The Cooptation of Imagination

Walking out of a movie theater after viewing a movie based on a book, I’m among the first to share my love of the original. Rarely do I find the movie better than the book it’s based on. I know many feel this way, but I’ve narrowed my reasons down and decided it’s because I lack visual acuity. When I read, I create the world I’m reading about in my head, complete with voices, colors, etc. It’s relatively subconscious and I couldn’t describe it or recreate it with my own artistic skills, but it exists. When a movie depicts that world, it takes over my own mental images. Someone else’s creation and interpretation of the story eliminates my own — to the point that if I read the same story again, my vision has changed.

I don’t like having my imagination hacked, but I still have trouble avoiding it. There is no story this is more true for than Harry Potter.

I was the first in my small elementary school to read and enjoy the first Harry Potter book. It spread quickly after that, and I attended more than one Harry Potter themed birthday party. I grew up with the books, finishing the newest the day it came out and waiting impatiently for the next to be released. I loved them so much that I got excited and reread the whole series before each movie premiere. I can’t imagine a better way to ensure I would be disappointed with each film, but I persisted. Though at the time my disappointment stemmed from congruency errors, as I reflect back on the experience, much more of it could have come from the loss of my personal wizarding world.

The books taught me about good and evil and how to care for people who are different from yourself. The brilliant story takes place in a world that parallels our Muggle reality closer than we might think. I truly believe that this series laid a foundation for my social justice education and empowers young people across the globe. I own the complete set in two languages and regularly consider how I will introduce them to my future family.

But each movie robbed a little bit of my experience. From obliterating my original pronunciation of Hermione, to ascribing solid images to almost every moment of the book, every detail the producers included pushed one that I created from my mind. I’m currently re-reading the series aloud with my partner (who had seen the movies, but never read past book three, gasp!) and though I’m still uncovering new details, the picture in my brain is one created by Warner Brothers.

When J.K. Rowling released Pottermore, I was sorted into Hufflepuff, which took me longer than expected to embrace. Again, external forces were hacking my world. Though my love for the books runs deep, and I always felt my heart warming at Facebook posts from friends “waiting for their letters”, I remained grounded in the Muggle world, focused more on the allegory than the reality of being a wizard. Within a month of moving to Florida, I visited Universal’s Wizarding World for the first time, with the friend who best understands my love of Harry Potter. By this time I recognized that seeing the park would forever change the books. Despite my hesitance, finding myself in that world was magical in and of itself.

It became a love-hate relationship, but I found myself in this park over and over again in the last year. The two Harry Potter areas are easily Universal’s busiest and I was saddened that this might be the closest that many people come to the books. In many ways, we’ve made Harry Potter a consumable that requires no understanding of the actual story. Despite this, each time we visit, we spend more time in the Potter areas than anywhere else in the park. I resisted buying a wand or wizards robes, especially once they became so popular; I always felt odd buying a character’s wand and the sheer number of Gryffindor robes running around took away the authenticity for me. But the parks are beautiful and truly magical in their ability to transport you to another place, even when surrounded by thousands of Muggles.

Before our most recent visit we knew our annual Universal passes would expire and that we probably wouldn’t return to the parks soon. I spent some time in Ollivander’s and stumbled upon wands that had no characters associated with them. Instead they are based on the Celtic tree calendar and each wood is associated with different characteristics. I found the one I most identified with, hemmed and hawed, and then left to visit Florean Fortescue’s. For the rest of the afternoon, I couldn’t get the wand out of my head. I did some more research and learned that they were loosely based on birth month, and that J.K. Rowling happened upon this long after she gave Harry his wand. His holly wand just happened to fit his birthday.

When we left Diagon Alley that afternoon I became overwhelmed by the idea that I might never be in the Wizarding World again. Tears sprang to my eyes; as much as I am saddened by the cooptation of my imagination by the gigantic enterprise, my Harry Potter experience is now completely entwined with Warner Brothers and Universal Studios. Walking away was as bad as having my (non-existent) wand snapped in half.

My wonderful partner, catching on to my distress, encouraged me to embrace my inner wizard. With an hour left before closing, we rushed back to Ollivander’s and asked which wand matched my August birthday. The helpful staff member said hazel, and I was sold. We checked out, bought a butterbeer, and began studying the map of all the places we could use the wand to cast magic spells. We raced around Diagon Alley, making water shoot from fountains, lights illuminate the night, eyeballs stare you down, and feathers fly, and I have never felt so magical. It helped that the wand worked better for me than it did my partner, solidifying that the wand did indeed choose me.

I can’t change the impact that the commercialization of Harry Potter had on me and my inner vision. But that hazel wand has brought me joyfully back to the days when my own imagination led the way through the series, so I suppose I’ve come full circle.

For now, wand in one hand, book in the other, I say, “Always.”

Controversy with Civility

Take a moment and consider your political leanings that inform how you believe the world could be a better place. Do you have them fully-pictured in your head? Perfect. Now, think about people who disagree with your notions. Perhaps they espouse a different party’s views, or oppose one of your staunchly held positions. You’re probably feeling annoyed even at the mere thought of their ideas. But, take another moment and consider this: do you believe that they are out to ruin the world? That making the world worse is their inherent goal?

