What Harry Potter means

I am smack dab in the middle of Harry Potter week, which means a marathon of movies with our friends at the theater (with priority seating to the 8th movie, woot), a very poignant reading of Dear Mr. Potter (an awesome anthology of letters to Harry et al. put out by the Harry Potter Alliance) and staying up to ridiculous hours with Jeffrey making stencils to bleach t-shirts with such sayings as “Squib” “Keep Calm and Read Hogwarts a History,” “Potterwatch,” and “Wazlib is our King.”

If you’re someone who cares about kids, and literacy, I am sure that Dear Mr. Potter would make you cry. There are so many stories about this lucky, lucky generation that got to grow up with Harry. I’m sorry to inform you that the current generation of young teens are pretty jaded about HP. As far as they know it has always existed, and always been everywhere, and therefore to most of them is kind of lame and not worth investigating, unless older HP lovers really press the issue with them.

In the past week I’ve thought, wow maybe I shouldn’t focus so much on how to get kids to love reading, but worry more about how to get them to love Harry Potter. (Am I kidding?)

I’ve thought about so many things. I want to know why Harry Potter matters. To me, I guess. Because the generation of older teens who grew up with him will tell you, in such beautiful eloquent ways, why it matters to them. I urge you to check it out:


(More stories that didn’t make it into the book at: http://www.dearmrpotter.org/)


In my reading of it, the words that struck chords again and again were  “you were my childhood. You were my friend. You were my constant.”

Those kids are freaking awesome, seriously:


In the past few years I’ve started talking to my students a lot about universal themes. I think the theme is the most important “literary element” to be able to recognize; it’s certainly the most interesting. Theme, of course, is the mortar on the ivory tower of literary studies. But that doesn’t mean crap to my students. What matters to them is why to read something. What makes it not boring. What can transport you away and remind you of your own life in the same sweeping narrative. They don’t know why it does that, and they don’t really care. They just like how it feels. (Then we ask them why. It’s a delicate balance, really).

Part of my job as a teacher is to converse with my students. (And, another very difficult part is to make sure I don’t begin to talk like them.)  I think it’s funny how the word “epic” came into popular teen parlance recently.

Harry Potter is epic. Does that mean it has all the universal themes? The important ones? Does that mean that it’s a crystal in which you see whatever theme is most relevant to you? I don’t know. Epics, I think, are kind of like poetry. I remember my high school teacher quoting from someone (teachers are such awful charlatans, aren’t we?) “I don’t know what poetry is but I know it when I see it.” Epic is that way, I think. A heart full of helium, goosebumps, sharp intakes of breath. A sense of scale. Tiny things are magnificently huge and important. Huge things are dwarfed by them. We are dizzied by the microscope that becomes a telescope.

I was about 21 when I started reading Harry Potter in 2000. Not a child. Maybe about Tonks age, or Bill, although I think that the wizarding world has a much better vocational system than we do, because I had no idea what I wanted to do. Unlike the teens who found a whole, complete, encompassing world in Harry Potter that dominated their childhoods, I had nothing of the sort. Really, there WAS nothing of the sort. There were good, even great books for younger readers when I was a child. But there was nothing compared to what there was now. i cobbled together, it seems to me now, a makeshift world, Jane Eyre and Douglas Adams. Oscar Wilde and Piers Anthony(!) Babysitter’s Club! Anne of Green Gables. Whatever, whenever.

Really, as an undergrad, I tried very hard to carve out a niche for myself in academia. I spent countless hours sitting on the floor outside professor’s offices of the utilitarian Ballantine Hall at IU, hoping for a word or a notice, tolerating missed meetings and veiled condescension. I went to a conference at Oxford. I had my first book planned. I would understand, where most people didn’t.

But there was nothing, really, supporting me on that climb. I am glad I faltered, and about the time I was faltering, Harry Potter was changing the world.

I do think to say that Harry Potter made me want to be a reading teacher is terribly revisionist. I was completely unconscious of it. And as I enter my fifth year of teaching middle school, I still marvel at how I came to do something I swore I never would, and how fiercely I love it and let it take whatever I can give. But I do think that Rowling brought back a dire, primal love of story that academia had flattened out of me. About that same time I read a non-fiction book about one of my childhood favorites, Nancy Drew. It described the laborious, commercial process of producing that beloved series, which was a collaboration of many people. I don’t know why, but that book firmly planted me on one side of the textual fence. I did not want to read any more ugly, fraught, speculative academic text (of which that book was not, btw).  It exhausted me. I did not want to produce more of it. I wanted the damn magic back.

