As my colleague and I present at a reading conference for educators this week, I watch the participants’ faces. Eager. Expectant. Reflective. Smiling and visibly misting over in turn, as my colleague and I talk about the diversity of the third, fourth, and fifth grade students who sign up, some of them multiple times, to be in our Harry Potter club. How they develop a sense of identity, of belonging, how the club became a “thing” at our school . . .
On the first day of our club each semester, we “co-headmistresses” give the kids a quiz adapted from one we found online. We plug answers into the website so that every child is sorted into his or her own Hogwarts house. Students familiar with the books or movies are triumphant to know they’ve landed in their favorite house (usually Slytherin; we seem to have an abundance of those), and even students who are just encountering the world of Harry Potter for the first time have an unmistakable look of pride on their faces. They all write their names on the Hogwarts crest in the areas designating their houses. I read Harry’s sorting experience to them, and then we talk about how members of each of the four houses have specific traits or characteristics, and how we’re sorted according to these attributes:
We read each column of traits. It’s a lofty word bank. I ask, “Who knows what these words mean?” The students who know, share; the words that no one knows, I define.
Then I ask: “So, do you see yourself in these words? Do any of these words describe you?”
A vigorous nodding of heads. One sweet-faced little girl says, emphatically: “Yes! I’m ruthless!”
It’s all I can do to not collapse with laughter.
For part of developing a sense of belonging is first developing a sense of self-awareness. Why I think and feel the way I do—because these drive my actions. If I understand myself, then maybe I can begin to understand others. In books, in real life.
Not to mention that character traits and character motivation are woven throughout the reading and writing standards.
The newly-sorted club members move onto talking about Harry, Ron, Hermione, Draco, and their stories. Why they make the choices they make.
For everyone has a story, and as the club rolls on, the students begin sharing bits and pieces of their own lives in conjunction with the characters’ experiences:
One time I . . .
I had something like that happen . . .
In my family . . .
And somehow this “thing” spreads from the confines of our club into the school at large.
In my daily work as a coach, I am in and out of classrooms across grade levels. In third, fourth, and fifth grades, the club members greet me excitedly, with an air of ownership. Their non-club classmates say: Mrs. Haley, I am reading the books for the first time! I just saw one of the movies again! Hey, Mrs. Haley, they have new Harry Potter shirts at Walmart—my mom’s gonna get me one. Come check out my Harry Potter socks!
When I walk through lower grade hallways, a second-grader will occasionally pop out of line just long enough to say, “Next year I’ll be in third grade and I can be in the Harry Potter club!”
Once a teacher brought a kindergartner to see me—a boy, the spitting image of Harry himself in miniature, black hair, glasses and all. He was even wearing a gray shirt adorned with tiny lightning bolts.
He looked me dead in the eye and said: “I love Harry Potter more than you do.”
I dared not argue.
I’ve dubbed this “thing” permeating the ranks of children across the school “the Hogwarts phenomenon.” Again, Harry breaks barriers, open doors that might not have opened otherwise. Children seek me out to borrow my books, to see my ever-growing collection of Potter memorabilia, just to have conversations.
I think of one of our rare Ravenclaws, a shy girl who came out of her shell in the club, who later realized how much creativity was bottled inside of her, and that it could, and did, pour forth in writing (she’ll be published one day. Trust me).
My colleague recalls four siblings, three brothers and a sister, who were all members at various times, how the club became their family legacy.
I remember how, when we first created a page of spells that Rowling made up for the books and put them into visual representations to see if the kids knew or could figure out their meaning, that one boy said: “Hey—Aguamenti—that sounds like my word for water. Agua.” Indeed, that’s what it meant. This sparked a deep discussion of word origins and vocabulary, such as incendiary meaning “to cause a fire” and luminous meaning “giving off light or glowing.”
My favorite story of all (I’ve told it many times) is about the boy who stayed with us for four semesters, because he despised school and was frequently absent, but never on club days. His mother said: “The only thing he ever talks about is the Harry Potter club.” In his final semester, we made him Head Boy; he co-facilitated with us, reading to the new members and helping them make their crafts. We gave him a Hogwarts shirt on the day of fifth-grade graduation. He ran immediately to the bathroom to put it on.
He walked across the stage at the ceremony wearing that shirt.
We had no idea, really, where we were going with this club in the beginning; when our school started clubs as part of our magnet theme, my colleague and I just thought it would be great fun to read bits of Harry Potter books to kids, make some crafts, and simply enjoy the experience.
Then all the magic just . . . happened.
What inspires you will inspire the kids. Passion is contagious. Tap into it.
Find a way to make it happen for them.
As we end the presentation, we give our participants—educators from across the state of North Carolina—the choice of going to the official Pottermore site to find their own Hogwarts house or Patronus, or making some of the crafts we make with our students. The glee in the room is palpable; how many presentations have you been to where you can make a pencil broom, a golden Snitch, a feather pen, a wand, a winged key, an ornament with your house colors, or eat a homemade chocolate frog?
The teachers bubble over with ideas to take back to their schools. A couple of them are actually from a women’s prison; they think now they will start a Harry Potter club for inmates.
Again I think of major themes in the books.
Hope. Redemption. Overcoming.
“Thank you,” the participants say, over and over, on their way out, carrying their new Potter loot.
One teacher says, “This was just so inspiring.”
I say, “That is THE word that matters most to me . . . so thank you.”
“It is our choices, Harry, that show who we are, far more than our abilities.”
–Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling