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

Becky, you looked at Harry Potter fan culture as part of your involvement in the Digital Youth Project. What insights did you gain there about fandom as a site of informal learning and how did they feed into this current project about Harry Potter in schools?

The research I did with Potter fans for the Digital Youth Project focused on understanding interest-driven participation and was primarily concerned with media makers--podcasters, fan fiction writers, artists, and so on. Key to the way we on the Digital Youth Project understood interest-driven participation was an element of independence from school curricula or conventional status hierarchies; the practices we examined were things that young people seemed to pick up on their own rather than embarking on them as part of a class project or because of shared interests with friends from school or their neighborhoods. (Of course, we found that interests rarely develop completely independently. There is usually a person/persons or shared experience that kick-starts interest-driven participation.)

Working with fans was an amazing experience and extremely helpful for understanding learning in "informal" sites. I put "informal" in quotes here because one of the most interesting things I found working with fans was just how much organization, dedication, and expertise go into fans' practices. The rules and hierarchies of fandom are different from those that dominate school or the paid workforce--in general, more inclusive, less concerned with traditional markers of status (like age), and a bit more flexible--but I they certainly have a structure and logic to them. Some of the teens I interviewed in my research spent as much time producing podcasts, maintaining websites, or writing as they would if it were a full-time job. Others balanced Potter activities with others at school, such as working on the yearbook or school newspaper, mixing and matching the practices and skills involved in each activity to create their own style of production.

My fandom research fed into Teaching Harry Potter in a number of ways. Most importantly, it's how Cathy and I met and became colleagues and friends! (We just happened to sit next to each other at the closing feast at E7--a Potter camp for families we describe in the book--and, as they say, the rest is history.) Beyond that, having seen numerous, diverse examples of rich learning and motivation for participation emerging around the Potter series helped me better understand and describe what was (and what could be) happening in schools. As readers will see in our chapters on technology and "imagining more," we believe that learners (regardless of the setting) have specific needs and rights that can be addressed through thoughtful, careful resourcing and approaches to teaching and learning. Further, we believe that civic participation and a commitment to social justice are essential to meaningful learning and participation--something we learned from our friends at the Harry Potter Alliance and various Wizard Rockers. (More on that in a minute.)

One of the challenges I faced in shifting my focus to the school based research was not setting up a dichotomy of interest-driven fan practices versus what was happening in classrooms. Certainly, the students in Andrew, Allegra, and Sandra's classrooms had a different kind of shared reading experience than did many of the fans I worked with, one that was not independent from school but rather prompted and scaffolded by their teachers and shared with their classmates through specific assignments and classroom activities. This doesn't mean that it was inferior to what the fans were doing--just different. As we worked on Teaching Harry Potter, I think I came to a better understanding of how powerful school experiences can be for introducing and supporting interests on one hand--and just how treacherous it can be for teachers and students alike if schools do not allow for experiences that can lead to exploring deep interests.

You close the book by imagining what a more perfect school structure would look like and what it would mean in the lives of the kids you studied. Can you share some of that vision?

We use the image of the Mirror of Erised--the powerful magical mirror that allows one to see his/her deepest desires--to frame our discussion of what public education could (and should) look like. Although multiple reveals from the Mirror are not canon, we take four glimpses into the mirror to see the following things:

Expert teachers engaged as leaders and trusted professionals: as the featured teachers' stories reflect, opportunities to exercise agency, make decisions about curriculum, and be creative in one's teaching are not always available to teachers. In our ideal vision of schooling, this situation would be different and teachers would be not only allowed to teach in the ways they feel are best for their students, but encouraged and supported in doing so.

Universal access to technology and new media learning tools: in the book, we described some of the ways that schools use educational media and technology as similar to using the Polyjuice Potion--using technology to disguise bad pedagogy, resulting in those technologies being used in insignificant and spurious ways. Instead of continuing to "Polyjuice" technology and new media, we'd like to see schools learn how to adopt and integrate them in ways that support robust, student-driven learning.

Emphasis on Experiential, Student- Driven Learning: We want to see students and teachers working side-by-side on projects that matter to them. As we mentioned earlier, there is a strong social justice component to the Potter series that has been picked up by various groups within the fandom, the Harry Potter Alliance in particular. The HPA is a great example of experiential learning, as its campaigns focus on getting young people out into the world to enact change. While we recognize that not every student nor every teacher will have the same commitment to social justice, we value the notion of experiential learning--whether that is in relation to world events or mathematics--and wish for more equitable access to such experiences.

Authentic Tasks as the Central Form of Student--and Teacher--Assessment: in our final look in the Mirror, we see one outcome of the above-mentioned emphasis on experiential learning--an educational system that does not rely on standardized assessment and scripted curriculums. Instead, both teachers and students are assessed in ways that are sensitive to their particular needs and that encourage confidence in future practice.

These four elements are certainly not the only positive changes we can imagine for schools, but they represent a significant start. They also represent a turn toward a more caring, trusting, and loving educational system. After all, it is the power of love, not magic, that is the most important lesson Harry has taught us.

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).