The first person I heard mention Harry Potter was my mother. She told me she had bought the books for my younger cousin, and that they were supposed to be really good, and they were about a school for wizards. Before I ever picked up that book, I had a dream about  it. Just the phrase “school for wizards” sparked my imagination. My dream school was nothing like Hogwarts, it was modern, the robes were white, and it involved a lot of floating up to read on platforms.

I’ve never had a Harry Potter house. But I love the idea, I think we all do. Wouldn’t you like to put on a magical hat and go sit at a table full of people like you who will cheer for you? A second home, a second family? Even for those of us who, unlike Harry, have a first one? Don’t get me started, literature just loves an orphan. It was necessary for Harry, why is it necessary for us?

We love to learn about ourselves! As if we didn’t know. One of the things we talk about most is when we go to trainings and they make us take quizzes or pick to find out what kind of teacher we are. Then they give us a color, a shape, and a description of what that means. I remember a similar passion for astrology when I was younger. Tell me who I am, so I don’t have to tell you! See in me the best things, that I am blind to. Tell me my strengths because even if I know them, I am insecure about them. What color of cat are you? Which Twilight character are you? (Calico, Alice, Green, Z, and Aquarius with a Virgo moon and rising).

For sure pre-Potter I thought was a Slytherin, a Ventrue, noblisse oblige tattooed on my Chucks. Now I try to be sympathetic with those who see something of themselves in the Dark Arts, but Voldemort is much much more evil than Lestat, so it’s hard, I tell you!

Harry Potter matters to me, I guess, ultimately, because it is a great story. And like so many others, I believe that great stories, epic stories, are one of the finest products of civilization. Because they make life better for people. All sorts of people. They unite people, and yet they still speak to us in our loneliness.

So I love my job so fiercely, despite the epic amounts of BS, because I go to work each day trying to reunite great stories with their readers. I wish all my students loved Harry Potter! But you can’t make meaning out of disinterest. They’ll see someday, I hope.

I think, now that it’s all almost over, I will let you sort me. I do think, really, that teaching is one of the bravest things one can do.


Grandma Knows Best

I love my grandmother. She was a first grade teacher then a reading specialist for many, many years. Before that, she taught in a country school.

I’ve been keeping her apprised of the trials and tribulations of implementing reader’s workshop. I was particularly cranky today because I approached the only other teacher in my district and was not warmly received.  I am sure you all know what I am talking about, given the mood after a day of mandatory PD. So anyway, this is when I am glad I have twitter and the English Companion Ning.

Anyway, I still question and struggle with what I am doing and wonder if it is the right thing. Even more stupidly, I worry someone will “find out” and tell me to stop before I have a year of data to prove that it works.

My grandma, who is 92, told me this story. She was working with her high reading group in primary grades. She was sitting with the teacher’s edition and the kids had their student editions. The student, frustrated with the comprehension questions she was stopping to ask, said,

“Mrs. Norris, I think you have the wrong book. Here, this is what we’re reading,” and gave her his book.

I just love this story. It validates for me a lot of instincts that are coming alive as I’m exploring readers’ workshop with my kids this year– instincts that I think were squelched by my formal teacher training.

My grandma also suggested that after I spend some time establishing expectations, I can train other students to do peer conferencing, maybe while taking notes for. I LOVE this idea, I have 120 students, I think it’s going to work well and I know it will be good for my readers. I can think of so many students who maybe are not grade level or prolific readers who would be great at peer conferencing.


Grandma at a Reading Conference.

Grandma, reporting back to school after summer

Grandma, in the white blouse, ecstatic about all-day meetings during report-back week. 🙂


My favorite, taken after her first year of teaching. Does that look feel familiar?

library, workshop, classroom

I’m struggling with readers’ workshop, which is honestly not that surprising. I am a fourth year teacher, the only 7/8 reading teacher in my school. Our district has so many different permutations of ELA/Reading/Writing teachers, in blocks, separate classes, etc I have not networked with any of them in three years. So I’m sort of alone in a sea of books. I actually had a dream about that.

