The Real Magic of Harry Potter

by Evon Donnell

A fourteen-year-old boy I know asked me the other day if I thought his teacher would let him do his book report on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I told him to ask her, but in the back of my mind I thought, If she’s smart she will! As a graduate student in literature and a teacher of college-level composition and literature, I sometimes forget how restricted my colleagues in the elementary and secondary education systems are in what they can teach. Rightly so in many instances, of course; I’m even disturbed and embarrassed by some of the graphic and sexually explicit texts I read in my graduate courses, and parents would understandably object to that kind of material being brought into their children’s classrooms. However, I don’t think the Harry Potter series qualifies as either sexually explicit or graphically violent, and here is the case I put forth for using the series as a teaching tool.

A friend of mine, Janet, has taught seventh- and eighth-grade literature at a rural Southern Illinois public school for twelve years. Two years ago, during the summer, one of Janet’s eighth-grade students emailed her to ask if it would be possible to start a Harry Potter book club at their school. Janet had read the books, and knew how much many of her students enjoyed them, but she also knew how controversial the series was with many parents; so she took the idea to the school board, and to their credit, they agreed to let her start the club, so long as it was a completely voluntary and extracurricular activity with no impact on the students’ grades, and that each student who wished to join brought in a signed permission slip from his or her parents. On the first day of school Janet put up flyers advertising the book club and handed out permission slips to interested students, but to be honest, she wasn’t expecting much interest – after all, don’t junior high students have better things to do than discuss literature outside of the classroom?

But at the first meeting the next week, Janet was pleasantly surprised when ten students showed up promptly at three-fifteen in the school library. After thirty minutes or so of discussing the reasons they all enjoyed the Potter books, Janet asked them what they would like to do in the club. One girl, the one who had initiated the club idea, said she wanted to find out more about the ideas behind Rowling’s books – in other words, Rowling’s source material, most of which is based in mythology. Another student said he wanted to investigate the “clues” in each book that foreshadowed what would happen next. Janet then gave the club its first assignment: five of them would do a search, in the library and on the Internet, for the mythological sources behind some of the characters and events in the first book, and the other five would make a list of possible clues from the first half of that book. She sent them off without daring to hope that they would put much effort into the exercise, thinking it probably smacked too much of homework – and when it came down to either doing the assignment for the club or watching TV, she was certain which would win out.

O ye of little faith! The next week, Janet was astounded to not only have another six students in addition to the returning ten, but also to find that her club members had certainly done their homework. And so it began. For the first three months they maintained an average fourteen-member attendance, studied Greek, Celtic, and Norse myths that might have influenced Rowling’s books, completed an intertextual analysis of the first two books, and made their own “Harry Potter Book Club” tee-shirts, which they proudly wore around the school. This last project was what started what could have been the club’s downfall.

A parent, whose child was not in the club, telephoned the school and demanded to know why they were allowing a teacher to encourage students’ forays into the occult; this mother accused Janet of practicing Satanism and instructing her students in those dark arts. Ridiculous as that sounds, it was the first real opposition the club had faced, and when the mother threatened to sue if the principal didn’t disband the club immediately, Janet feared that the Harry Potter Book Club had met its end. She was devastated because, as she puts it, the hour-and-a-half she spent with the club each week was the most fulfilling and stimulating teaching experience she’d had in twelve years.

To Janet’s surprise, she wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to let the club die without a fight. The members called an emergency meeting and planned their strategy; they researched the controversy surrounding the Potter books, using newspapers, magazines, and websites, and put together a very sophisticated and intelligent counterargument based on articles from Rowling’s supporters (including several noted scholars) and from their own observations about the books. Armed with this information in a PowerPoint presentation, signatures from one hundred and eighty of the school’s four hundred students in support of the club, and a lot of passion, these fourteen students accompanied Janet to the school board’s next meeting, where the fate of their club was to be decided. Janet said she knew right from the start that the effort the students had put into their presentation was going to pay off; a school board member (who also happens to be the mother of a teenage boy) told Janet later that she was astonished to see all vestiges of apathetic adolescence shrugged off as these young people presented their case to the board. And it certainly did pay off. The board decided that the Potter books were not teaching Satanism, and since Janet had kept careful notes on each of the club’s meetings, they could also see that she wasn’t trying to entice the students into practicing witchcraft. So they announced that the club could continue to meet.

