Ten Wonderful Things, Part Four: Harry Potter

The fourth of ten things I loved about teaching this past semester.

4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about reading lately.

Since I began teaching CEGEP, I’ve become aware of a problem that directly influences everything I do (or, at least, it should) but I don’t know how to grapple with this problem.  The problem is that students don’t read books unless they’re required to read them for school.

This has become a little less true in the last couple of years, though, and I put it down to two things.

I would wager that this year, most of my female students had read the Twilight series.  I can’t count the number of times I was subjected to loud conversations outside my bathroom stall to the tune of, “Not Edward, I love Jacob!”  “No, Edward!  He’s sexy!”  “Jacob!”  “Edward!”  I could have assumed they were talking about the films, but I regularly saw the covers of Twilight installments sticking out of bookbags, and what’s more, it felt like I was seeing more other books sticking out of their bookbags as well.  Mostly vampire-themed romance novels, but still.

I believe that any book-reading is better than no book-reading, and I believe that students who read for pleasure have huge advantages over students who don’t. That said, I tried to read Twilight.  Or, rather, I tried listening to it as an audiobook.  About three chapters in, I was ready to puncture my eardrums to make it stop.

I shouldn’t assume that the book was wholly at fault – maybe reading the voice of the insipid narrator Bella would have been less irritating than hearing it.  But I was also offended and bored by the whole premise: girl with no discernible attractive qualities becomes the object of the obsessive desires of all the boys around her, including a vampire who is not a boy at all, but old enough to know much, much better.  Laura Miller of Salon has written and spoken about the problems with the messages that Twilight sends to teenage girls, and I agree with her.  Rescue fantasies are always troubling, I find, but it helps if the heroine is at least spunky, and Bella, at least in the first part of the first book, is about as spunky as low-sodium polenta.

Which brings me to what I believe is the second reason that these days, more of my students have read SOMETHING that wasn’t assigned by a teacher, and that reason is of course Harry Potter.

At the time when the Harry Potter books were really taking off, my students would have been around the age of the first book’s target audience.  A couple of years ago, when I asked classes if they’d read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as kids, only a smattering of them raised their hands.  This semester, at least half of them did, and a good percentage of those said they’d read all or almost all the books in the series.  (The percentage who said they’d seen the movies but never read the books was about the same as it had ever been.)  Some of them had read the first book for school, but a lot had either read it on their own or, once they finished the assigned first book, went on to read the rest of the series of their own volition.

I assign it in my Child Studies course, where we first read Franny and Zooey.  They almost all hate F & Z, and they all, almost without exception it seems, love HP.  The reasons for this are a focus of discussion for much of the course; “What makes a book good?” is a running question from the beginning of the semester until the end, when they write a story themselves and evaluate it according to the criteria they come up with.

Harry Potter is special because they think it’s good, but it’s also special because I think it’s good.  It’s a good story.  It has lots of important messages about the value of courage and the danger of judging by appearances.  It has lovable characters, and most of the nasty characters are complex.  And it’s full of wonderful funny writing.  Assigning Twilight on a course would leave a bad taste in my mouth, but assigning Harry Potter doesn’t.  If they haven’t read it, they should.  If they have read it, they should read it again and think about why they love it so much.

What strikes me most about the Harry Potter lessons is the level of engagement in the discussions.  Students are almost never off-task.  No matter what question I ask them about the book, they have something to say about it.  They’ve DONE THE READING.  (If you aren’t an English teacher, you may not be aware of how significant this is.  It is VERY SIGNIFICANT.)  When I walk around and observe them, they hardly notice me, so absorbed are they in discussing whether Harry’s relationship with Draco Malfoy is more important than his relationship with Ron, or whether there is anything morally questionable about the role of witchcraft in the series.