I have successes, but I feel like I am having more challenges. I’m worried I’m not teaching enough mini-lessons. I am worried I’m not challenging my readers enough. I have a huge problem with deciding what is edgy yet appropriate, and I think I err on the side of edgy. I have readers from 11-15 in my 7th and 8th grade reading classes. Keeping the library diverse is hard. So I worry sometimes about content warnings I should be giving. I am also getting concerned about my gifted or very proficient readers. I don’t think I’m giving them the extra push they need to expand their skills and horizons.

Mostly I just hate feeling like a new teacher. Sad, but true. I know I am growing, but I hate the feel of incompetence. It doesn’t bring back fond memories. It’s week 3 going on 4. We have so far been reading, doing status of the class, and some impromptu book talks and book shares along with our vocab lessons. I don’t feel like that is enough yet I’m struggling to respond to them individually and find time for conferencing. I really also want to do an expository article per week and I have not been able to do that yet. I’m trying to help with expository reading for science fair but I worry that actually isn’t going to improve their informational reading skills.

Maybe within those place nouns, what I am missing is the workshop. Definitely I have a classroom, and definitely I have a library. I’m struggling to feel like we’re using tools, dissecting and creating.

I think I inadvertently participated in my first #edchat yesterday. I hate to admit this, especially with only three weeks left of my summer, but I was bored. And I’m never on at the right time, but I was, so voila!

The topic was school reform. I have to come right out here and say that I’ve found edchat daunting before, and I’ve always been a little skeptical of it as a forum. But I must be learning twitter by osmosis because I was okay this time. (Although I am not a huge fan of tweetdeck and I’d love some alternative suggestions)

I like this blog entry that breaks down the three threads of the conversation: classroom pedagogy, ed tech, and political reform.

I was pretty skeptical to accept that reform starts in the classroom. I still remain a little incredulous that teaching well and being “transparent” will solve everything. Nor do I, sorry, actually want the media in my class every week. I guess I have a few questions for people who think this is the answer. Do you feel that the practice of most of your colleagues is hindering educational reform? Do you think that if more people taught like you or whatever you consider good practice, things would change on a larger scale?

I am going to come right out and admit that the ed tech conversation was a bit off topic, but I was excited to find others who feel that they need to work on unblocking the internet at their district level. We are working on a collaborative google document here. I’m not sure to whom I will present this information at our district but it’s really nice to know it’s there and I hope I can contribute some evidence-based argument, because that’s what my school board eats for breakfast, supposedly.

So that leaves us with the fact that the reform we are calling for in education is political reform, not pedagogical, not technological. I like that there is a wiki started here to describe reforms needed and accomplished by state, but I also think more work is needed to also link by type of reform. I would love to see more people use the wiki, we’ve only got OK, AZ and DC.

The other place to continue this discussion is here: Edutopia reform.

Right now in Arizona we are fighting the good fight, but on a state level we have lost our governor who supports education (and sane solutions to immigration, but I digress). I will definitely be supporting candidates who care more about education than Brewer does. I am proud of the citizens who voted in our sales tax increase to defray huge education cuts, but putting the citizens in that situation was a horrible move. I continue to invite @GovBrewer to my classroom in South Phoenix to discuss SB1070 with my 7th and 8th graders. You can imagine, they have a A LOT of questions.

I guess what I’m saying is that I understand how to keep active on the state level, at least somewhat. What I don’t understand is how we can participate in something greater on the national level. Let’s do that!? This has always been one of my strengths as a student, and as a teacher. This right here is confusing, let’s take it apart.

Books in hand

The very first day I was in a classroom as something other than a student, my hands were empty only for a minute. I had pens, black serious binders, filler paper. But those sat nose down on the floor, in a bag, waiting. I snuck around. The teacher let me. I wasn’t the teacher, I wasn’t the student. Why was I there? They were only a little curious. Later, they chided her for not introducing me. I was not ready to be introduced, with empty hands, wearing skirts.

Finally, they were doing something. I doubt I knew what it was, but I wanted to help. I wanted to do something besides doubt. So I stood up. The last and final and first and eternal act of teaching: to stand up. I decided to take something with me, on this long sojourn of standing up, of moving. I did not take my binder or my pen or my cell phone. I reached over and grabbed a dictionary and began to circle. My hands stopped kneading the air and kneaded the pages.