Since Janet’s home is a small town, the controversy had sparked quite a bit of local media coverage, and the junior high was abuzz before and after the meeting. Janet expected a quick peak in attendance at the meetings that would taper off once the threatened lawsuit became old news, so she wasn’t surprised when at the next meeting twenty-one new students showed up. She was surprised, however, that six of those students were from the high school: one freshman, two sophomores, two juniors, and one senior. It seemed that Harry’s appeal reached beyond the eleven-, twelve-, and thirteen-year-old demographic, and older students wanted to get involved with the club as well. With the principals’ and their parents’ permission, they were allowed to join.

Then things got really exciting. The senior who had joined their ranks was an avid athlete, and part of the Potter series’ appeal for him was Quidditch; with three other club members, he began to investigate how Quidditch might be played without broomsticks, and started putting together a Quidditch rule book for an actual team. One of the new eighth-grade members was interested in cartography and began making maps of the wizards’ world, showing, for example, Diagon Alley in relation to Hogwarts, based on geographic clues from the books; several other students began to experiment with art work based on the characters and scenes in the books. Thrilled by all of these creative endeavors, Janet wanted to give her students a chance to showcase their work and talent, so she convinced the school to allow them to have a one-night “Harry Potter Extravaganza”, complete with a gallery showcasing the members’ artwork and the maps, a demonstration of how Quidditch could be played without broomsticks, and a keynote address from her students about the Potter series and how it had affected their lives. Almost eighty people attended.

But the learning didn’t stop there. The students examined the darker elements in the books, particularly in regards to Harry’s grieving for his parents, and ended up delving into psychological criticism of the texts; they studied the films, looking into how books are adapted to the screen and how movies are made; they compiled a list of “Recommended Reading for Potterheads”, which included great Gothic authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, Anne Rice, Bram Stoker, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and of course, the master of fantasy worlds J.R.R. Tolkien.

Today, the club is still going strong; they average thirty-one members, spread across the junior high and high school, and meet once a week. Janet allows some of the “veteran” members to make lesson plans in which they start new members on explorations similar to those that helped them really understand the books when the club first began; “Harry Potter Extravaganza” is planned as an annual event, and Janet hopes to even persuade J.K. Rowling to attend someday; and at least once a month, when the weather is fit, the club meets for a good old game of broomstickless Quidditch.

Now, here’s what all of this means. First, these young people are reading literature, not just comic books or Goosebumps. And their interest in literature has not stopped with Harry, as their recommended reading list shows. Nor has that interest been wholly contained to literature: they’ve explored literary theory, art, psychology, film theory, and mythology. They’re flexing creative muscles that atrophy in front of a television screen: creating sports leagues, maps, lesson plans, and even speeches for their annual extravaganza. They have also learned a valuable lesson in standing up for their beliefs, and how to use logic and rationality to overcome prejudice and fear. Not to mention their increased interest in education (Janet reports that many of her colleagues congratulated her on getting these kids excited about academic and intellectual explorations, which has translated into improved performance in classes as diverse as chemistry and history) and the benefits we already know come from reading: improved writing skills, expanded vocabulary, and increased reasoning ability, among many others. And all of this because of a skinny orphan with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead!

So why aren’t more teachers using Harry Potter in or out of the classrooms, you ask? Simple: fear of retribution. Fear of negative reaction from the Christian fanatics amongst us, from parents who haven’t read the books but are taking the TV evangelists’ word for it that these books are evil, from conventional school boards afraid to “rock the boat” and step away from the tried-and-true (or, if you prefer, tried-and-failed) approach to teaching in public schools. I’m not suggesting that elementary and secondary education teachers be given a free reign in their classrooms to determine course material; nor am I suggesting that parents be removed from important educational decisions that affect their children. What I am suggesting is that we as parents and as educators realize the value of these books, and how they can be used to end the drought of intellectualism among the young people of this country – that we not be afraid to challenge our old stereotypes, to step into a brave new world, and to open up new avenues of learning to our nation’s children.

Of course, some people will say this is only one isolated incident, and that’s true. Perhaps Janet is blessed with an unusual group of young people who only needed a small spark to start the fire of intellectual interest in their minds. Or, maybe there are millions of these youths all over our country – indeed, all over the world – wasting away right now in front of violent video games, sexually explicit movies, and mind-numbing sitcoms, dreading the next lame reading assignment their teacher hands out, putting out the bare minimum of intellectual effort to get by in school, all because they are simply waiting for something that ignites their interest, that gets them excited about learning. You see, that’s the real magic of Harry Potter: it makes young people want to read. And once that big, beautiful world of literature opens up before them, as vast and extraordinary as Hogwarts itself, there’s no telling how many other doors will open.