Some would ask whether pleasure-reading should really be the focus of the college English classroom.  I would argue (and am hoping to soon write a literature review that argues) that it should be at least one of the foci, at least in the context that I teach in.  This might not have been true thirty years ago, when a large percentage of the students admitted to CEGEP already knew how to read for pleasure, and didn’t need to be given opportunities to discuss books they easily loved – they did that on their own time, as all “readers” do.  At that time, it made sense to introduce students to books they might not come to on their own, and to challenge them to find value in works they didn’t particularly like.*

I think it’s still important to do this (and when we work on Franny and Zooey, finding value in the difficult is the main thrust of our work.)  However, I think we also need to acknowledge that for many students, the only books they ever read are the ones they read for English class.  If they haven’t learned how to love books, English class might be the only place they can learn that, the only place where they have natural, invested discussions about books the way “readers” do, the only place they get to practice the skill of being a “reader.”

And if Harry Potter is the only book, or set of books, they’ve ever loved, then it might be a good idea to pause and look at it deeply and think about that experience: the experience of loving a book.

I try to mix up my assigned texts, mostly to avoid semester-to-semester plagiarism, so I’m trying to find a replacement for HP and the PS next year.  I’m considering introducing the students to A Wrinkle in Time instead.  I think of it as one of the Harry Potters of my generation.  (It was actually published seven years before I was born, but my friends and I were obsessed with it.)  It’s also the first in a series – a trilogy, actually – so you never know; it might lead some of them to read two non-required texts that year.

What book did you love when you were seventeen years old?  If I gave it to my seventeen-year-old students now, would they love it?  I might not teach them anything else, but if I give them the chance to love at least one book, I’ll feel like I did something right with my life.

*

*Katha Pollitt’s essay “Why We Read: or, Canon to the Right of Me” elucidates this topic in a way that has stayed with me for many years.

*

Previous wonderful things:

Thing #3: Early Mornings

Thing #2: Incorrect First Impressions

Thing #1: My IB Students

Image by Nino Satria

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28 responses

  1. Another great read…thanks! As for your words on the importance of ‘reading for pleasure’, well I’m with you! When I taught Grade 10 English at a private college in the early part of this decade, I would bring in my personal Entertainment Magazines (I’m an entertainment junkie but not the People magazine type…)and told my students that when finished assigned work, they could take one and read for pleasure. (Byt he way, these kids were obligated to read 4 novels that year, in their second language). At first they thought I was crazy (what do you mean, miss? Read in my 2nd language just for the ‘fun’ of it? On top of the books I HAVE to read in this class?)

    But I noticed, every year, after a month or so, that they did it….and would subsequently come to see me after class to chat about something they had read…in the magazine or in something they had at home.

    Now this is not rocket science, nor is it intellectual science. But I know for a fact that I got some kids who HATED READING, just as much in their first language as in their second, to start…the key is to propose something they are familiar with, not to see it as another ‘challenge’ and of a subject matter that they can relate to. By the end of the school year, some of my ‘reading haters’ actually would share that they read such-and-such a book on their favourite sports hero…their eyes lit up when telling me about it. Pure joy for me.

    We all know that reading is the key to being truly LITERATE, and I personally don’t care what they start reading, as long as they read for pleasure, and other stuff than what is assigned in school.

    Bravo Siobhan…looking forward to tomorrow’s post! Thanks for brightening my day!
    xx

    • Gen X:
      What a great activity – not only for its value in getting them to read, but also for giving them an opportunity to connect with you about things you were both interested in. When I taught ESL, I always felt that getting students to read, write, listen to and talk about anything they were interested in, as long as they did it in English, was what mattered. Thanks again for all your comments!

      • I’ve read Many Waters and An Acceptable Time. I’m a pretty big L’Engle fan. I can’t imagine someone not liking those books, but in the classroom, I’ve learned that a lot of “like” comes from the amount of enthusiasm one brings to the table…and I tend to be overly enthusiastic about the books I love. It freaks out a good majority of my students 🙂

  2. I loved this post.

    I loved the Danny Dunn series when I was younger (much younger.

    When I was 17 I liked the Belgariad series by David Eddings.
    Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass series would be a similar vein to the Harry Potter books. If the target were a little younger then the Artemis Fowl books are pretty good.

    Young adult stuff that I like but never seem to see anywhere anymore was the stuff by Paul Zindel and Robert Cormier.

    Perhaps it’s the short attention span world we live in where the sum of a story has to fit into the 23 minutes that a sitcom is on that is doing the damage?

