When Andy Yung first asked his boss for permission to purchase more than a dozen lightsabers, the request was met with more than a little skepticism. A pre-K teacher at The Active Learning Elementary School in Flushing, Queens — and an avid Star Wars fan — Yung was proposing his idea to start a “Young Jedi Academy” for his students. TALES was founded seven years ago with the mission of promoting health, wellness, and creativity among its students, and has been no stranger to out-of-the-box learning programs in the past. But school-sponsored lightsaber fights were a tad much, even for it.
“I was hesitant, no doubt about it,” Robert Groff, the school’s principal, tells the Voice. “[But] when Andy fully described the idea and how there would be a lot of stretching, running, and agility work, and then a portion of time spent with lightsaber choreography, it became more of a well-rounded program.”
Last month, with the school’s blessing, Yung set out to make his Star Wars “enrichment class” a reality, turning to the nonprofit organization DonorsChoose in hopes of raising enough money for the materials. He billed the project as an after-school, Star Wars–themed fitness program, and quickly met his goal of close to $500.
Though the draw for many of the students — or padawans, as Yung calls them — will undoubtedly be the “controlled lightsaber sparring” at the end of each session, he also hopes the Jedi philosophy of discipline, honor, and justice will rub off on his pupils. The school is holding a trial run with roughly fifteen students throughout the spring, and if all goes well the program will start in earnest next fall.
“It’s kind of created a buzz,” Yung says. “I’ve been carrying around my lightsaber in school and the kids will rush up to me and be like, ‘Oh! That’s from Star Wars! Do you like Darth Vader? Do you like Luke Skywalker?’ ”
TALES is located in a high-poverty section of Queens where roughly 67 percent of children qualify for free meals each day. Many of the students come from immigrant families, with parents who work long hours and are often unable to meet their children when the school day ends. Still, TALES tries to make the most of the resources it has. In 2013, Groff and his colleagues made headlines after TALES became one of the first public schools in the country to adopt an all-vegetarian menu in its cafeteria. The goal has always been to foster healthy lifestyles and provide unique programs and opportunities for students to expand their horizons.
“I think it’s about giving them an opportunity to do something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to,” Groff says. “We find that a lot of our kids don’t have chances to go out of the neighborhood, and we need to bring experiences to them.”
For Yung, his new program is simply a continuation of that manifesto, a way of fitting an entire galaxy inside the confines of a small classroom.
“Star Wars has captured the imagination of many of our students,” Yung explains. “This program will be a way to nurture it.”