Using Harry Potter to teach a new generation of readers
By Doris Herrmann
I will never forget the day I first found Harry Potter. I took my son to baseball practice, and there, sitting on the bleachers was his best friend Tanner. No, he was not watching a game, or playing with friends; he was reading.
At a time in our history, when over 40 million American adults are illiterate1, it brings this English teacher joy to see a child sitting outside reading, acutally devouring, a book. I aksed Tanner's mom what he was reading. She laughed, "Oh, I don't know, some book about a wizard!"
Later that day I ran to the local Barnes & Noble to find a copy of this unnamed book. At that point in his life, my oldest son was starting to hate to read. I admit that the mom in me was upset at this, but the teacher in me was scared. I'd read all of the studies, I knew that if a child doesn't read for pleasure, that he will never develop the intense vocabulary or the critical reading skills needed to be highly literate.2 This fear grew as my son, once an avid reader, entered into that stage in his life when playing sports, or video games was more important to him then reading. I was excited to take him to find a book that he might like.
"Ya know I'm not gonna read it!" Jerry yawned.
"Give it a try, you know my guidelines, just one chapter is all I ask."
We left the store and closed the car door and he began to read outloud. Several hours later, we finished this "Book about a wizard' and I saw that spark in his eyes. One previously unamed wizard and his creator, had changed his life forever. He was a reader again!
After Jerry went to bed that night, I opened the book . We'd shared reading this book. Something I knew that would help stimulate his imagination and help him enjoy the sound of the language. I read the book again, but this time from the teachers point of view. I looked at it for layers of meaning, for the depth of characterization, for the hero prototype, and was incredibly surprised to find something fresh, and unique, but also classic, and having great depth. I describe these kinds of books to my students as "Onion books." These books have multiple layers, and can be read by many people who all walk away with the same plot structure, but a different meaning. These are the books that are later judged as classics, and this book had it all.
I closed the book that night with a vision of what my classroom could become. I'd always been the teacher who did things a liitle differently, but this time I knew I was about to push the envelope. I wanted to take all of the educational research I had read, this novel with it's future installments, and start my classroom over. In my mind I began an educational journey that became magic in it's own right. In my mind I was entering those first schools of the early American pioneers. Those "Little Red School Houses" where children first learned that education could bring them into a world beyond their own.
In my life as an educator I have seen the joy of reading stripped from the lives of my students. Most of them, too caught up in the fast-paced world of video games to slow down and enjoy a novel. This, along with the fact that many of the novels available to students are slower in pace, mean that many students are left with the thought that reading is boring. I knew that I had to fix this for my students.
I knew, that as a classroom teacher, my job was to provide fresh and new possibilities to my students. The end objective is clear, but the path I take is a choice I can make. I realized that there was so much in Harry Potter to stimulate the minds of my students, I couldn't wait to share this novel and it's experience with them. Before Harry was a household name I walked into my class and told them about a “book about a wizard” my son had found. I read the first chapter to them. All seven classes that day sat enthralled as I read about Harry and his escapades with the snake on Dudley's birthday. Each class begged for more each day. I realized that there was magic in this book. Not the magic wizards used, but the magic that would capture the imagination of the my students.
Teaching Across the Curriculum
The teacher in me also knew that students had to read a varitey of texts in a clasroom to become succesful reading.4If I truly expected kids to learn to love to read about various other subjects such as Science or Math, I had to provide something that would stimulate them to do so. I could see so much of this in Harry Potter. Suddenly simple things like chocolate candies could be turned into a creative writing piece about how chocolate frogs jump. The Science of computer animation entered my classroom. Students began by reading simple instructions on making .gif files and ended with small frogs that could jump across their screen. While this seemed like game playing to many at first, I was quick to point out that each child had to read a university level manual on creating .gif files and on animation before their little chocolate pets were created. I was also quick to point out that children are always more likely to learn when they have a clear purpose for their learning (creating the chocolate from for their blogs) and if they are “active” in the learning process.5
Teaching across the curriculum contines in Math with discussion on measuring potions, and how high a broom can fly, how much higher one tower at Hogwarts is then another. Social Studies was discussed with class, and the social structure of wizards. The students read “Romeo and Juliet,” and The Outsiders. They compared the social structure of the rich vs. the poor, and being from the correct social upbringing, then they compared it to their own lives. Students were able to use Harry and his ordeal as a way to seeand understand the same social situations in history. These situations did not involve magic. Yet, the students were able to use the empathy they had for this character and carry that passion into studies elsewhere.
I also knew that by allowing the students to learn the same concepts they covered in thier social studies class I was helping them to learn a difficult concept, and improving their ability to read and to write about that concept.6 It also vastly imporved their ability to discuss social injustice in way that allowed their social studies teacher to realize they understood what occured, they didn't just memorize the facts.
During a school year my students were able to read and write poetry, took a great interest in classics JK Rowling mentioned she has read, and learned that reading could be an enjoyable and unique experience.
Harry helps write a Research Paper
Most English teachers will tell you that the single most difficult thing to teach is the research paper. The two little words are met with groans and rolling eyes. Unfortunately, most English teachers love research. I admit, I fall in that catagory. Learning something, just for the pure joy of learning it is reason enough for me to research. I had to really think on how I would teach this one. At the start of the year, I have each child make a K-W-L chart about the novels. These tell me what they (K) know, what they (W) want to know, and what they have (L) learned. We left the L blank of course, and we cut out cute images to illustrate our K and our W. During the year they may change what they want to know as they read and solved some of the riddles they had found. Along the way, I had them look at web sites such as The Leaky Cauldron to help them come up with ideas and theories.
At the end of the year when the research approched, we pulled out the sticky notes, scraps of paper, and the journals we'd kept on theories and each student choose their topic of choice. The topics ranged from, “Is Snape a Vampire?”, to “What authors influenced Jo Rowling?” The research had been somthing they worked on all year. Each student choose a “pet” theory and placed it on a planning board. I use these boards as a way to help the Kinesthetic learner arrange their thoughts.7 We used these boards to plan thier essays.
The essay is then typed in a word document, and each child is able to give the class a review of their theory, and which Leaky members share that theory!
Education is not a static process, but an ever changing event. Teachers must be willing to take what they know a student will love, and turn that into a process students will love. Every year I marvel at my kids. My classroom is not a quiet place, but a place where young adults get to learn about the true magic of reading. I brought Harry into my classroom to benefit my students, but for some teachers this is not a reality. There is nothing that you see above that can't be duplicated with any peice of literature and a little imagination. The true magic is not within the pages of the novel, but in the eyes of the child as they learn about their world from it.
For me and my little classroom, Harry has started to become an everyday part of our lives. My students now can run a forum, they have been mentioned on PotterCast, and on ShurtyCast. They have mastered the technology to put on their own podcast, and their own videocast. Each time they find they want to do something new, I just point them to the literature on how to do it, and they always seem to find the way to make it happen. Someday, I'll have to tell them all that my masterplan was to make them better readers, but right now I am satisfied that they love what they are doing!
To think, it all started with a book about a wizard!
W O R K S C I T E D
Us Department of Education Web Site (5/23/06)
Real Vision – "Less TV opens Doors to Literacy" (6/24/06)
National Literacy Trust – "Building a Literate Nation" (6/24/06)
Just Read Now – "Integration in the Classroom" (6/28/06)
American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Winter, 1984) , pp. 755-765 (6/28/06)
Benware and Desai "Quality of Learning with an Active versus a Passive Motivational Set"
National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement – (6/22/06)
"Improving Reading, Writing, and Language Skills necessary of success in challenging material"