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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Star Wars and Bowling. A teaching tool?

Do the plots of the Star Wars movies belong in the classroom? An award-winning teacher in Washington State thinks so, and philanthropist Bill Gates (an admitted Star Wars fan) agrees.

Gates met Nate Bowling, a high school teacher in Tacoma, Wash. who is the Washington State Teacher of The Year for 2016. Bowling explained to Gates how he uses the original trilogy of Star Wars movies to teach three key moments in the U.S. civil rights movement.

Gates wrote about Bowling and his use of Star Wars on his Gates Notes blog in a new post published today, and included a video in which Bowling explains the ties between the movie plots and civil rights.

The philanthropist’s larger point, which he wrote about in a separate post, is the crucial role that great teachers play in the development of our society. There is a “New Majority” in schools today, and it needs reversing.  This majority, explained Gates, is that more than half the students in American public schools today live in poverty.

“Most of the New Majority do not graduate from high school ready for college or a high-paying job,” Gates wrote. “So what happens at diverse, high-poverty schools like Lincoln [where Bowling teaches in Tacoma] matters a lot for the future of the country.”

What Bowling and his colleagues are doing at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School is impressive. The graduation rate is 80% (which Gates pointed out is above the average for Washington schools like Lincoln, where 70% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch), and 40% of students take Advanced Placement courses.

Bowling attracted attention for a post he wrote in January called “The Conversation I’m Tired of Not Having,” which Gates describes as “a blunt look at the racial divide in America’s public schools.” It’s well worth reading.  The post got more than a million views and was reprinted in major newspapers. Gates said that he agrees with a lot of it.

Gates also perked up when he learned that Bowling jokingly calls himself a “nerd farmer.”  “I’m trying to cultivate a kind of scholarship in students, and a passion for learning. So I bring passion to the classroom, and they see that and rise to the occasion,” Bowling told Gates.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has funded education in the U.S. at least since 2001, focusing on different targets over the years. At one point the Foundation backed smaller schools, believing that size was related to a better education. It’s no longer pursuing that strategy. More recently, the Foundation has focused on how to train teachers to be the most effective.


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