How to Teach Harry Potter

Of course, a lot of people would ask, “Why to teach Harry Potter?” and they’re right to ask. The reason is because kids are reading it. That doesn’t mean you should make kids read it who otherwise wouldn’t (it isn’t THAT good), but for those who are, it would make for good discussion.

There are two big issues with Harry Potter: One, whether it expresses a sound “worldview” and two, whether it is well-written.

Sticking with the chiastic motif, let me reflect on the second question first. It is very unevenly written. Rowling uses tons of cliches, describes things as “oddly” or “strangely” something or other too often, and occasionally becomes too cute. Many people have suggested that she gets better as she proceeds. I agree. The first and second volumes don’t offer much. The third steps up.

The fourth almost does, but she seems to make the same mistake as an author that her readers did as readers. She’s too absorbed in the world she’s created. The story should have been half as long, but she lingers too much on the details of Christmas presents and the way things are mailed. The fourth volume is the most disappointing. A person who hadn’t read the first three and fallen under her spell would be much less likely to find it interesting or compelling as a starting point. You can’t say that about, for example, any of the Narnia Chronicles.

Also, I can’t get past the feeling that the magic is childish in its use. In daily activities or on special occasions, the magicians can do whatever they want. Some of it is explained as the stories develop, like when the house-elves are revealed as providing the food. But it’s too easy, too light, too pleasant. With all the magic, they should never have an inconvenience. I need to reflect more on this point, because it’s important and I’m not ready to draw a conclusion yet, but I know I don’t find the magic so prevelant in my fairy world. Again, it seems childish – a shallow form of wishful thinking.

In the sixth and seventh she’s back to developing a good plot again.

And when it comes to developing a plot, Rowling is brilliant. By book five, she has created a compelling world, developed characters of great variety (some simple caracatures, like the Dursleys, some complex like Harry, some subtle like Dumbledore), and raised enough questions that the reader is swept into Harry’s and Dumbledore’s quest. Harry is not always likable, an important element of his likability. But we want him to grow and to win. He does both, at tremendous cost.

That tremendous cost justifies the whole series. Rowling has wooed an entire generation away from sentimentalism and has added to the call for a more heroic age in which friendship, self-control, and courage replace the cynicism and sentimentality (fraternal twins) of the 20th century.

Which brings up the next issue.

The worldview question is much more complicated. Apparently, Rowling is a practicing Christian in the Church of Scotland, so it’s interesting to speculate on whether she intended to express or even attend to the Christian worldview in her writings. Nobody can do so perfectly, of course, so it would be easy to find areas where she falls short. It would also be valuable to find areas where she represents it well.

But the Christian worldview insists that things be regarded and judged according to what they are (the kind of thing they are), not by whether a given artifact agrees with a series of statements somebody has determined are dogma. So the first worldview question has to be whether Potter succeeds as literature.

Here are some questions I would ask a class to prepare them for a read of Potter (before they know it’s what we’re going to read):

  1. (see the earlier post) If you were writing a fantasy/fairy tale, would you give magical power to humans? Why?
  2. What is the difference between a man and a boy?
  3. Can you write a Christian story without talking about God?

However, if you read the book continually asking whether or not it is “written from a Christian worldview” you won’t be able to answer the question because you won’t be reading the book. First you need to read the story. Of course, if there are immoral actions or vile values exalted, such things stick out pretty quickly, though a really good book could create the appearance of such exaltation and then undercut it. The point is, you have to read the books before you can judge them.

That doesn’t mean, and this is a critical point, that we are somehow bound to read every book and watch every movie before we can make a judgment. For the most part, we aren’t supposed to be spending so much time on empty entertainment (i.e. as watching movies usually is) anyway. So as a practical matter, we need the help of others to decide where to spend our time.

This is just common sense, but I’ve wandered from my point, so I’ll hang up now.

Knowledge and Little Children

Charlotte Mason spoke of Living Ideas. James Taylor developed the ideas of John Senior and others under the concept of Poetic Knowledge. Michael Polanyi wrote an important book called Personal Knowledge. Christian de Quincey pushed a lot farther with his book Radical Knowing, looking to eastern mysticism for his foundations.

But in all of these cases, the author challenges what westerners seem to take for granted. That knowing is a conscious, rational process or act. The truth is, conventional western ideas of knowing are rooted in Descartes and Bacon, and they have been deterioriating among philosophers of knowledge for over 200 years. Old habits, especially bad ones, die hard.

