Teaching Harry Potter: An Interview with Catherine Belcher and Becky Herr-Stephenson (Part One)

Catherine Belcher and Becky Herr- Shepardson's Teaching Harry Potter: The Power of Imagination in the Multicultural Classroom is quite simply one of the most powerful and engaging books I've read about American education in a long time, and I strongly recommend it to the full range of people who read this blog -- those who are fans, those who are teachers, and those who care about the future of learning. Teaching Harry Potter tells a powerful story about the current state of American education, one which contrasts the enthusiasm many young people and educators feel towards J.K. Rowling's remarkable book series and the constraints which No Child Left Behind-era policies have imposed on how reading gets taught in the classroom. Reading this book produced powerful emotional responses--an enormous respect for the teachers described here who are battling to engage with their students in meaningful and timely ways and despair over some of the obstacles they must overcome in doing so. There's much to be optimistic here in the ways these teachers care deeply enough about their students to take intellectual and professional risks and much that is disheartening about the ways that the system crushes opportunities that all recognize are valuable but which do not fit within the formal "standards."

The two writers move back and forth between a nuanced reading of J.K. Rowling's books which considers how they represent the value of education, detailed accounts of what teachers have been doing with the books as they adapt them for a range of multicultural classes, and big picture considerations of educational policy and pedagogical practice. You can learn more about this book and its authors on Teaching Harry Potter's official website and on the authors' blog.

The following is the first installment of a three part interview with the writers, during which they use Harry Potter to pose some powerful critiques of what's working and what's not in contemporary American education.

Let's start with the question that frames your introduction -- Why Harry Potter? What does this book series help us to understand about the contemporary state of American education?

We chose to use Harry Potter to explore American education because of the powerful things the series has to say about teaching and learning. Even though the magical school system in the Potter books more closely resembles British schools (and, one might say, a particular, nostalgic view of British schools) than the American public schools we discuss in our book, we saw important parallels between how issues such as childhood and adolescence, power (both political and personal), knowledge, literacy, and even media and technology were discussed in the books and how they are discussed in contemporary education. For example, teachers we have worked with have often discussed the challenge of balancing students' informational needs with the school district's desire for "safety" (which can mean anything from approved book lists to highly-restrictive firewalls on school networks); a similar theme is evident in Harry's interactions with Dumbledore and other Hogwarts faculty who struggled with questions about how and when to share information with Harry and his classmates.

The Potter series also reminds us of the importance of looking carefully and closely at situations--as things are not always what they seem to be at first glance--and of the importance of listening to alternative narratives. Both of these things seem particularly salient in relation to the state of contemporary American education, which, when viewed as a whole, seems very much like a lost cause. Looking closer, however, it is apparent that there are great and creative teachers, committed administrators, communities dedicated to supporting their schools, and students who, when given the resources they need, do extraordinary things. It is unfortunate that these stories are so often drowned out by discussions of standardized policy and procedure, as they are important reminders of what is possible. The exclusion of the Harry Potter books themselves, or the "strangeness" of including them in school reading lists, speaks to this as well. The assumption that they are simple children's books belies so much of their meaning and potential.

Further, we love the spirit of learning in Harry Potter: students taking ownership over their own learning and teaching one another; reading books from the restricted section of the library; finding secret passageways to Hogsmeade. Hogwarts students seem to have a sense of autonomy, adventurousness, and wonderment that we wish for all students.

A few pages into the book, you have already framed it as a defense of teachers. Why do teachers need defending? Why do they deserve defending?

Teachers, great teachers, definitely need defending in today's climate. We realize that not all teachers are created equal, and that there is a great need to improve teacher preparation, hiring policies, evaluation, and retention in public schools, particularly in large, urban school districts. However in the book, we talk about how the current climate around accountability, measuring teacher quality by test scores, and the role of teacher unions in protecting ineffective teachers has created a situation where the voices and needs of high quality teachers are being drowned out. Can we really afford that? We felt it vital to draw attention to the work of passionate, highly skilled teachers, to make the counter argument that they exist and are indeed out there - and that they are innovative and current in their approach. We also thought it important to highlight the tensions these teachers deal with in trying to continue their work and grow as creative professionals under the current political climate.

