Taking Harry Seriously

Last July, Cathy and I met a fantastic group of educators at Azkatraz. Once we found a space for the Hogwarts Faculty Lounge that wasn’t covered in cheese popcorn, we had a lively discussion about how different teachers have used the Harry Potter series in K-12 classrooms across the country—and the successes and challenges they have experienced in doing so. Even without an operational Pensieve to hold on to the details for us, we have been thinking about that meetup ever since. As we continue working on the manuscript for Teaching Harry, we want to reconnect with this great group of teachers—and hope to meet many more educators who are using Harry Potter in their classrooms.

One thing we’ve been thinking about quite often is the relationship between college-level Potter courses and Harry-centric lessons and activities in high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools. What are the similarities and differences in pedagogical approaches and  highlighted themes? What do students at different levels think of the books and how they’re used in the classroom?

We know a bit about what is going on at the college level. There are a number of course descriptions and syllabi available online: for example, “Harry Potter’s Library,” taught by Philip Nel at Kansas State University, “Harry Potter and Philosophy: Wizarding and Wisdom,” taught by Joel Garver at La Salle University, and “Harry Potter and the Curse of International Fame,” taught by Rai Peterson at Ball State University. (These are just a few courses I found in my online travels—there are many others out there!) In March 2008, CNN.com ran this story about college-level Potter courses, focusing on courses in Theology and Literature and highlighting the ways the series is positioned in relation to other popular works of literature such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. Harry’s influence on student culture outside of the classroom is also evident: for example, we’ve seen the advent of co-curricular activities such as the 226-team Intercollegiate Quidditch Association, and the efforts of students at Oxford to rename their common room “Gryffindor.”  (Personally, I would have chosen “Ravenclaw,” but that’s neither here nor there.)

In September 2008, MTV.com posted a report about a course taught at Swarthmore College called “Battling Against Voldemort.”  A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with the creator and professor for the course, Dr. Melinda Finberg. The course was developed as part of Swarthmore’s freshman writing program, which encourages students to engage with broad issues across the curriculum. “Battling Against Voldemort” took on the theme of the Hero’s quest—using the Potter series as a way of understanding the hero’s quest in a 20th/21st century context. Even though the course was, as Professor Finberg describes, “off the wall” for her (her specialization is actually in 18th century women playwrights, not children’s literature), she told me that she chose the Harry Potter series as the centerpiece of the course because of its relevance to her students’ lives. You see, she taught the course for the first time in the Fall of 2007, right after the release of Book 7, and knew that many of her students had been waiting anxiously, just as she had, for the last book in the Potter series. Because of this, she noted, the course material provided a great segueway to college—students were able to bring something that they had from High School and use their developing college-level reading and writing skills to understand it.

Building bridges between students’ out-of-school lives and what goes on in the classroom is important at any level. Today’s high school and college students are the last group of young people who will have experienced the excitement of an “open” Potter canon–the last group to have had a chance to debate and speculate without having the answer available. However, this certainly does not mean that it’s time to stop reading the series with students! In many ways, this is a perfect moment to begin reading the series with a wider audience. The whole series is now out there, ready to be read, viewed, and explored.

Dr. Finberg’s advice to other educators planning a Potter class: “Take it seriously.” She emphasized that teachers should not feel like they have to defend their choice to teach popular literature—to students or to colleagues. That’s the question I’d like to end this post with—how do we take Harry Potter (or any popular literature) seriously in K-12 education?
What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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