Now I can teach with my hands empty, but why should I? I feel better, weightier and funnier and lighter with a book in my hand. I feel like I can clutch it or hand it over. Which will it be today? Mostly I shuffle books like a blackjack dealer, I am giving, looking, dealing. But days are I need to clutch a book, maybe they need to see me clutch it. Why would someone do that? Their hands can learn.

Saying Yes

As I reach the end of my third year of teaching, I find myself silently, implicitly saying yes to my students more and more. Often the types of questions they ask are simple: “May I get a book? May I read the trivia questions? Can we play that game?”
What does it take to get to the point where you can say yes to your students? I remember my first job, which was a short-lived disaster at a charter school, one of the students nicknamed me “Ms. No.” What changed between then and now that my students are asking more questions that I am likely to say yes to?

So many people have said it before me, but I am amazed to see it working with my kids. Expectations, expectations, expectations. Our school also has a strict externalized discipline system I wish I could take credit for. Our students get a weekly passport they must carry with them. For minor infractions (uniform, homework, class rule, tardy) they get one mark. They can get two marks per week with no consequences. Three marks is an administrative lunch detention. Four marks, a second detention. Five marks is an office referral. We do write a lot of referrals but our administration supports our system, and the kids know it. There are a lot of other rules for contingencies I can go into if anyone is interested in this system. It works very well for our small urban junior high of about 120 kids.

But within my classroom, I do think that I have gotten better at pacing and at providing them things they want to do when they are finished with an assignment. My classroom library is probably the biggest draw, and of course I’d like to turn every kid into a reader. But I also have some trivia games and tangrams. I do have mandatory silent reading time, but this week, while we are doing standardized tests, my kids have been drawing, doing tangrams, reading, and helping organize the bookshelf.

It’s not just early finisher activities that I’ve started saying yes to. I think that in assignments, which I like to structure with a lot of rules to produce complex enough results, I often say “yes” when a student suggests a change. I had carefully picked which scenes in Midsummer Night’s Dream I wanted my students to rewrite and perform. I had figured out number roles, lines, etc. But a group of girls wanted to change it to Lysandria and Demetria fight over Heleno. For some reason, my first instinct was no. I caught myself a second later. I know about the crossdressing days of Shakespeare like everyone else, I taught them that. So why not? This is just one example of many.

Providing a variety of activities also seems to help. I was talking to my colleagues about planning lessons on the fly when needed. I shared with them that often I don’t even need to do the mental work. The kids will see an opportunity and suggest something we have done before. “Can we use the ball to share our wonder questions about the Giver?” Sure, that’s a great idea. It’s obviously an activity that they like and remember, so why not?

Maybe it is all about contingencies. I often get asked if they can retake a test. I have a 100% yes you may always retake policy. Most students who ask don’t then remember to retake the test, but it feels good to say yes to them, for them to know that they have that back-up plan always. (Particularly easy for me because I now only do online tests, so students can manage finding their own retakes as long as I provide the access.)

Saying yes to students feels great. It fosters understanding, it makes you feel like they get what is appropriate and what is not.

There are a lot of things to like about this book, but they’re not the things I like. You could like Levithan’s exploration of teen depression, relationships, and internet boyfriends. You could like Green’s continual mastery of the supporting character. You could like the even-odd X-shaped narrative, and the clever little nods to it. You could like the idea of two authors sharing a character. You surely could like Tiny Cooper and Will Grayson, Will Grayson. You could like the humor, though it seems less organic here than in a usual John Green book.
But what I like about this book is that it’s about boys and friendship. So few books really are. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a better exploration of male adolescent friendship, or one at all, really. Female friendship has been yaya-ed and traveled-pants to death. It bites us with its truth, girls can be nasty, clingy, moist and weepy. Girls tangle tight with each others’ drama.
What Levithan and Green have done is show is some of the closing off, quietness, isolation, and revelation of male friendship. That is really interesting, sweet, and pure. Bravo. Will seek out more from Levithan after this.

Funny I ended up at a live show Green did on the official WG, WG preorder day and totally did, I had no idea how important pre-orders are to authors. I was also disheartened to hear that ebooks do not guarantee more money for the author. If production cost goes down, and the price doesn’t by that much, I think more should be going to the author and their agents, editors and other workhorses.

I haven’t decided if I will give this book to the John Green fans among my older students. Probably, if they ask for it, but I won’t put it out on the shelf. Plus, it’s mine! Can’t I have a book for myself, children? 🙂