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World of Harry Potter can illustrate how teachers reach diverse learners

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

LAWRENCE — Nearly every student studying to become a teacher has at least a passing familiarity with Harry Potter. However, most have no experience with being an outsider to an educational system like the English language learners they can expect in their future classrooms. A University of Kansas professor has written an article illustrating how the familiar world of Harry Potter and Hogwarts Academy can help future educators think about the life experiences that shape their teaching and curriculum-making and affect their approach to helping diverse learners.

M’Balia Thomas, assistant professor of curriculum & teaching at KU, read the Harry Potter books as an adult and recognized the potential of the massively popular series in relating what it means for current and future educators to work with a diverse cultural and linguistic student population and the need to examine the knowledge and experiences that teachers bring to the classroom and with their interactions with students.

“One of the challenges with that is most of my students are not English language learners themselves or don’t have family who are, so they don’t have that linguistic experience,” Thomas said. “Even students of color, they usually grew up as English speakers. In trying to make the unknown more known, I started referencing Harry Potter.”

Thomas co-wrote “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Pedagogy in Harry Potter” with Alisa LaDean Russell and Hannah Warren, graduate students in English at KU. The article was published in The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas. The article explores the teaching of Remus Lupin, Rubeus Hagrid and Severus Snape at Hogwarts Academy in the respective roles of good, bad and ugly. Each character’s teaching and interactional style could be described with that single adjective, but the authors take a deeper look at what their personal backgrounds — their lived experiences — have to do with that perception.

The notion of “personal practical knowledge,” or who a person is as an individual and their experiences shape how and why they teach the way they do, is popular in educational circles. Examining the three aforementioned teachers can get students thinking about themselves and how they can better relate to their students. In one of Thomas’ favorite examples, perhaps because bad guys are fun, or because she came to the character that people love to hate as an adult, Severus Snape provides a telling example. The “ugly” teacher, Snape teaches potions and dark arts at Hogwarts. He was picked on and is ugly in the sense he relishes getting back at people and doesn’t treat his students well, often belittling them and calling them things like “dunderheads.” But he is knowledgeable about his teaching subjects and presents romantic images of his subject matter across the novels.

“Who we are as teachers is multifaceted,” Thomas said. “We need to dig into what drives us. If you just look at Snape on the surface, you’d think he’s a teacher with an ugly attitude. But he’s not. He’s mean and unfair, for sure. Cracks in his interaction with Harry reveal the more personal aspects of his life that shape his teaching practices.”

Similarly, Lupin and Hagrid provide examples of good and bad teachers. The authors dig deeper into why they are considered as such and that conversation naturally can lead pre-service and in-service teachers into discussing why students might consider a teacher good, bad or ugly and, if they were that teacher, what they did to earn that perception or how they could change it. The goal is to help teachers understand that even fictional teachers can provide insight into how they teach and how a teacher’s personal experience may conflict with what a student needs.

In addition, Thomas has written other Harry Potter-themed work. In "Harry Potter and the Border Crossing Analogy: An Exploration of the Instructional Use of Analogy in a TESOL Methods Course," Thomas discusses her use of analogy to make more tangible the plight and experiences of emergent bilinguals (English learners) in U.S. public schools. She does this by drawing an analogy between the two main Harry Potter characters adjusting to academic life in a wizarding school and English learners adjusting to academic life in mostly monolingual U.S. schools. Harry Potter and Hermione Granger happen to come from outside of the traditional background for students at the revered academy. Namely, not both of their parents are from the magical world. Like English language learners, they can perform well in the classroom but have the added challenge of learning the culture, language, social customs, keywords and phrases of the students who grew up in that world. Another article mapping her way through TESOL education will be published later this year.

Regarding the analogy, Thomas said, “It’s really about helping students connect with what you are presenting as a teacher and how you can adapt to meet them where they are and shape your curriculum to meet their needs.”

Top image: Scholastic.com