Book Review: Teaching with Harry Potter: Essays on Classroom Wizardry from Elementary School to College, Valerie Estelle Frankel, ed. (2013)

July 29th, 2013 1:16 pm by Kelly Garbato

Something for Everyone!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the editor’s invitation.)

Since the debut of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone in 1997, the Harry Potter franchise has generated a wealth of scholarly research. “Aca-fans” – “those who participate in academic fandom” (page 1) – scrutinize, interrogate, and critique Harry Potter creations both official and unauthorized: from J.K. Rowling’s novels to the film adaptations and supporting websites, to fan-made works such as fan and slash fiction – all is fair game. Such discussions often focus on themes as diverse as literature, philosophy, psychology, history, gender studies, and the law. However, Harry Potter’s place in education is a topic that has, until now, been all but neglected – as some of the writers (most notably Elisabeth C. Gumnior, who devotes an entire chapter to the subject) in Teaching with Harry Potter: Essays on Classroom Wizardry from Elementary School to College are quick to point out.

The eighteen authors who contributed to this unique collection come from a variety of backgrounds; they are parents, teachers of middle and high school students, college professors, academics, and fans. Consequently, there’s a little something for everyone here. Common to the essays is a shared enthusiasm for Harry Potter and his ability to help educate the next generation. Composition, literature, creative writing, romance languages, medieval studies, modern history, theology, science: with a little creativity and effort, the lessons found in Harry Potter – especially useful as a “global cultural reference” (page 152) – can be integrated into almost any classroom.

1 – “From Hogwarts Academy to the Hero’s Journey,” Lana A. Whited – The author compares and contrasts her experiences teaching Harry Potter to two very different audiences: 10- to 13-year-old children enrolled in Hogwarts Academy, a week-long summer enrichment class, and college sophomore literature students. An enjoyable start to this anthology, I found myself wishing I was young enough to attend Hogwarts myself, what with its Care of Magical Creatures and Defense of the Dark Arts lessons. The course sometimes even hosts a Snape impersonator in the form of Dr. Powell, a chemistry professor who brews up marshmallows and ice cream! Meanwhile, the older students examine Harry’s growth in the context of Otto Rank’s stages of the hero’s saga and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey. The author concludes that there are two ways of “knowing” literature – by the head and by the heart – and you can sometimes achieve the former by beginning with the latter.

2 – “The Nuances of Rule-Breaking,” Tenille Nowak – Some parents might be hesitant to allow their younger children to read Harry Potter, as our hero can frequently be seen breaking the rules without suffering consequences (particularly in the first three books). Nowak provides a guide to help parents and children think critically about disobedience, using a modified Socratic approach and a series of hypothetical questions focusing on rule-breaking and intent.

3 – “Harry Potter and the Child with Autism,” Denise Dwyer D’Errico – In an especially touching essay, D’Errico recounts how Harry Potter has helped her own young son with the challenges of (hyperlexic) autism.

4 – “Strange Apostle: Assessing the Conflict Between Today’s Christianity and Modern Culture,” J. Malcolm Stewart – Stewart paints a brief history of conservative Christian opposition to Harry Potter, comparing its reception to that of The Chronicles of Narnia (particularly the film adaptation of THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE). While both series contain magical and supernatural elements, critics employ a number of flimsy excuses in their celebration of Narnia while simultaneously indicting Harry Potter. A Sunday school teacher, the author argues that this “personal engagement” with Harry Potter is better harnessed than condemned.

5 – “Boy Wizards and Girl Scientists: Rowling’s Contributions to Science Outreach,” Kristine Larsen – Just as Harry Potter has largely been praised for getting boys (and not a few girls!) interested in reading again, so too can the series be used to engage girls in scientific pursuits. While witch Hermione comes immediately to mind, she’s not the only female role model found in the Potterverse: Sinistra, for example, can be used to challenge race and gender stereotypes about science and those who practice it. Larsen offers a number of suggestions for engaging potential students, such as hosting “star parties” at observatories and Harry Potter-themed shows at planetariums, or by showing up to a Harry Potter (or similarly themed) movie opening armed with a telescope so that you can star gaze with fellow movie-goers while waiting in line.