When I do this exercise with college students, to teach about the meaning of “controversy with civility”, nearly all of them take pause at the final questions. They chuckle, shake their heads, and murmur, “no, probably not.” We then discuss how remembering that most of society is working to better the world, just with different approaches, can help us tolerate and work with those we disagree with.

I was reminded of this exercise when I read this article from The Atlantic positing that we are not far from the ideal world that conservatives envision, and that rather than the distaste for social welfare that oft defines the party, the real aversion is for the idea of “utopia” that liberals are striving for. As a liberal, I argue that this incorrectly characterizes us, as I believe we stand more for equality of opportunity than the utopia itself, but I can see how that finer point is missed in the mainstream rhetoric. I found this piece interesting, frustrating, and above-all informative to my understanding of a position I typically disagree with.

This article stayed with me as I read about the turmoil at Yale. To summarize the events: administrators sent a campus-wide email asking that students be considerate of other cultures when choosing costumes; a faculty member countered with the opinion that perhaps the administration should expect more of Yale students, even if that meant a few costumes offending others; students protested, citing that questioning the original email made them feel unsafe in their Yale home. The article is well-written, reasoned, and provides a perspective that, as someone who usually defaults to supporting students, I was surprised to agree with.

The first article I offer as an example of seeking to understand differing views; the second as an example of what happens when we don’t have the skills to do so. What’s most fascinating to me is how relevant these skills are in my third grade classroom.

My students disagree with each other daily, usually because of a playground incident, or because someone hurt their feelings. As teachers, we initially encourage them to work it out on their own, whether they “agree to disagree” or find common ground. When an argument escalates to a level that needs our intervention, we encourage each student to share their perspective and then we facilitate a resolution, which sometimes equates to simply avoiding each other for the rest of recess. We teach students to apologize when necessary, but also push back against students who demand apologies for their own bad luck or unhappiness.

Sometimes we put students in a bubble. As adults concerned for children’s “safety”, we implement new rules in their lives all the time. As of this week, our students are only allowed to play one specific type of tag under a certain teacher’s supervision and facilitation. We constantly regulate what they can and cannot do on the playground (and everywhere, really), primarily to avoid situations that lead to disagreements.

Overall, I think we are doing well at teaching our students to interact with each other and work out (or accept) their differences. Many college students and adults could learn a thing or two from the nine-year-olds who recognize that playing together is far more important than whatever disagreement they have. But teaching empathy and fostering a zest for challenges is hard work, in and out of the classroom. Though it’s developmentally appropriate for our students to focus on themselves without recognizing the feelings of others, they are on the tail end of that stage.

Nevertheless, adults and students still struggle to have their views challenged, especially the kids in my class. And this makes me concerned that we will continue to see students who, despite their extensive social practice, can’t bear a civil conversation with someone who disagrees with them. Daily, I work with students who respond to an academic challenge with, “this makes no sense” or devolve into tears because they don’t immediately understand a new concept. Teaching them the all-important grit, resilience, and self-confidence in the face of challenge is the most difficult thing I do everyday. But I fear that our students come to us with these struggles because they lack the same lessons in other areas of their lives, and the effects of that will last longer than my insistence that working hard for understanding is a good thing.

Friendly Feedback

In college, I took a class that required us to write five papers — one every two weeks. Our professor offered us a deal: if we turn in the paper a week early, he would give us feedback that we could use on our final version. The offer was valid for every paper and he told us about it on day one. To me and the two other people in the class who took him up on the offer, this seemed like a no-brainer. I simply wrote down the due dates in my planner as though they were a week earlier. I never understood why so few of the students used this service; it was an excellent way to improve our grade and, more importantly, our writing skills and understanding of the content.

I saw this behavior again as a professor. I learned quickly that it was futile to provide feedback on assignments that didn’t include a graded opportunity for improvement. Though it irked me, I adapted to this reality and strove to always include rough drafts as part of grades — or when that wasn’t feasible, offer an opportunity for students to turn in their work for feedback prior to the official due date. I typically wrote-off this behavior as laziness, but after my experiences in third grade, I’m wondering if it’s more confusion and ingrained habit.

At our school, students receive very little feedback directly from the teachers. Sure, we give them feedback when working with them one-on-one or in a small group, but all of their grade information is filtered through another entity: their parents. The process goes something like this:

  • Student submits assignment
  • Teacher or Assistant grades assignment
  • Teacher inputs score into grade book
  • Assistant files papers into student folders
  • Assistant packs up student’s folder with all the work from that week stapled together
  • Assistant sends the student’s folder home to parents
  • Parents return folder with initials to indicate that they’ve seen the work
  • Assistant files signed papers into filing cabinet

Somehow, once the paper leaves the student’s hands, they never see it again. I have to hope (if only because I spend hours each week providing feedback on their assignments) that at least some of the parents are reviewing these packets with their children. But evidence proves otherwise: most packets are returned seemingly untouched; students repeat the same procedural mistakes on similar assignments; and I have yet to hear a student mention anything about a previous assignment.

