How Teachers are Using Harry Potter to Connect with Students

Whether you’re a Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin, or muggle still hoping your Hogwarts letter will arrive by owl, it is undeniable that Harry Potter has had a lasting impact throughout the world. Quidditch is no longer just a game of fantasy. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is more than a textbook to pick up in Diagon Alley. Hogwarts is no longer a place you can only dream of visiting. Let’s take a look at how Harry Potter has changed US classrooms since it was first released in 1998. 

Teachers like Ben VanDonge and Kate Keyes are two-thirds of a fifth-grade teaching team in Walla Walla, WA. This year marks their third year doing an all-encompassing Harry Potter theme.

“We have a sorting ceremony at the end of the year to let kids know which homeroom they’ll have, play our own version of quidditch about once a month,” VanDonge says. After being sorted into their houses and homerooms, their fifth graders begin their deeper dive into the wizarding world. VanDonge’s classroom is decked out in Ravenclaw blue and bronze, while Keyes has Hufflepuff’s black and yellow. After a couple of years with just Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw representation, Keyes and VanDonge convinced their third partner teacher to join in on the engaging learning community. This year his students are Gryffindors. VanDonge and Keyes said they felt like they struck gold when they heard how the curriculum was helping their students outside of school.

“We knew that we were doing a good thing when at conferences…we had numerous parents tell us it was the first time that their kids had been excited to go to school since kindergarten,” VanDonge says. “Or tell us that they’ve never been able to get their kids to read at all before and now they’re having to have lights out rules.”

Since the series began, more than 500 million copies of the books have been sold worldwide, according to Pottermore, and the books are available to readers in 80 languages. Deborah Stack teaches English as a second language at a middle school in the Bronx, N.Y., and says her classroom is mainly divided between Spanish speakers and Arabic speakers. Finding engaging material in those two languages has been hard, Stack says, especially because her students vary in their reading levels in both their native languages and English. 

But this year, she decided to try reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with them after she found the digital editions in both Spanish and Arabic. As her students continued to make their way through the first book over this fall semester, Stack says she watched conversations start between the kids who didn’t speak the same language.

“When you start making sure the whole class is reading the same story and that story is really exciting, that story is really engaging, you start to see kids like really talking between language groups and debating and arguing,” she says. It was this moment that really made her excited as a teacher.

“You’re seeing this amazing dialogue in English between a native Arabic speaker and a native Spanish speaker and they’re utilizing their English and are talking about the same story,” Stack says. “They’re not doing it because I asked them to, they’re doing it because they’re really excited about the story and that’s where you get the authentic debate and discussion, which is what you want in an English classroom.”

The Harry Potter books are a natural choice for English and literature classes, but that hasn’t stopped STEM teachers from finding connections for their students. Kelsey Hillenbrand teaches middle school math in Evansville, Ind. Floating candles like those in the Great Hall hang from her ceiling along with moving portraits for an immersive experience. Hillenbrand acknowledges that part of the nature of math is to learn concepts and then review and practice them, but for at least three times during the year, she goes one step further with her classroom theme.

“When we were studying fractions and decimals, I cover all of my desks with butcher paper to look like the wooden tables that you see in Snape’s classroom — and we had potions class. Cauldrons were placed in front of students, along with their supplies, and a large packet of problems, because after all, it’s still math class. I think they ended up solving like 60 questions that were all fractions and decimals. But each page had its own little puzzle so that they knew how much of each ingredient to add to their cauldron,” Hillenbrand says. In the end, Hillenbrand checks to make sure the solution is the right tint before the students get to drink their potions.

“They’re learning something and it’s just taking that fear and that edge out of it and to see them come back in and say ‘What are we going to do today, Mrs. Hillenbrand?’,” she says. That excitement and openness to learning is what many of these teachers consider the true magic of Harry Potter and they have no plans of stopping.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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