Sunday, July 26, 2015

Why not teach Harry Potter?

It's not great literature, but it's better written, and surely more interesting, than the tedious realistic fiction that passes for literature in today's elementary schools.

On this, my latest round of education students have given me new insight.

First of all, it's taken as given that one key way to develop reading skills is by making personal connections. And, naturally, it's harder for students to make personal connections if the book takes place a long time ago, or far away, or in an imaginary or futuristic world.

More profoundly, it's taken as given that students aren't interested in books that they can't relate to their personal lives. Many of my students seem to deeply, deeply believe this.

They are willing to grant that realistic fiction is comparatively difficult for kids on the autistic spectrum: we discuss how such children often lack the necessary background knowledge to make sense of these stories, and how fantasy and science fiction level the playing field. But for all other "learners," they're certain, realistic fiction is not only best for learning, but what students prefer.

So what about Harry Potter, I ask. How can that be so popular?

Silence. Confusion. My students appeared never to have considered this question before.

Then one student finally said something about how they can't teach Harry Potter anyway because of concerns about schools endorsing witchcraft.

I looked that up and, as far as I can tell, only a few school districts have banned Harry Potter for that reason. Everywhere else, I'm guessing, it's all about real-life relevance. And the depressing notion that children are only interested in reading about slight variations on their own lives.

Another strike against fantasy and sci fi comes from the world of literary criticism, which prefers obscure, nonlinear, writerly prose to imagination and character-driven plots.

How many people, as a result are missing out on gems like this one--just published by my friend and colleague Stella Whiteman?


FedUpMom said...

Text-to-self -- don't get me started. I was just writing about one of my favorite books from childhood, Dickon Among the Lenapes, here:

It's the story of an English boy who gets shipwrecked off the Atlantic coast in 1612 and is taken in by a Lenape tribe. Did I love it because it related to my daily life? I think not.

Auntie Ann said...

In 8th grade, most of the girl's class reading list consisted of teen coming-of-age stories; her favorite book of the year though was the one that wasn't like the others: Cyrano de Bergerac.

We've completely lost the idea that education should *broaden* one's horizons, not box us in to our own little worlds.

FedUpMom said...

Auntie Ann, I totally agree. In the words of Fran Lebowitz, reading should not be a mirror, but a door.

Auntie Ann said...

W.E.B. Du Bois:

"I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil."

kcab said...

One reason not to teach Harry Potter is that they'd ruin it. At least for some kids, requiring a book is going to make it less lovable.

Though, my kids have usually gotten over that for a really enjoyable story. Ninth-grade summer reading is "Ender's Game" here, both have enjoyed that one.

Anonymous said...

Yes, what kcab said!

Thank goodness schools don't teach Harry Potter, or the Narnia series, or the Tolkien books.

Barry Garelick said...

The middle school where I work teaches The Hobbit.

Anonymous said...

Let's hope they don't ruin it.

Barry Garelick said...

The English teacher does a good job with it and students I've talked to say they enjoy the book.

Cynthia812 said...

This sounds depressingly like the school at the beginning of The Silver Chair.

Stella Whiteman said...

Many thanks for the generous remarks about my novel. Some very interesting comments here. I especially like the quote from W.E.B Du Bois. My son read both Ender's Game and The Hobbit at school -- both were right up his street. He probably would have hated a teen coming-of-age type story.