I will grant that this procedure could be unique to private schools, my school, or even my class; I have no idea if this is widespread throughout the third grade community in the US. Plus, some of my students are already so stressed about their ability that I wonder if they could actually handle getting grade feedback without cracking completely. As a positive, the procedure includes parents, some of whom likely demanded the process in the first place. But despite this benefit, I can’t help but be distraught at this approach.

If students can’t see feedback on their assignments, they can’t learn how to use or appreciate it. They never get to ask what a teacher meant by a comment, or file-away mental notes for how to improve. If this is common across elementary schools, it’s no wonder students skip opportunities for “free” feedback as college students. In our world of instant gratification where everyone is a winner, feedback is hard enough to handle when the stakes are high. Why not do more when the stakes are low to make feedback a friend instead of a foe?

That Was Easy: Early Lessons on Diversity

That-Was-Easy-Button

Hearing these words come out of my students’ mouths is as bad as hearing nails on a chalkboard for me. From the moment the kids arrived in our classroom, every utterance of this phrase provoked a visceral reaction that leaves me needing a cool-down moment. My early educational experience taught me that saying “that was easy” aloud to a friend or to the class without an additional modifier, like “for me,” was as bad as any curse word we hadn’t learned yet. Even the qualified version was looked down upon; we were encouraged to find another way to express our feelings out of respect for classmates who didn’t find the same task quite as understandable.

Yet, at my current school, I seem to be alone in my discomfort with this phrase. There may be others who don’t like it, but I have yet to see anyone correct a student for using it, or to offer an alternative. On the contrary, students’ comfort with whatever task they are describing is celebrated, and only occasionally followed by a placation for those who are struggling.

I imagine some readers may be thinking something along the lines of, “what ridiculous millennial crap! Stuff doesn’t come easy to everyone, why are we so worried about their feelings? Kids have to learn this sometime!” I can sympathize; I certainly see a plethora of attitudes and behaviors along the lines of this criticism that we are using with our children that could be harming them. But, I would like to offer an example to illustrate why I don’t think this is one of them.

This week, my students started Stone Fox, a novel published in 1980 that tells the story of a young boy and his dog fighting to save his grandfather’s farm. The family was near losing the farm to the government as a result of not paying taxes on the land for a decade. In a surprisingly complex twist, the author introduces the title character as a Native American man competing in sled dog races to earn money to buy back land that was taken from his tribe, and who hasn’t spoken to a white man since being forced from his home.

This proved to be a startlingly challenging concept for several of my students. They simply could not grapple with the idea that Stone Fox would blame more than one individual for his plight. Many of them considered his decision not to talk to white men unreasonable and argued with great passion that they would simply work to buy back the land without holding any grudges. One of the questions on their worksheet about the chapter asked them to detail the reasons that Stone Fox didn’t talk to white men. One student quickly wrote down, “because he was black.” I tried to contain my shudder, then told her that was incorrect and that we needed to look at it again. We discussed what it meant to be Native American and how he was upset over the loss of his people’s land before she told me her new answer, “because he was Native American and everyone else was regular American.” Despite the incredible seriousness infused in my voice as I explained that there a) is no such thing as a regular American, and b) if there was Native Americans would be included in that group, I’m afraid she walked away from my desk with no increased understanding.

The kids in my class operate, for the most part, in an extremely homogeneous world. The school is overwhelmingly white, affluent, and able-bodied. There are students from other backgrounds, but they are few and far between. So, in fairness to the child who poked my patience with her “regular American” stance, she has likely had little opportunity to learn about people from other backgrounds, or to practice empathy for them, as she must pick it up on her own from whatever goes on at school and at home.

This is where my aversion to “that was easy” comes into play. I grew up in a very similar environment; my hometown is 83% white, and my private school classmates and I all came from extremely comfortable backgrounds. We also had limited opportunities to actively learn understanding of others from a young age. But a refusal to accept “that was easy” as a universal truth (and a variety of other rules along the same vein), coupled with a full explanation of why those words were problematic, taught us open-mindedness from the very beginning. This basic tenant showed us that others could be different without being bad or wrong or hurting us in any way, which we would later be able to apply to more complex situations.

Stone Fox ends tragically, in several ways. First, the main character’s dog dies just shy of the finish line that would have won them the race and the money to save the farm. Second, Stone Fox, presumably acting with empathy toward the boy due to the dog’s death or his overall situation, pulls up his own sled and forces everyone behind him to stop so that the boy can carry his dog over the finish line and win the money. Once this ending stops pulling at heartstrings, it’s easier to see a bizarre, yet subtle, lesson we are teaching: no cause is as important as a young white boy’s determination to dig out of a hole of 10 years of mistakes, including justice for a wronged people. For the social justice minded of you, I grant that it’s possible that Little Willy’s grandfather didn’t have the money to pay the taxes for the last decade due to other systematic trials, which certainly complicates the story, but I’m confident my third graders will miss that subtlety when we reach the conclusion of the story next week.

Certainly, these are complex issues for young children to understand, but the message is still there. If we don’t start teaching understanding earlier through our book choices, how we talk to our kids about diversity issues, and things as simple as banning “that was easy” we will continue to struggle to find understanding as adults.