Harry Potter has a place in K-12 classrooms

AMES, Iowa -- Harry Potter may have a home at Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry, but the character could just as easily transition to the American K-12 classroom, according to an Iowa State University education researcher.

Joanne Marshall, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies, recently published research on how K-12 teachers can use the popular book series to encourage students -- and the community -- to think critically about the books, content and context.

"The Harry Potter series is both loved and hated by various people for many reasons," Marshall said. "The American Library Association notes that the book is one of the most-challenged in the country. This can be viewed as an opportunity for schools to open classroom discussion not just among students but also to the community and to critically examine the controversy."

Marshall has created a seven-part classroom exercise that encourages students to use "a strategy of inquiry" to arrive at a point where they can argue an opinion about the book and its content.

"Students are presented with a set of data -- in this case a Harry Potter book -- and are asked to identify patterns and come to conclusions about themes, characters and imagery," Marshall said. "Then, students can defend a position on the book using their data as evidence."

Marshall said her exercise encourages teachers and students to acknowledge and analyze the controversy itself. Ultimately, the students will determine if the book is "worth" reading, she said. The exercise can be used to teach any controversial publication.

The first two parts of the exercise are background on the books, characters and messages. Students also learn who in the class has already read the Potter books or seen the movies so that they can work collaboratively to answer questions about the content and its implications even if they themselves haven't read the books or seen the movies.

Next, teachers write "for Harry" and "against Harry" on a chalkboard and ask students to list pro and con reasons for reading the book. The concept of finding common ground is then introduced.

"The exercise encourages the students to reflect, have an open discussion, and asks them to listen to other points of view," she said. "Teachers also have the students ascertain the information in the book and then discern how that information affects them as readers. In other words, they learn how to think about books or other media."

Students complete a worksheet that asks questions such as, "Who is the hero?" and "How much violence is there and how is it portrayed?" Students then review the positive, negative and neutral issues. A discussion is shared of some of the ratings and questions are answered.

"Students then write a short persuasive essay outlining their position about the appropriateness of Harry Potter using their critical thinking skills," she said. "The exercise acknowledges strengths and concerns and provides a voice to all. It makes the classroom a place where diverse and well-reasoned voices result in better thinkers and writers."

Marshall also has used the exercise in a church setting with parents, who found the activity useful.

The book that includes Marshall's exercise is "Reflecting Teaching, Reflecting Learning: How to Develop Critically Engaged Readers, Writers and Speakers," Heinemann Publishing, Portsmouth, N.H.