I’ve been forced to reflect on these issues because I’m working on a pre-school curriculum and also because I keep finding myself in conversations with heads of school and teachers who have ideas about how to teach young children that don’t make a lot of sense to me.

Let me address the second point first because one, it’s most easily described, two, I like chiastic structures, and three, it seems to be pretty common so I’m most likely to offend a lot of people.

What I keep hearing is that in the grammar stage children should be taught reams of information through repetition because they are in the grammar stage and the grammar stage is about facts. Some go so far as to say that they should not be required to use reason yet because they can’t.

The thing is, teaching this way differs from everything else we do with children at this stage. For example, in the classic illustration, if a four year old child touches a stove, do we respond by having him memorize a jingle about things to avoid in the kitchen. No, we are perfectly comfortable with the child’s instinctive, “hard-wired” capacity to recognize both cause and effect with one hand and associations with the other. We comfort the child.

But if we want to teach a seven year old grammar, we have him sing songs about it, songs that are remarkably abstract, that refer to things he doesn’t know, and that he will be quizzed on the next day.

Let me be clear and careful: I have no trouble with singing songs to help kids remember things (though they need to get rid of the crutch/song as fast as possible), nor do I object to them memorizing passages that use language beyond students’ understanding (creeds, catechisms, Shakespeare, etc.). My heart still leaps up when I recall my then four year old daughter standing front of the student body at Providence Academy and reciting Wordsworth’s “My heart leaps up…”

No, that is not my objection. My objection is to two contradictory notions, both of which I keep finding people seem unwittingly to hold: 1. that the child has learned grammar when she has memorized this chant/jingle/song and 2. that children at that age can’t learn grammar anyway so they should just learn this chant/jingle/song.

Either they are capable of learning grammar at that age or they are not. Since grammar is the application of logic to our verbal communications (not, as modern theorizers would have us believe, the mere application of rhetoric (i.e. usage) to our verbal communications), the question comes down to whether grammar stage children are capable of reasoning logically.

Of course, that becomes a question not of kind but of degree. Of course they are capable of reasoning logically. At a certain level, even a cat or a dog is capable of that. That’s why, apart from dead puppies, they come when you call. The question is how much, or rather, at how high a level is a small child capable of reasoning logically.

I’ve raised five children (the youngest is 12 now). I’ve taught every grade fro 2-12. I’ve interacted with preschool children. The one thing I can attest to, and that research verifies, is that children from the womb have an innate capacity – even a necessity – for logical reasoning. Around the time they reach the age of three, they begin to develop the ability to reason logically on purpose, consciously, using words and quantities (numbers and shapes).

They are not very good at it, which is why they are so cute.

By the time they reach kindergarten, they have become remarkably adept at it. They could outsmart any non-human creature in most purely logical activities, though I suspect they would probably lose to the cleverness of a chimpanzee on its own turf.

By the time they have reached third grade, the grammar stage proper on most charts I’ve seen, their reasoning capacity is extravagent and a wonder to behold, especially if they haven’t been to school yet or watched too much television. They can remember long passages (I had my third grade memorize the magnificat and Proverbs 8 each year), they can find associations between seemingly unrelated ideas, they can calculate and estimate.

And yet, there seems to be a notion that we should not engage them in discussions about what we are teaching them. We should just fill their heads with information.

This is NOT what Ms. Sayers was suggesting. Read her essay again and you’ll see something much more jolly, interactive, intellectually assertive on the part of the child. She demonstrated the pleasure that children derive from the rough and tumble of meaningless sounds, but she was not arguing for a meaningless classroom.

What I’m arguing is this: children can actually learn grammar, in the abstract, grammar itself – not just words that represent grammar. In other words, they can actually understand grammar lessons. But it matters enormously how they are taught.

The notion of how we teach causes me to realize that I may have wandered a little off course, so I need to correct myself and get back to the point, which is about knowledge and how we teach. I was pointing out that some people seem to have developed notions under the name of classical education that are not particularly effective at education and are certainly not classical. You can, perhaps, see it most clearly in grammar, where we are teaching “grammar” stage children grammar in ways that don’t make sense and don’t work.

What I’m really thinking about is, “Why do we do that?” Why do we simply press information into the heads of grammar stage children and call it teaching. I honestly believe there’s an element of naive pride involved. We have long heard that rote memory is deadening, and we have discovered that, in fact, children enjoy it, when put to a rythmn or a tune. We have been told that school should be fun and that children are not able to learn very much, but we have discovered that children are bored when you try to make them have fun (they prefer trees and playgrounds to classrooms no matter how entertaining you make the classroom) and they are able to learn a great deal.

