Pedagogical Purposes of Harry Potter

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June 7, 2013 by k. liz

I never read Harry Potter growing up. It was a controversial issue in my circles. But, as an adult extremely interested in literature and with aspirations of writing more in the future, I have decided that I wanted to know what it was about Harry Potter that was so captivating and exciting. I have to admit, I got sucked in! These are very well written stories that capture the mind and encourage readers to jump into this new world. And isn’t that what reading is about? Isn’t that what we always hear when growing up? Reading gives you the chance to go where you can’t. As I read, I was trying to figure out why exactly they had been looked down on when I was younger, and I guess that one of the biggest things was the “witchcraft”. I think I can see that a little bit, but I don’t remember not being able to tell what was true and what was fiction when I was a child, and as an adult, it is clear that Harry Potter lives in a different part of this world, and not one that really exists. So, I’m sure that every family is going to have a different take on what they think their children are or are not able to handle in regards to reality and fiction. I didn’t feel that the “witchcraft” or “black magic” was so strong as to really cause problems for students, but then again, I am coming from my own personal reading experience. I did appreciate that evil was evil and good was good. But enough of reviewing here! You can visit my other blog for that. I’m here to share three ideas for using Harry Potter in a pedagogical sense. As I was reading, I kept thinking to myself, this would work really well to promote critical pedagogy in the classroom. So, here’s what I came up with.

1. Teaching Literary Devices and Patterns

The first thing I noticed, after reading a couple of the Harry Potter books was that Rowling really follows a very clear pattern in her books. Each one is semi-predictable as far as timing and setting, but the plot is always different. I think that by reading these books in the classroom and discussing them, students will be able to easily see what pieces they should use to construct a story. Every story (well, the three I’ve read so far) have very similar patterns. They start at the Dursley’s in the summer, Harry can’t stand it, Harry goes to school, there’s a mystery or problem at school, Harry and his friends try to solve the problem, they come to a final battle, Harry wins, and then they finish the school year and depart for summer. This very clearly reflects the commonly accepted literary patterns used in Western literature of setting, rising action, climax, and denouement. I think that students will be able to see the need for conflict in a story and how to bring that conflict to a final culmination by paralleling their own stories with the Harry Potter books.

*As a side note, another thing that Rowling does exceptionally well is to introduce concepts in the 2nd and 3rd books for new readers without completely rehashing and boring those who have read the 1st book. For example, in book 2, Harry explains quidditch to a new students, so it doesn’t assume our ignorance as readers, but rather that of the student. Perhaps students can learn about including background information in creative ways by studying how Rowling approaches these different issues that need explanation in subsequent books.

2. Discourse Analysis

Here is where I think that Harry Potter can really integrate with critical pedagogy and ideas of discourse validation. A common problem in modern education is how to approach discourse, or the way that we use language. Standard discourse generally aligns with white middle class accent, speech, vocabulary, and grammar and that is what is often expected to be used in school. However, the question has arisen of what to do with students who don’t use standard discourse at home. Are they deficient? Are they lacking? What if the *gasp* use their non-standard discourse in the classroom?! What I have felt very strongly about since I started student critical pedagogy is that students need to be validated in their home discourse. They speak a real language that really communicates (which, by the way, is the purpose of language!) There is no reason for them to feel embarrassed or deficient because their speech doesn’t sound exactly like their white middle class classmates. Rather, the goal of schools is to validate home discourses, while teaching discretion as to when those discourses are appropriate, and where they need to learn a new discourse for different situations. Obviously, standard discourse is expected in business interviews, but is it expected at the basketball game? Is school only about business interviews? No. It’s about life.

rant over.

So, how to use Harry Potter? If you’ve read the books, you know that Hagrid speaks with a different accent than the other characters. I think that this is something to explore. Students should explore what the accent portrays about the character, if it is positive or negative and why. Another good source of this is in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Book 3), chapter 3. Harry rides the Knight Bus and while on there he listens to two characters talk who have very different accents. Students can spend some time deciphering what exactly it is that they are saying, discuss why they are speaking like that, and then have them re-write the chapter using an accent that they are familiar with. The goal with these activities is to raise awareness of different accents and also to give students a chance to re-write a Harry Potter chapter using their own (or someone they know’s) accent, thus making them aware of accents and how to use them. We aren’t going to validate accents until we learn how to interact with them.

3. Learning How to Appreciate the “Other”

This is, again, a key problem addressed in Critical Pedagogy. It goes along with with the topic of discourse analysis, but it is a little different. “Normal society” is generally defined by the sector of society which holds the most amount of power. At least in America that tends to mean that “normal society” is white, middle-class, male. As humans, we often tend to look at someone who is different than us as “Other,” inherently meaning deficient or less. Schools should be a place where children learn to respect and appreciate their friends’ differences and learn how to demonstrate love and care regardless of how different they may be. Because “Other-ness” is such a rife problem in our world, dealing with this issue in the classroom can require a great amount of sensitivity. This is one reason why I think that utilizing a book like Harry Potter will help the issue, because the differences are differences that don’t exist in our world, and therefore children can explore issues of disrespect and intolerance in a world where they are not either the perpetrator or the victim of such disrespect. Students should be asked the hard questions:

  • How do you think that they felt when they were called a “Mudblood*”?
  • Why do you think that Filch was hiding the fact that he was a “Squib*”?
  • If you were at Hogwarts, and someone called you a “Mudblood,” what would you do?

And so on. Obviously, you could go on and on with these questions and really get kids to think about what names and thoughts and categorizations can do to people. They can explore the fact that although Hermione was a Mudblood, she was the smartest kid at Hogwarts. Was that expected? How does someone’s category change your thinking about them, and should it?

(*Mudbloods are wizards born into muggle (non-wizard) families; a Squib is someone born into a wizard family, but without magical abilities.)

——————

So, to finish it all off, I know that in some small circles, Harry Potter may still be a controversial issue, and if you don’t believe that your children are ready to read it, by all means don’t allow them to. I do believe that it is important to teach critical analysis to children and they should be able to discern what is real and unreal. It never hurts to have a teacher or parent read together with the students and guide them through questions which lead to critical analysis reminding students that wizardry is a fictional element of these books. But, for those of you who enjoy these books, or have children or classes that enjoy these books, I hope you will find these few classroom uses helpful!

Please let me know in the comments any additional ideas that you have found or  come up with.

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