6 – “Two Boy Heroes (and a Sparkly Vampire) Teach the SAT,” Valerie Estelle Frankel – Editor Frankel – who also doubles as a tutor – uses Harry Potter to help foreign-born students master the English language. Rowling employs Latin roots to construct many of the spells found in HP – the same Latin roots that often appear in SAT words. Greek mythology (hello, Percy Jackson!) also comes in handy. Rather than drill her students in the traditional, tedious manner, Frankel employs board games (both store bought and homemade) to make learning fun.

7 – “Fan Fiction, Remix Culture, and the Potter Games,” Jen Scott Curwood – Fan fiction, Curwood argues, demonstrates the role of motivation in literacy development. By their own choosing, like-minded fans meet in “affinity” spaces to collaborate on projects, review each other’s work, and role play. Using Cassie’s experiences writing a choose-your-own-adventure style story for The Potter Games as a case study, the author explores the implications for educators.

8 – “The Battle to Save Australian Teen Spirituality,” Clare Diviny – Diviny investigates Harry Potter as a means for teens to explore spirituality outside of religion. Initially I’d hoped that the author’s definition of “spirituality” would be loose enough to include those of us who don’t profess a faith in some supernatural, unseen power, but still consider ourselves moral people who are connected to something greater than ourselves (in my case, other animals, human and non, and the planet we all call home). Unfortunately, a faith in the un-provable is central to Diviny’s definition of spirituality, leaving little room for heathens such as myself: “The first aspect of spirituality is a set of beliefs that forms our understanding of who we are and helps us make sense of the world around us. […] The second aspect of spirituality is a connection to a divine source which transcends our daily human life. This divine source is often characterized as a god, goddess, deity or in spiritual terms a ‘divine energy.’” (page 99)

By framing declining religiosity as a “crisis” (over which the Australian government sees fit to throw money at, much to my American, separation-of-church-and-state loving horror), irreligion and atheism are positioned as negative, undesirable traits to be avoided. Religiosity is necessarily “good” and, conversely, a lack of such is “bad” – a characterization I don’t at all appreciate. Furthermore, the author seems to view skepticism as a negative trait, rather than a necessary component of critical thinking – an oddity in a book devoted to education, don’t you think?

Additionally, Diviny pits “superficial” (i.e., engaging with technology) and “mystical” (religious rituals) practices against each other, as though the two exist on opposite ends of the same spectrum. Declining religiosity may be correlated with a greater reliance on technology, but correlation isn’t causation. Likewise, pastors can harness the power of technology to their advantage; for example, by engaging in internet outreach, broadcasting sermons, even hosting live events for those who are homebound. And not all technology usage is “superficial”: many people make and sustain meaningful friendships online. One really has little to do with the other.

Last but not least, there’s this gem: “The problem with older sacred texts like The Bible is that they are not believable for many young readers as they are not geared towards winning over a contemporary teen audience.” (page 101) Actually, I think that the “problem” with The Bible is that it purports to be true, while J.K. Rowling readily admits that Harry Potter is a work of pure fantasy. Of course The Bible isn’t “believable” – it’s a work of mythology! I’d scoff at Rowling too, if she built a religion around Harry Potter.

9 – “J.K. Rowling’s Innovative and Authoritative Online Presence,” Savannah Sharp – Rowling’s online presence – most impressively Pottermore, which Sharp praises as a new form of storytelling – gives students an excellent example of classroom collaboration, transplanted to the real/virtual world. Likewise, aspiring writers can through Rowling learn the importance of audience engagement.

10 – “Exploring eNotes.com: A Grounded Theory of Harry’s Place in Language Arts Pedagogy,” James B. Kelley – Employing “grounded theory,” Kelley examines postings about Harry Potter on the educational website eNotes.com. What do teachers have to say when they talk to students about Harry Potter, and what does this mean for scholars?

11 – “Legit Lit: Of Spells and Serious Scholarship,” J. Steve Lee – In a survey of Harry Potter-themed college credit courses, Lee reveals the breadth of HP scholarship. From simple orientation courses to those based in the sciences and humanities, and from Georgetown to Guangzhou, China, Harry Potter has found a seat in classrooms the world over.

12 – “Scribere Paedegogia: The Magical Art of Teaching Composition,” Cynthia K. O’Malley – O’Malley posits that Harry Potter is well-suited for teaching freshman composition for a number of reasons, both mechanical and literary. Harry and friends represent a cast of well-rounded characters to whose journeys freshman can relate; additionally, many of the plot points provide handy entry points to discussing weightier topics, such as race, class, gender, and dis/ability privilege.

