Using Harry Potter to teach your little wizards

August 1 2011 | Guest post by Delphine
Hogwarts Castle Night2
Maybe your kiddo can't really get into Hogwarts, but you can still use Harry Potter-tinged lessons for good! Photo by GunnerVV, used with Creative Commons license.

Some time ago, I suddenly realised what would be my dream job: I'd like to be Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. After Voldemort's fall, if possible. Or before his rise — basically, I intend to keep the charge more than one year. Alas, it seems that few schools (if any) are looking for such a teacher, so I'm afraid I'll have to content myself with my current job of literature teacher.

However, another more attainable dream would be to edit a collection of "Teaching with Harry Potter" schoolbooks in France. The world created by J.K. Rowling can be used to teach almost every subject to almost any age. British and American websites already offer many resources for various ages and subjects.

You may check online educational resources for teachers (and homeschooling parents) on Fabulous Classroom, Midge Frazel's Page, and Web English Teacher, among many others. Here are a few of my favorite ideas.

English / Literature / Creative writing

As the books grow longer and more complex, use them to study any aspect of narratives, descriptions, and argumentation. You can also study genres (i.e. how the first chapters of the books, in the Dursley's world, enhance the magic of the other parts in a very Todorovian definition of fantastic). You can imagine a trial and ask the children to play prosecution and defense: Sirius Black's trial while reading The Prisoner of Azkaban, Draco Malfoy's turn-around at the end of The Deathly Hallows, etc.

You can study J.K. Rowlings's criticism of our actual world (the newspapers, the government interfering in the educational system, and so on). Even if I'm essentially a Gryffindor personality, I once wrote (for fun) an essay about House Slytherin's positive qualities and achievements. It's in French, but I can translate it if someone's interested.

I really think fan fiction is an excellent writing exercise. It's perfect to help our young writers-to-be to understand that writing cannot be conceived without reading.

And of course, you can make your kids write fiction. I really think fan fiction is an excellent writing exercise. It's perfect to help our young writers-to-be to understand that writing cannot be conceived without reading.

It's not by chance that Harry Potter is one of the largest sources of fan fiction. The books offer all the range of fan fiction possibilities: inventing a past, developing events or characters from J.K. Rowling's hints, pairing almost anyone with anyone, deepening characters' emotions, or even creating the Wizarding World outside Britain from its very rare appearances in the books.

Ancient languages

You probably all know that the first two books were translated into Latin under the titles Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis and Harrius Potter et Camera Secretorum — there's even an Ancient Greek edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

If your kids aren't advanced enough to read these, you can begin with working on the spell names and their Latin origins.
You can find on TES Connect a game exploring the Latin roots of the magic spells in the Harry Potter books. Pupils have to find the Latin words from which the spells were created, and use the meanings of these words to work out what each spell would do.

If you're brave enough, you can design your own activities from the list of Harry Potter's spells. Of course, you can also teach mythology using Harry Potter's bestiary, but everyone knows about that, don't they? If you aren't a mythology geek, you can learn more about these references by reading David Colbert's The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter.

Science

I haven't read The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works by Roger Highfield, and the book received contrasted reviews because some readers found it too complex for the average student and regretted that Harry Potter's references seem to be a mere pretext. Anyway, I'm sure every science geek among you could make good use of it. Otherwise, the easiest ways to associate scientific lessons with the Potterverse are Astronomy and Potions. I dream of a Potions version of chemistry kits for kids!

Use the Hogwarts Express and the Weasley's flying Ford Anglia to work on speed and distances.

Math

One of the great things with math is that you can design exercises and problems from every universe! Have a look at the (very easy) questions on Math Stories to help you write your own activities. Use the Hogwarts Express and the Weasley's flying Ford Anglia to work on speed and distances. Use the wizarding word currencies and their change values (one Galleon is equal to 17 Sickles or 493 Knuts). Work on Quidditch balls and brooms' trajectories with older kids. And so on.

History

Of course, Harry Potter's history is an alternate one. But to successfully conceive any alternate history, you have to do research on the actual one. You may try, by example, to write Harry's essay in The Prisoner of Azkaban: "Witch Burning in the Fourteenth Century Was Completely Pointless — discuss." Your kids would have to read about many historical questions about witch-burning in the Middle Ages, the Inquisition, and so on. Why not Jules Michelet's founding essay La Sorciere: The Witch of the Middle Ages? Why not Umberto Eco's wonderful novel The Name of the Rose? I see there's even a book about Teaching Medieval Studies Through Umberto Eco's the Name of the Rose. That sounds wonderful!

You can use the timeline provided by the Harry Potter Lexicon to conceive researches and activities on various historical periods, from Ancient Egypt to World War II. I always wondered if the actual situation of the Ministry of Magic (underground) was a consequence of the Blitz.

As you see, that could be an endless list! Feel free to share your own ideas and activities, or to ask me for a detailed activity in literature.

  1. FANTASTIC~!!!!
    I have been using the 'Boggart' scene from The Prisoner of Azkaban to teach my students how to overcome their fears for years. It was so great to see this article on Offbeat Mama~!!! Just wonderful. xxx

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  2. Oh can I please get a translated copy of your essay?? I plan in being a literature professor and one of my dreams is to design a course on the Potter series. πŸ™‚

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  3. When I was in high school my physics teacher (who too was a fairly big Potter fan, and this was coincidentally right after the Goblet of Fire movie came out), used the scene where Harry takes the golden egg under water to hear it as a lesson/example of the modification of sound waves through various mediums.

    And funny enough, in my first year of university, my friends and I referred to our chemistry labs as potions class – not only because of the nature of the subject but our labs were also in the basement of the chemistry building with no windows, lovingly referred to as the dungeon lol!