So we aren’t going to be pushed around by those who smirk at us and throw down terms like “rote memory” and “drill to kill” at what we are doing. We’re the classic adolescent who lets his adversary control him by defining the opposition.

There is no opposition between learning by heart and thinking. Grammar school children CAN understand so much more than we seem to be willing to recognize. By denying that, we fall into the same trap that caught the conventional educator.

But why did it happen? Because, I’m going to argue in a following post, we have adopted the same rationalist and pragmatist assumptions about what knowledge is and that has prevented us from seeing the true glory of what Christian classical education can achieve.

 [This next line is a note I wrote to myself and I can’t cut it from this document. Software is weird – it redefines the word buggy]

Necessity may well be the most powerful teaching instrument available.

A Writing/worldview exercise

If you were writing a fairy tale/fantasy a la Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, even Rowling, would you give magical powers to the humans in the story? Why?

Comment and let me know!

How to Teach Hamlet

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Big news in the film industry last month: Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet came out on DVD at long last. I loved Mel Gibson’s 1990ish version of this play, but so much was edited that the story wasn’t the same. Brannagh includes every line from the text he uses and it’s well worth the four hours of viewing time. The music is fabulous too.

 But I always worry about watching movies before reading the book, so this got me thinking. Is this film a good way to introduce kids to Shakespeare? I don’t think it is, for a couple reasons, so let me address them.

 First let me define my term. I’m discussing introducing a kid to Shakespeare, and by that I mean giving them their first encounter with the master’s work. I would have students who have read the play or seen other Shakespeare plays watch it in a heartbeat, but with a few qualifications to be discussed in what follows.

Some might object to watching a film at all, or at least before reading the play. There’s something to that, because the film alters one’s imagination rather permanently. My experience of Hamlet is strongly affected by Mel Gibson, Kenneth Brannagh, and to a lesser extent Laurence Olivier (which I don’t recommend for kids at all).

The counterpoint asserts that Shakespeare’s plays are, after all, plays, so they are meant to be watched. Well, yes. But…

First, they are plays, not films, and the experience is not the same. I have seen As You Like It in at least two different live versions, each very different from the other. But the senses react very differently at a live play from the way they do in a film. You are both more completely there and less there with a play.

Your senses are all involved, your imagination takes the task quite seriously, you are required to fill in gaps throughout the experience. Your role is active. With a film, the appeal to the senses is so overwhelming that the imagination has fewer gaps to fill in and therefore less work to do. You may find the experience more emotionally powerful, but it won’t have the same subtlety of impact on your deep consciousness. And you won’t smell the action or hear accidental noises or taste the air. It’s more “tubular” – more controlled and, yes, artificial.

I would, therefore, provide a live experience of any play before the student’s read it, but I would be very reluctant to have them watch a film version. Even the very fine BBC series that most libraries carry.

But if they’ve ever read Hamlet, if they like Shakespeare at all, if they have seen other Shakespeare plays, then I would let them watch Brannagh’s Hamlet. This film marked the peak of the Shakespeare craze that Brannagh and Gibson seem to have stoked in the 1990’s. Sadly, when Brannagh left the Bard for other films, the fad faded. I keep wishing he would do a MacBeth, Julius Caesar, and the unperformable masterpiece King Lear.

Anyway, Hamlet was the peak of the craze and it is acted with the naturalism that Brannagh used to transform the image of Shakespeare’s plays. The “what a piece of work is a man” speech still moves me to the edge of tears, without any visible suffering or loss. Nobody breaks up, nobody dies in this scene. It isn’t even a climax. But Brannagh’s delivery causes you to realize that both have happened and so much more.

If you feel a need to discuss Hamlet with your student’s, you might ask them what they think the movie is about. You could do so at both levels: what is the driver of the plot? or What is the core idea Shakespeare is exploring (the great question)?

People have often said the core idea is death. I disagree. But I won’t tell you what it is, except to say that Gertrude expresses it when she observes the newly mad Ophelia raving in her madness.

Hamlet is the greatest English play by the greatest English playwright – the chief justification for the otherwise vulgar and destructive English language (I love throwing out lines like that!). Brannagh gives us a performance that makes the play utterly unforgettable. If your students are ready, watch this with them (but beware of a couple needless flashes of something approaching sex that give what I believe to be an inaccurate interpretation of a key relationship in the film). I will watch it once a week for the next 40 years any time I can (so really, about once or twice a year).

To get yourself a copy, click here.