If you haven’t been living under a dragon, you’ll know that the beloved Harry Potter film franchise draws to a close this week with the release of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.’ The author of the book series, J.K. Rowling noted in her speech at the film’s premiere that “..no story lives unless someone wants to listen.’ And listen, a generation of young people did. But they weren’t the only ones. In schools around the world, teachers were listening to and seeing the impact of the Harry Potter books on young people firsthand. They could hardly avoid it. At one stage early in my teaching career, I can remember asking the class to open their wide reading books, only to find that of the 24 students in the class, nineteen were reading one of the Harry Potter stories.
Individual teachers and whole school communities found creative ways to include Rowling’s endearing fantasy series into their programs. From the humble book review (an easy sell once you suggested that the student could deconstruct a ‘Potter’ book) to discussions at staff meetings of using a house system similar to that of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy and projects too varied to describe, across all subject areas. School libraries became havens for lovers of all that was magical with enthusiastic staff directing thousands of listless kids towards the series, holding Potter- themed events and running extra-curricular activities, often resplendent in their own ‘Gryffindor’ gear.
I vividly recall watching one of the documentaries that came out when the final book in the series was released, way back in July of 2007. A small boy was asked by an interviewer who he thought would win the final, extravagant showdown between Harry and the tyrannical Lord Voldemort. His face literally glowing as he gazed back at the presenter with the conviction that only a child can possess, he emphatically replied: “Harry Potter.” Aside from a love of the story itself, this suggests an optimism that is the core ingredient in Rowling’s famous work. It is an optimism that teachers can continue to draw upon as they journey with students down the winding path of education in the new paradigm. Like Harry himself, this boy was small, dishevelled and bespectacled but his sense of infinite possibility represented the fire in this generation that schools must feed and nurture, in order to retain the idealism, imagination and innovative abilities so inherent in children. As Sir Ken Robinson, another visionary Brit, states: ‘Creativity is as important as literacy.’ Harry Potter has been so loved by so many millions, I think, because of the escapism it provides through the merged imaginative abilities of author and reader. It is this extraordinary relationship that educators must now look to for answers in this era of fundamental educational change.
In the end, the Harry Potter stories, which symbolise and make manifest the experiences and values of Jo Rowling herself, are about empathy, courage, leadership and resilience. They also act as a powerful argument for developing an unfettered imagination. These are the attributes that educators across the globe are now trying to bring to the centre of the twenty-first century classroom, in more explicit terms than ever before. Papers are written on them, think-tanks brainstorm ways to develop them in students and schools invest heavily in building them into their learning and teaching communities. I hope that I will always walk into a classroom and be able to find a copy of a Harry Potter book at a table, in a school-bag or on an e-reader. Kids (and many adults) love these stories because they recognise the value of the qualities listed. They want to be like Harry, Ron and Hermione. They understand intrinsically that the possession and development of these qualities can solve the challenges of the twenty-first century. This is, I believe, why the series resonates with young people as no series has before it. Jo Rowling’s difficult life experiences led her to reflect on finding a way though and ultimately, in the face of great societal challenges such as social inequality, climate change and the technological tidal wave, this is what young people must do. Looking for a ‘how to’ book on navigating the twenty-first century world and empowering kids to do so with a sense of wonder and hope? In case you weren’t sure, ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’* is the first in the series.
Thank you, JK Rowling.
*The US edition is entitled: ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.’