I teach Imaginative Writing regularly over at CTYI, and developed the Novel Writing course for the summer programme (write a group novel in two days! Sure why not?), but occasionally I’m asked to teach on some of their other English-y related courses. This last term I’ve been having plenty of fun with The World of Harry Potter – eight weeks devoted to the HP series (both books and movies). We’ve Sorted students, developed our own rules of magic, designed new mythical creatures, as well as looking at the books – why is the series so successful? What genres is it combining? What are the limits of magic? What are the unique twists on mythical creatures in the series? What’s been left out of the movie adaptations and why?
It’s been a brilliant course to develop and teach and be enthusiastic about – the kids are all really into it (any given day there will be a decent selection of wands in the classsroom) and it really is a rich series to draw on – so much to explore and think about. (And the plotting. I am in awe of the plotting – the amount of stuff that’s set up several books in advance and/or is used in later books is just fabulous.) And we had a special guest last week – Evanna Lynch, who plays Luna Lovegood in the fifth, sixth and seventh movies, came to talk to the class last Saturday. She was absolutely lovely – the kids had plenty of great questions to ask her and she provided some fascinating answers for them.
I talked to a couple of the journalists on Saturday and they were surprised at a) how much the kids knew about the books and b) the fact that a couple of them were writing their own books. (They’re aged between 8-12). I kind of shrugged – yeah, of course they do, of course they are. We did mythical creatures and several of them knew loads about that, too – and some of them had very astute answers to why societies might want to believe in certain creatures. I’m fairly blasé about the kind of energy and insight you get from these classes at this stage.
Instead of making cheesy remarks about this being its own kind of magic, because honestly I just couldn’t live with myself if I did, I’m going to link to a great piece here on the presumed snobbery of gifted education. Because as much fun as the classes are, they’re also doing something – ensuring high ability, exceptionally able, gifted, whatever-label-you-want-to-use kids learn how to learn.
In schools, it’s not enough to assume that because Little Jane or Little Bob knows the material or how to do a certain kind of sum that they’re fine and can be left to their own devices, if what the majority of the students are getting out of the class is not just the that information but also skills. Things stop ‘just clicking’ as you go up through the education system. Information and concepts become more complex. There’s a mismatch between developing learning strategies/skills and mastering of certain material for many high-ability students – and it’s something that most teachers don’t even consider.
So, yes, I’ve had a blast developing the course. Because when the kids know the books, you can move straight onto dissecting them and using them to spark off other projects – not just talking about what’s in the books but why, why, why. Let’s go deeper, let’s go beyond the obvious. The ser ies holds up to this kind of scrutiny – good books do – and hopefully what the kids are leaving with isn’t just ‘what happens in the books?’ but ‘how and why do good stories work?’ or ‘how are magical worlds conveyed convincingly?’ or ‘is Slytherin really a good idea?’ or something – some way of thinking about these things that they hadn’t really experienced before. And they’re things that are difficult to do in mixed-ability, school-type groups where the obvious needs to be taught and grasped before anything else can happen.
It’s not curing cancer or saving the rain forests, true. But it’s education. And it matters.