13 – “Getting Medieval in the Classroom,” Renee Ward – While not always historically accurate, “the Harry Potter series epitomizes modern medievalism in fantasy literature.” (page 152). As such, the texts can be used to illustrate a number of concepts found in medieval studies: manuscripts, maps, bestiaries, architecture, food, medicine, and magic, to name but a few. Especially interesting is Ward’s observation that the treatment of werewolves and other beast-like creatures by the Ministry of Magic parallels that of lepers during the Middle Ages (and Animagi, ethnic Jews).

14 – “To Grow Up Blake in a Potter World: Teaching Songs of Innocence and Experience,” Whitney E. Jones Francis – Since William Blake is a difficult yet essential part of any senior-level children’s literature course, Francis uses Harry Potter to ease her students into it. With themes that become progressively darker throughout, she views the first and last books in the series as Rowling’s own books of innocence and experience. By tracing Harry’s progress from innocence to experience – and then to Blake’s third state of being, higher/organized experience – Francis is better able to engage her students with Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.

15 – “Casting Lumos on Critical Cultural Studies: Gender, Hegemony and Other Social Stereotypes,” Amanda Firestone – Firestone sees Harry Potter as a way for teachers to find common ground with their students – not just superficially, as fans, but on a deeper level as well. HP can be used as an entry point to discussing constructions of gender and sexuality; for instance, the question of Dumbledore’s sexuality may result in comments rife with stereotypes, leading to an interrogation of masculinity and gender performance. Likewise, educators can introduce the concept of intersectionality (i.e., of the “big five”: gender, race, class, sexuality, and religion) by using examples from the text.

16 – “Introducing English Literature in Pakistan,” Asma Mansoor – Learning “the classics” in English Literary Studies is especially difficult for those who are simultaneously studying English as a second language. Harry Potter, then, offers an accessible bridge between the two. Mansoor explores her use of Harry Potter in teaching English Lit in Pakistan to “develop a foundational understanding of the ingredients that go into making ‘Literature’.” (page 188)

17 – “Portkey to the Scholarly Disciplines,” Elisabeth C. Gumnior – While the body of Harry Potter scholarship is growing rapidly, Gumnior identifies at least one area of neglect: namely, the use of Harry Potter in the classroom, particularly outside of literary studies, either as a teaching device or a topic of study. For those fans looking to beef up their book piles, Gumnior includes a wide survey of academic Harry Potter texts.

18 – “The Queen City Muggles: Town and Gown Go to Hogwarts,” Susan Johnston – Last but not least is Johnston’s “Queen City Muggles.” Named after a local, all-ages convention hosted by the University of Regina in Saskatchewan which was open to faculty, fans, librarians, and local writers alike (free of charge!), the essay captures the excitement and energy ignited by a shared passion for this one piece of pop culture. In the midst of a decline in reading and a corresponding crisis in the humanities, Johnston credits Harry Potter with reigniting a love of reading in young and old alike: “I felt as if I had emerged from my refuge in libraries grown ever more silent to discover that the whole world was a library.” (page 210)

She concludes: “If the humanities are to survive, they must call out in each person such habits of wonder” as those found in Harry Potter and the Queen City Muggles. Among much hand-wringing over whether Harry Potter and similar pop culture “litter” (page 197) can be allowed to share a shelf with true “literature,” Johnston cautions her fellow academics: “We mourned the vanishing culture of books, of the stories that we love, but we forget, as Chesterton says, that the public, too, has books and stories that they love. If we want them to join us, we must first join them.” (page 216)

Teaching with Harry Potter provides a multitude of avenues for doing so. The authors who contributed to this collection describe a number of examples of how they’ve harnessed the power of Harry Potter to invigorate their own classrooms and lesson plans. While they all speak to their own unique experiences, many of the ideas contained within these pages can be adapted for different age levels and subjects – or, if you’re especially ambitious, even another book or series altogether. (May I suggest Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials? It doesn’t get enough love, imho.) The 44-page appendix includes a number of sample worksheets as well as resources for further reading – and the 11-page bibliography is bound to grow your book pile by a foot, at least.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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