We’re Going to Hogwarts!

Months ago, our class began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone together. Harry Potter is something my teacher and I share a passion for, and we both thought it would be a good way to help our not always kind children think more deeply about what it means to be a good person.

I can’t say that we changed any behaviors, but we did manage to inspire almost the entire class to become HP fans. Despite initial skepticism (like moans of “I hate Harry Potter”) some were enthralled by the time the snake’s glass disappeared. Others took longer, but almost all of them have become invested in the story. Several have already made it through Chamber of Secrets! They also managed, over the course of the year, to earn a full jar of marbles, given for a variety of reasons, but mostly for good behavior. We learned on the first day of school that as a reward for earning all of these marbles, they would get a “marble party” as determined by the teacher.

So what did we decide to do? Throw them a Harry Potter party, of course!

The party would be in the last full week of school and img_6656provided us an opportunity to go all out. We made them img_6659Hogwarts letters, complete with individualized desk locations, and presented them as though owls had dropped them off. We spent an hour block of writing time having them write back to Professor McGonagall with their responses. Most were thrilled, some merely smiled, but some (unexpectedly) shared fear. We had several kids who didn’t want to leave their families to attend, regardless of their magical abilities. It hadn’t occurred to us that any of our children would consider this as anything but imaginative play, but we swallowed any doubt and kept selling it.

We had a local actress (the teacher’s mother) dress up and visit the class playing ZuZu Trewlaney (Professor Trewlaney’s equally sighted sister), who identifies which muggle born children will have magical capabilities for Dumbledore. She did a phenomenal job, explaining to the children that they would be attending an orientation (Hogwarts has never had so many muggle borns from one place invited to attend, after all!) the next afternoon.

After countless questions about “when are we going to Hogwarts?” and “is this our marble party?” leading my teacher and I to seriously question whether we were messing with their minds a little too much, the party arrived.

Students entered the classroom via a fabricated Platform 9 3/4, rushing through a faux brick wall. They were sorted via cupcake (I colored frosting img_6683inside to indicate which house they would be in), though we got a witches hat from our music teacher to fully simulate the experience. Our kiddos got to try Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, don Harry Potter glasses, andimg_6666 wave plastic (or pretzel) wands. Before we could watch “a documentary about castle life” (the first Harry Potter movie), each child got a personalized Chocolate Frog.

This was my favorite project that we took on, though it ended up taking an excessive amount of time. Each child had their own picture on a img_6649chocolate frog card and the box was personalized to explain what had made img_6650them worthy of
such a wizard honor. We created fictional lives for each of them, from being a famous quidditch Chaser, or volunteering at a Unicorn Sanctuary, to becoming the Minister of Magic via groundbreaking work with Muggle Relations. We tried to personalize each story based on the students interests and what we thought they would most enjoy and it was a really fun reflection tool at the end of the year. 

Our students had a wonderful time feeling like witches and wizards and it was fulfilling to be able to bring them that joy. They were invested in the story and their imaginations, and we invested in their interests. While we could have made this adventure much more academic, the effort we gave and the immersion that came out of it is a good model for how kids could be learning at school every day, not just for an end of the year party.

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.”

Classroom vs. Court

If you follow my blog, you know that a few months ago I accepted a new job as a teaching assistant of a 3rd grade class. Knowing that my free time would drastically increase, I invited a friend to co-coach a girls volleyball team at a local non-profit. We settled on coaching a 3rd-4th grade team, “The Cheetahs”, feeling confident that our volleyball skills would be sufficient for the beginners. Of course, this means that I spend a lot of my time with kids in and around the 3rd grade, and though it can be challenging, I’ve really enjoyed seeing them in different environments.

For most of our nine girls, volleyball is pretty new. Some of them had played for a season or two, others had barely touched a volleyball before they arrived at our first practice. None of them know much about how the game is played beyond the basic concepts of serving and returning. From a “this is brand new to me” perspective, it’s very similar to how my students at school spent their week in math – trying to master right-to-left subtraction. Despite being very different types of problems, the kids handled them in many of the same ways. Some, who the skills came to easily, are eager and excited for each opportunity to practice and improve. Others take a little longer, struggling with holding the ball still as they underhand serve, or forgetting that you have to add what you borrowed to the original number before subtracting. And the last group are those that get the most frustrated, threatening to give up or bemoaning their lack of ability. While we still have some in this group (both in class and in volleyball) it is lovely to see their “ah-ha” moments when the pieces start to come together.