We also believe it is important to discuss the fact that there is more than one way to talk about good teaching. Most of the public discussion today centers on measuring teachers in some manner, usually through their students' test scores, which in many ways make sense since those are the one set of hard, "objective" measures available. Scores also provide a quick and easy answer. But good teaching is about much more than test scores - as is evidenced by Sandra, Andrew and Allegra. We are straightforward about the fact that their students do indeed test well, but we don't focus on that particular aspect of their work. What becomes clear in these three teachers' accounts is that they do much more than test preparation in their classrooms. They work - and often struggle - with making their pedagogy more nuanced and layered as they strive to offer a richer experience for their students. It is also important to note that they work with urban, and/or high poverty students of color, who are more often "test-prepped" and remediated than their suburban counterparts. Do teachers such as these, who believe in their students and work against the grain to offer them a rich literary experience deserve defending? Yes, most definitely. The task is figuring out how to balance that need within a system that currently throws all teachers into the same pot, regardless of their track record with students.

Harry Potter is a series of books about education. What insights might teachers take for their own pedagogical practice from studying the various teachers and administrators depicted in the book?

One of the most important insights teachers might take from the characterizations of teachers and administrators in the books is an understanding of how students perceive them. The Hogwarts faculty members are, by and large, portrayed as archetypes: Minerva McGonagall (stern and confident), Severus Snape (bitter and cruel), Remus Lupin (caring expert), Gilderoy Lockhart (inexperienced and self-absorbed), Albus Dumbledore (wise sage), and so on. Because readers only learn about the teachers through Harry's experiences with them, we spend much of the series not knowing much about them, their backgrounds, or their motivations. Teachers in the series--like many teachers in American schools--knew much more about their students than vice versa. While we're certainly not advocating that teachers give up all rights to privacy, we do think that it's important to be aware of the fact that most students navigate schools with a very incomplete picture of who their teachers are as people--and that this lack of information can serve as an impediment to connecting with teachers, even those who are very skilled and willing to act as caring mentors.

For the teachers we profile in Teaching Harry Potter, the Potter books provided a way to share a bit of themselves with their students by sharing a piece of media about which they were passionate. Now, not all of the featured teachers were die-hard Potter fans (though several definitely would describe themselves that way), but all enjoyed the books, identified their value for their students, and went to great lengths to share the books in their classrooms. Their dedication to brokering access to the books for their students and to creating engaging reading experiences that recognized students' different needs and desires is admirable.

Another thing that teachers might take from the Potter series is the value it places on experiential education--that is, teaching and learning that is grounded in students' real lives, that gets them up, out of their seats, and interacting with one another as well as with people outside of the classroom. Take, for example, Professor Lupin's lesson on defeating Dementors with the Riddikulous spell--this exercise challenged students to use magic that was extremely relevant to their lives at that moment and, although the lesson itself was loud, rambunctious, and risky, it was also highly effective in teaching students a spell they could immediately apply outside of the classroom.

Moves toward standardization of curriculum are generally moves away from experiential learning, as experiential learning needs to be connected to specific contexts, moments in students' lives and in the schooling process. It takes a great deal of creativity and bravery for teachers to privilege this kind of learning in the classroom, especially in the current educational climate in the U.S.

Catherine Belcher works with LA's Promise, a nonprofit organization focused on improving schools and empowering neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. She currently serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning at West Adams Preparatory High School. She earned her Ph.D. from the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, where her work focused on Latino educational history and language access. She then served as a new teacher supervisor at St. Joe's University in Philadelphia and as an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University. A lifelong educator, Catherine taught social studies at both the secondary and middle school levels, and has served as a mentor, lead teacher, and curriculum designer. She has presented on the use of Harry Potter in educational spaces at several conferences, including Enlightening 2007, Azkatraz (2009), Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). Catherine lives in LA with her husband and 11 year old daughter, a Potter aficionado in her own right who proudly displays the Ravenclaw banner in her room, although some days she joins her mom in the Gryffindor common room so they can talk books and dare each other to try eating the grey Bertie Botts Beans.

Becky Herr-Stephenson is a media researcher focused on teaching and learning with popular culture and technology. She earned her Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in 2008. She has been a part of several organizations and projects aimed at informing and inciting innovation in education, including the Digital Media and Learning Hub within the Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Currently, she is working as a Research Associate with the Annenberg Innovation Lab through a partnership between USC and the Cooney Center. She is a co-author (with Mizuko Ito and others) of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (2009, MIT Press). Becky has presented papers on Harry Potter and youth culture at a number of conferences, most recently, Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). She lives in Los Angeles and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her first child, who she hopes will be sorted into Ravenclaw (not Slytherin).