  4. Also under ancient languages you could have students think of a spell they would LIKE to have in the wizarding world and then create the magic word for it based on studying and looking at Latin roots and words.

    As a middle school teacher, I would be VERY interested to see where their little brains go with that task

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  5. Okay…I'm here again. I love the idea of using HP in schools, unfortunately down here in Texas, I'm not sure that it would fly in many of the more conservative areas. πŸ™ There is also so much you can delve into with the social aspects of HP – what makes a person "good" or "evil" can be addressed with older and younger kids, what qualities make Harry, Hermione and Ron such good friends – what does it mean to be a good friend would work for the younger set of kiddos, you could even go into the journey of a hero with high schoolers! Oh my…the list certainly IS endless!!!

    • Ah, but there's also an argument to be made that the Harry Potter books offer an extended Christian allegory- think of the climax of "Chamber of Secrets." In Harry's most desperate moment, facing "the king of serpents," (snake=common symbol representing Satan straight out of the Bible) help comes from above in the form of a phoenix, a metaphor for resurrection.

      Fawkes the phoenix delivers the Sorting Hat, a crucial tool that Harry has used to exercise free will by choosing NOT to be placed in Slytherin, from which he pulls the sword of Gryffindor, which is in the form of a gleaming silver cross once wielded by Godric Gryffindor, whose name begins with G-O-D.

      Harry is ultimately Christlike in that he willingly dies in act that ultimately brings about the salvation for the friends and followers he loves (Harry says to Voldemort, "Don't you get it? I was willing to die to stop you from hurting these people… I've done what my mother did. They're protected from you. You can't torture them. You can't touch them."- Deathly Hallows, pgs 738-9.

      Honestly, I personally am a somewhat lazy Wiccan and don't really buy this interpretation of the text as the author's true intent. Harry Potter isn't a Sunday school story.

      Still, there are lessons throughout that are fundamentally Christian. Harry breaks a lot of rules and laws of his society in order to do the right thing. So did Jesus. Harry has friends and followers who take what he's taught them to perform miraculous acts. So did Jesus. Harry has a crisis of faith when he learns that Dumbledore, his teacher, guide and father figure, has planned everything so that he might die at the right time in an act of self-sacrifice. So did Jesus. Harry comes back from the dead. So, say Christians, did Jesus. Three deathly Hallows; three is arguably the most significant number in Christian (the trinity).

      Of course, I could just as easily deconstruct the HP series as a bildungroman, coming-of-age tale that echoes Star Wars. I don't really believe Rowling intended the HP books to mimic George Lucas' creation, but there's a comparison to be made there, too. Ron=Han, Hermione=Leia, Harry=Luke, Dumbledore=Yoda, Hagrid=Chewy, Voldemort=Vader.

      The gift of Harry Potter is that it serves as a medium for critical thinking and healthy literary debate, and at the end of the day, the answers, when sought them, are ALWAYS found in a book, whether its "Hogwarts, A History" or "The Tales of Beedle the Bard" or even the banned Horcrux books that Hermione uses the accio spell to summon from Dumbledore office, and THAT is a moral lesson I can get behind.

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      • I agree – in fact, it appears they embrace that in the seventh especially in the movie – they have a scene where there is a cross in the debri on the left side of the screen immediately behind Harry as he goes to offer himself up. I saw it and immediately thought of the whole series and how it could be applied as an allegory. It's quite fantastic actually.

      • Actually, J K Rowling has come forward and admitted that it is a Christian allegory, with Harry serving as Christ. (And those are Scripture verses on the graves in the seventh book!) Here's one link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/fictionreviews/3668658/J-K-Rowling-Christianity-inspired-Harry-Potter.html

        To be honest, I'm not sure I would use the allegory directly because it's a pretty muddled one. J K Rowling is a great story-teller, but no theologian. I think it confuses more than it clarifies, but that it might be beneficial because of the "echoes" of Christianity it gives. However, the fact that it confuses more than it clarifies is potentially a good reason why Christian parents might not want their children to read it. I think there are good lessons in it, but to each his own.

        • I don't think it's the "Christian" or "non-Christian" aspect of HP that turns off some parents here, I think it's more a lack of knowledge about the series on their part. I think the hubbub about the books being sacrelig or whatever they claim has died down since they have been out so long. From here we could get in a lengthy discussion about the complex relationship between parents and schools and curriculum and blah, blah, blah…but we're not.

          Either way…I read HP every night to my daughter who is five months old. We're already halfway through Chamber of Secrets. πŸ™‚

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  6. I did my undergraduate sociology thesis on Harry Potter! I looked at race, gender and class in the novels and developed an analysis of power and privilege in the wizarding world. I was teaching an Intro to Sociology course at the time and used a lot of Harry Potter examples from my thesis.

    One of my favorite HP lessons is teaching respect and tolerance for all people. Having kids read about muggle intolerance can be a great way to open up a conversation about race and discrimination. Slurs such as "mudblood" have real world counterparts and it can be great to have fictional role models like Harry, Ron and Hermione to show how to stand up and fight hatred.

    HP has also been helpful in my work as a therapist working with children who are trauma survivors. Harry experiences symptoms of PTSD throughout the books (even though these are usually due to magical causes or Voldemort actually getting in his head) but these can be really good starting points for conversations about scary things that have happened.

    I've also used the pensieve metaphor as a relaxation exercise. If your kiddo has too much on her mind, have her imagine Dumbledore's pensieve and slowly taking out all of the memories of the day and putting them away. This works for me too!

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  7. I want to read that essay on the positive side of Slytherine house, please!

    I did my dissertation on books 1-4 way before it became cool to study them. It's my only claim to being cool. Sad that it's so geeky. πŸ™‚

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