Perhaps the biggest difference for me between coaching and teaching is that some volleyball concepts can’t be explained in words. In subtraction, as with most academic concepts, there is always a reason for what you’re doing and how you do it (you borrowed a hundred, so you add ten tens; you didn’t have enough to take away so you had to trade for some more, etc.). But in volleyball, sometimes whatever you tried just doesn’t work. It’s not that the girls don’t understand the concept, or what they should be doing — it’s that they haven’t had enough repetitions to have mastered that particular body movement. As an educator, I regularly find myself at a loss when trying to explain how they could improve on specific volleyball skills, and I’m coming to accept that maybe I can’t.

Just like at school, our volleyball team is full of girls at completely different levels. Some of the disparity comes from age, some from experience, but we have girls ranging from incredibly consistent in both serving and passing, to girls who still swing and miss when trying to get the ball. Just like in our classroom, it is frustratingly difficult to meet all of their needs at once. It’s much easier at volleyball, where one-on-one interactions can be tailored to each girl’s level, but helping them become a cohesive unit is extremely tricky. Moreover, I’m getting a taste of what lead teachers must deal with every day, with parents’ desires to contribute (or not), their hopes (and demands) that their child get certain attention, and so on.

Observing kids of this age in these different settings has shown me a lot about what it means to be eight. My co-coach and I had visions in our heads of kids eager to listen, work hard, and become star volleyball players. Instead, just like at school, most of the kids just want to hang out with their friends. They are happy and silly and have a hard time focusing, even the ones who desperately begged their parents to let them play. Fortunately, we don’t have to spend nearly as much time trying to get them to be quiet or mandating that they listen to every word we say. Practices tend to be organized chaos, where we try to capitalize on their energy and lack of focus to get them as many touches on the ball as possible. As it turns out, the chaos is serving as a nice break from the regimented school day.

While I don’t know that we are coaching prodigies, the girls have been winning their games and seem to have fun doing it, so for now: Go Cheetahs!

Wilderness Explorers

This spring, my partner and I found Florida resident tickets to Disney World that let us explore all four parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot), one day at a time. As a Disney newbie, I didn’t know what to expect aside from the general hype surrounding the experience, particularly the Magic Kingdom. We had a wonderful time at all four parks, but one park became the clear winner for us, though not for the rides, shows, or even the food.

The Wilderness Explorers program at Animal Kingdom stole our hearts (and minds) and we haven’t been able to stop talking about it since, despite visiting the park before any of the others. As I shared about the experience, I realized that many of the things that made it so great are the same things that make learning great in general.

Personalized (and Exciting!)

When we walked up to Wilderness Explorer Headquarters, we weren’t even sure if adults could participate in the program. We were happily greeted and inducted into the Wilderness Explorers organization with a pledge and handshake that proved to set the tone of the day. The program is a self-guided scavenger hunt with a wide variety of activities to complete around the park. At most stations, you interact with a troop leader who verifies you completed the activity and gives you your merit badge. These folks were outstanding at making their station relevant to whoever was visiting. They were easily able to transition from discussing the color or sound an animal makes with a child explorer to explaining some of the conservation efforts for that same animal to us. Plus, nearly every staff member we encountered assigned to this program was highly enthusiastic, making you want to learn more about their station, regardless of what it entailed.

Flexible

The program was designed so that it could be completed across multiple visits, in any direction, and at whatever time of day. The types of activities were incredibly varied; some asked you to find information from a sign, others to engage with someone from another culture, still others had you learning something about the animal, culture, or exhibit nearby. More than once, I found myself outside of my comfort zone, being asked to engage with something new or in a way that I would never have chosen on my own, which stretched my brain in all the good ways.

Self-Paced and Self-Driven

While we chose to attack the task with a vengeance and complete every single badge, it was far more common for explorers to choose those badges that interested them, or that they happened to pass by as they explored the park. Because of the self-contained reward system, participants could easily decide how much reward was enough for them or how frequently they wanted to obtain another badge. Finding and completing the next badge was incredibly motivating, but we still were able to take the time to fully engage in the activity at each station (plus explore some of the parks features that weren’t part of the program). And if you weren’t interested in one or more of the badges, that was okay too, though the motivation of the sticker was enough to keep explorers trying new things.

Contextualized

Each activity was related to an exhibit, animal, or culture otherwise highlighted in the park. Some of the badges were even tasks you completed while waiting in line for a ride. By contextualizing each of the tasks, it was easy to explore further around each topic, based on what captured your attention. More than once, we found ourselves talking about new facts or knowledge we had learned long after we left that station. Plus, we realized that the program had us engaging in much more of what the park had to offer than if we had tried to see it all ourselves. There were many signs, exhibits, and people that we wouldn’t have given a second glance to if we had been merely traveling to the next ride.

While we didn’t set out to spend the day learning our way through Animal Kingdom, we had an absolute blast, and became Senior Wilderness Explorers – see?

Of course, we could just be nerds who both have Learner in our top five, but even so, Disney gave us an educational adventure we will always remember.