    But anything you can do to help get people interested in reading is worth the effort.

    • Todd:

      I listened to much of the Golden Compass series on audiobook as well, and it didn’t really grab me, but some of my students have told me they love it. I also loved Paul Zindel when I was a teenager, and when I used to teach a course on novels about adolescence, I reread The Pigman and My Darling, My Hamburger, thinking I might put them on there, but I never did. I will look up the others that you mention.

      My students themselves seem to acknowledge that reading a novel is tough for them because they’re so used to getting their entertainment in small bites. I empathize with them – I go for long stretches of time without reading much because it’s more work than turning on the TV. But I agree – if they read a few books they love, they may be more likely to make the effort to try others.

      Thanks so much for your comments!

  3. I also wanted to add that I really loved the Percy Jackson series. I think it’s received quite a bit of press recently. Great story line, awesome characters, and I’ve always been a sucker for Greek Mythology.

    • I heard the author do an interview recently and made a mental note to look those up, but immediately forgot – the first one will go into my Amazon cart right now.

  4. Absolutely and 100% agree with you! Well, except for F&Z, which I also hate. (Sowwy)

    Harry Potter books are beloved for many reasons, the best one being (in my opinion) the fact that they’re so well thought -out and well-written, and because they require even the younger readers to bring some prior knowledge to the table. Each additional book requires even more schema. I love that.

    Madeline L’Engle’s books are much the same. Unless a reader is a READER, he/she won’t get a lot out of them. I absolutely love how L’Engle connected all her plots and characters, even generationally, together with her special brand of magic. Have you read her non-fiction? You’ll find those same characters there, too.

    The Twilight books are appallingly written: they’re like sleazy seventies Harlequin romances. The vampire/werewolf themes are the most believable, because Bella is the most insipid, boring, pathetic excuse for a heroine I’ve ever come across. Poor writing, silly plots, and characters that are beloved for their seductiveness, secretiveness, and other badly-formed nouns-made-from-adjectives. Bah. A mark of a good fantasy is that it’s believable while we’re in the moment, and Twilight, etc, was just silly. Sadder still are the young girls who are head over heels over a romance between a stupid, “nothing” girl and a man actually old enough to be her great-grandfather, who just happens to still look young.

    Percy Jackson? I’ve only recently read the series but I liked it, esp. for its requirement that readers know something about mythology in order to fully understand it.

    Nobody has mentioned Jenny Nimmo’s “Charlie Bone” series yet, so I will. Loved it.

    Great post! Thank you!

    • Mamacita:
      I’m so glad we’re on the same page with this! I’m not sure, though, about your assertion concerning WIT that “Unless a reader is a READER, he/she won’t get a lot out of them.” I haven’t read them in a long time, so I’ll have to give that statement some thought when I go back to them again. I will look up “Charlie Bone” – thanks for the tip, and thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. For series along the vein of HP: Percy Jackson (as mentioned) and Hunger Games would top the list for me. I’ve found my Twerd students really like the heroine in Graceling a great deal more (and I do,too) although they usually like the romance of the Twilight books more.

  6. I absolutely adored A Wrinkle in Time (in fourth grade). I liked Harry Potter (as a grown up with sons who were reading it).

    When I was 17 my favorite books were Nevil Shute’s An Old Captivity (and when I was 21 I fell in love with A Town Like Alice) and The Eye of the Cat, which I have since purchased again. I don’t recall the author right now though I do know it was the same idea as An Old Captivity, reincarnation. That’s not something I believed in, but it was fascinating what it would do to the story.

    I absolutely agree that reading is the key, not necessarily what the student is reading.

    • Dr. Davis:
      I haven’t heard of those; I will go look them up. I can see that a topic like reincarnation would stimulate a lot of discussion…thanks for the tips!

  7. I went to the store and bought the first Percy Jackson book. I’ll be going back tomorrow for the next two or three.

    It was fun.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

  8. The three Penrod books. Somewhat racist, unfortunately, but basically a Tom Sawyer type of boy set in middle America around 1910. Utterly delightful. I read them every few years, together with Seventeen, also by Booth Tarkington. All four stories recreate life a century ago. Highly recommended. The writing is excellent.

