Just about everyone warned Dan Zehr ’97, ’06, M.S. ’13, not to quit the insurance industry to become a teacher.
“What if you don’t like it?”
“What if you don’t get paid enough?”
“What if the kids don’t like you?”
This year, Zehr celebrated 10 years with Washington Community High School (WCHS) teaching English language arts.
Rebel? Yep. But that’s not the half of it.
“In the end, their concerns weren’t a factor for me,” Zehr said. “Those were reasons that stopped me from teaching throughout my life. One day, I instead began thinking about why I should teach, instead of why I shouldn’t. The choice was clear after that.”
Taking night classes, Zehr earned his bachelor’s degree in English teacher education in 2006. Seven years later, he completed a graduate degree in curriculum and instruction from the College of Education. At Illinois State, he discovered how to infuse another of his lifelong passions, Star Wars, into the classroom.
For him, the Star Wars films are an effective way to get young adults interested in canonical literature and literary themes and devices. The first practice lesson plan he ever taught was in front of his fellow teacher candidates in 2005; he helped them draw parallels between Shakespeare and Revenge of the Sith, still in theaters at the time.
“They were receptive, and I was hooked,” he said.
The experience energized Zehr to continue down that path.
“Aristotelian and Shakespearean language is challenging, but my students want to learn more about Hamlet once they recognize how similar he is to a character they already care about, like Anakin (Skywalker). When they make that bridge, the light bulbs go on, and it is unbelievably powerful.”
Zehr’s numerous professional connections to the Star Wars community have directly benefited his classroom. In 2010, he reached out to Ian Doescher, author of the William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series. The books tell each episode of the sci-fi epic in iambic pentameter. In addition to serving as a consultant to Doescher, he helped convince the author to pen the prequels. Zehr was referred to as a “Star Wars encyclopedia” in the acknowledgments of William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace, and the acrostic “I trust in Zehr” appears in William Shakespeare’s The Clone Army Attacketh.
In 2013, Zehr co-created and began co-hosting Coffee with Kenobi, a StarWars podcast focused on discussion, analysis, and rhetoric. Doescher was the show’s first guest. Later interviewees included actors Freddie Prinze Jr. and John Morton, who portrayed Dak Ralter, Luke Skywalker’s gunner in The Empire Strikes Back. After they appeared on the podcast, Zehr Skyped both Morton and Doescher into his classroom.
“With Doescher, we talked about the comparison of language between Romeo and Juliet and Star Wars, and the kids went crazy,” he said. Zehr originally reached out to Morton, a fanboy in his own right, after reading the actor’s Force Awakens article that was inspired by the works of T.S.Eliot. Zehr shared the piece with his class before taking them to see the film in theaters.
“Someone had to take them to see it,” he quipped. “Why not me?”
During the Skype session with Morton, a student asked about the connection she observed between King Arthur and Rey. She referenced the scene where Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber chooses the heroine over a more powerful character, Kylo Ren, drawing parallels between the behavior of that weapon and the sword in the stone.
“And when she said that it blew my mind. I thought ‘this is really working. They are thinking multidimensionally,’” he said.
Zehr has a virtually endless array of options for connecting language arts curriculum to the movie franchise, but he’s careful to balance it.
“You cannot live on Star Wars alone; even I would get burned out by that,” he said. “What I tell my students is, ‘You’ve got to think of a different way to look at the world, and that will help you to be successful.’ That’s the drive behind everything I do in the classroom. I don’t care if they know what a lightsaber is; I care about whether they can think critically.”
Zehr’s experiences have helped him to inspire students to pursue their passions. The teacher is a paid contributor for StarWars.com and has published more than 60 education and fan-based write-ups. The creators of Star Wars in the Classroom, which has become an international teaching movement made up of more than 700 educators, recruited Zehr to be one of their leaders and contributors.
In 2016, Coffee with Kenobi nabbed Best Show out of 225 competing Star Wars podcasts. As a result, at Celebration Anaheim, Zehr became the first-ever podcast host to speak on Lucasfilm’s stage.
“There were thousands of people there. It was standing room only. We were able to use that platform to talk about education,” he said.
Last year, Zehr got the opportunity of a lifetime. He was tabbed by Target to star in a rebel-themed commercial advertising the Star Wars: Rogue One premiere. It has been viewed countless times around the world. His line in the ad was, “It is an unconventional way to connect with the kids, but students love it when you use Star Wars to teach Shakespeare.”
For Zehr, the best part of the adventure was sharing it with his wife, Deanna Zehr ’98, who said “It has been fun to be a part of this, even though I wasn’t the biggest fan of Star Wars when we first met. I am my husband’s biggest fan, and I am so proud he’s used this passion to inspire others, particularly students! ” Deanna is a fellow Redbird alum and serves as a counselor at WCHS, where the two met.
A couple of months after the call from Target, Gillette flew Zehr to London to cover the company’s own Star Wars promotion at Pinewood Studios.
“There were media outlets there like Men’s Fitness, USA Today, The Huffington Post, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and then, Coffee with Kenobi,” he said.
While in London, Zehr was interviewed by The Huffington Post, where he talked about his own work and the podcast.
At the University’s “Star Wars Day” last December, Illinois State men’s basketball recognized Zehr’s accomplishments at halftime, with his wife, their three children, and extended family in attendance.
Reflecting on his journey so far, Zehr said, “It’s not like I’m doing anything incredibly special. I’m just following who I am. I think that if you can be honest about yourself, students in turn believe, ‘It’s OK for me to be me.’”
Perhaps no statement better encapsulates the community of Jedi educators known as Redbirds.