovingly introduced. There are a few elements I'd classify as "supernatural" in different parts of the book, and I don't know if they're part of Jewish tradition or are just inserted by Deutsch as part of Mirka's adventure. In either case, they add an element of the mystical, of something larger than our day-to-day life at work. What I liked best about the traditions included in the book is how Mirka approaches them. So many books telling similar stories have the teen/tweenaged child resenting religious tradition, rebelling against their parents, hating religion, discounting spirituality. Mirka, though irritated at some of the chores involved in preparing for Shabbos, finds joy in the traditions and celebration. I loved seeing that. It's refreshing to see the other side of that story, and (again) whether Judaism, Islam, or Christianity, it gives the religious kid something to identify with.

All told, this was a fun book, appropriate and enjoyable for elementary and middle school students. Mirka's a new kind of heroine, and even though this book was first published in 2010, it's readily available online and in bookstores, and should be part of every school library. There are two sequels I haven't read yet (How Mirka Met a Meteorite and How Mirka Caught a Fish), but they're high on my to-read list now. I want to see what happens next.

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