  9. Thank you for this post. I really love reading about your joys and challenges with your students. I am a big fan of reading, so I thought I would add my 2 cents.

    I LOVED Jane Eyre and Rebecca when I was in High School and they were my favorite books for many years. I especially loved all the discussions that could be had from Jane Eyre. I think it is a rich and fun text.

    I also think there is much to be said for Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I have read that book at least 20 times and it is always enjoyable and there is much to discuss about the way that biblical and historical texts are used to inform the book.

    Oooh! I also think that reading Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones Diary would be super fun for the students and lead to engaging discussions.

    • Suzanne:
      These are really interesting suggestions. A few years ago, I considered designing an entire course around Pride and Prejudice, and it never even occurred to me to introduce Bridget Jones into the mix, but that would make a lot of sense. And it’s interesting to consider whether Jane Eyre/Rebecca would work with my student population. I’m tempted to feel the students with language difficulties would be frustrated with them, but who knows? They might be worth a shot.

      (I read the first 10 chapters of Jane Eyre – the childhood chapters – over and over when I was a kid, but once she grew up, I lost interest. It was only as an adult that I got sucked in and abandoned everything in my life for three days in order to read it.)

      I love Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel work, and I will look up Good Omens. Thanks for your thoughts!

  10. I loved Good Omens, but I think it’s a rather difficult read and extremely British. While I laughed out loud through most of the book, I don’t think my high school students would “get it.” Although, your population may get a lot more out of the book, and I may not be giving my students enough credit. Just my opinion.

  11. Great article! I’m glad to see that I’m not the only (aspiring) teacher who appreciates the value of the Harry Potter books. Since I was born in 1989, Harry and his friends and I sort of grew up together. I’ve read all of the books multiple times.
    Have you thought about assigning Northern Lights (The Golden Compass) by Philip Pullman instead? I devoured these books when I stumbled across them at 17.
    If you’re not necessarily looking for a series of books, I’d suggest The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. In my opinion, it’s one of the best YA novels about the Third Reich that have ever been written – mainly because of the unique narrator’s voice. It’s also a really rewarding read because, although the style is pretty complex, it mainly affected me on an emotional level and I only noticed the “thinking effort” I had to put in afterwards 🙂

    • Sophie: I read the Golden Compass and didn’t love it, so I’ve never considered putting it on a course, but some students have told me that they really enjoyed it, so maybe I should give it another stab. The Book Thief has been recommended to me before, so I should probably get on it … thanks for reminding me!

  12. I have stumbled upon your blog from freshly pressed, so glad I did. I am also an educator, although at the other end of the spectrum. My students…preK students, are on the average 5 years old. The perfect age for seeping them in good books. Depending on my class, I often read chapter books to them. I think it is so important for them to be able to “see” the characters and introduce them to text and story lines not available in picture books.
    My daughter is 11 and has just discovered a love of the Harry Potter Books. She is a bit of an old soul and does not find silly girly chapter books entertaining. A couple of her favorites, Island of the Blue Dolphins and Tuck Everlasting. When she does, on occasion pick up a “frilly silly” book, she barely makes it past the first couple of pages. She has developed a deep affection for “good” stories.
    I have read the entire Twilight Series, originally because I knew there might come a day when she would be interested in them. I wanted to know as a parent, what was going on between those dark covers. I agree with you…it took me a good 3 or 4 times until I could get pass the first few chapters. Then something unbelievable happened, I read them all…as quick as possible. Now, I am not saying they are good, because they are not. I do not like how teenage girls are portrayed, Bella being helpless and infatuated and totally dependent on a boy is not what I want for my daughter. What is curious to me, is why? Why did I find it hard to put down such a book? I am still not sure about that one. Perhaps I just wanted to find out what would happen in the end. Simple.
    By the way, when I am finished with my current read…I told my daughter I would read Harry Potter and the PS. And….I am looking forward to it!

    • 180 Days:
      Many of my friends have had the same experience you did with Twilight. They didn’t think it was any good, but they couldn’t stop reading…and I might have felt the same if I’d read them instead of listening to them. Maybe it’s just a natural human response to well-crafted narrative suspense, regardless of the quality of the writing and characters? I hope you have the same experience w/ HP – I certainly did!

  13. First off, thank you! An educator who sees the merit in my most beloved book series of all time. Like One Hundred and 80 Days, I was born at the tail end of the 80’s and therefore, grew up with Harry and his crew.

    Have you happened upon the “Hunger Games” trilogy? I am fiercely loyal to Harry and as such, have found it difficult at times to get into a new series but let me tell you! The Hunger Games books are incredible. I would put them (at least the first two) up on a pedestal that comes close to the glow that the HP series is located within in my mind.

    Pick up the first one…I dare you!

    • Jessilyn:
      I did actually start the first book of The Hunger Games! It didn’t hook me right away, but then, Harry Potter didn’t either. I plan to go back to it…maybe over Xmas, when I might have time to read something I don’t have to…

  14. Hmmm since I am 19 now I suppose I can offer some of what I have read and loved when I was 17.

    I loved the Warrior Cats series by Erin Hunter when I was younger until it got too depressing without an end for me and then I stopped on my own.
    I was one of those that was of the “Harry Potter designated readers generation” and that was what got me onto chapter books and novels and I have fond memories of carrying it around (even the heavy door-stopper later books) in Middle School to re-read over and over again and argued with another student that magic was real. *chuckle*
    But the books that I have read recently and enjoyed somewhat to a lot are these:

    -Hunger Games series
    -Dragon Jousters series by Mercedes Lackey (I reread them recently and marveled at the deep concepts in it and its where I picked up as a young kid the concept that “You cannot weigh pain. All pain stands on its own.” and added onto it as “All pain is worth acknowledgement, just because someone seems to have worse troubles than you doesn’t automatically diminish or disrespect your own personal troubles and pain.” and did that on my own.)
    -Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead (I loved the person the heroine ended up with, he respects her abilities and skills and always does his best to help her work at her best potential and do an amazing job with her responsibilities too! There was the age difference however and the Teacher-Student relationship it had been originally so those would be good things to discuss with your students about that.)
    -Archangel by Sharon Shinn (It has interesting concepts and deals with a woman who was “supposed” to be married to the Archangel but was able to stand by her principles and values and work out a way she could live her life and be true to her despite all the pressures from everyone else around her.)
    -The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier (I loved how it does deal with some deeper concepts with respect for the most part and have a good resolution as well as cool bits that would be fun to consider in the magic-related sense. It also deals with sacrifice in wartime and how family members can die seeming randomly and yet you eventually deal with it and move on and pick up the pieces of your life again, and that it CAN get better.)
    -Seven Realms novels by Cinda Williams Chima (Also excellent and deals with the deeper topics of war, political intrigue, how to deal with people saying one thing and meaning the other, as well as really suckish life situations that can put things into perspective.)
    -Rangers Apprentice series by John Flanagan (More younger kids book [I think] but I do like some bits that they introduce, like effects of drug addiction in the third book which had been criticized by some as being “too slow and nothing really happened” in it. It was only in my re-reading it that I realized why I disagreed with that sentiment because I was anxious as Will’s friends in hoping he could overcome the addiction and get better and if he could in time, as well as wanting to see how Halt would resolve the issue of the evil overlord who did some truly terrible things in his stay in Gallica. Wonderful dealing with themes of good vs evil and how people’s strengths can become their weakness and vice versa, and how drug addiction can really change a person and how long it can take to recover, as well as many different themes throughout the whole series that get more and more mature and yet approachable. Its just one of those I keep rereading and loving more and more!)
    –Sherlock Holmes (Always a classic and I had gotten both huge volumes [complete with additional explanatory texts] for my birthday when I was 17 and obsessed with Sherlock Holmes thanks to the movies I had seen and then became more obsessed by reading the works that started it all. It was wonderful reading how he worked and how the mysteries were solved and where the original inspiration had come from. There’s so much on Sherlock Holmes that was put out thanks to the films and now T.V. shows introducing a sort of Modern Sherlock that its fascinating to get into the mind of the detective himself.)

    Anyways just suggestions. 🙂 I hope you enjoy!

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