Hog’s Head PubCast #62: Quills, Queries, and Quests

Education and Politics in Harry Potter; this is my presentation at the NIU Harry Potter Conference, “Searching for Platform 9 and 3/4”

You can subscribe to the Hog’s Head PubCast through iTunes, or Odeo.  Nice reviews are greatly appreciated!

On Tap:

25 thoughts on “Hog’s Head PubCast #62: Quills, Queries, and Quests

  1. Thanks for the pubcast, Travis. You probably don’t realize how eagerly some of us await them. It’s a certain special sort of feeling when you invite us to pull up a seat & have Aberforth pour us our favorite drink, cause we know you’re going to give us some literary goodness.

    Won’t comment too much on the pubcast, since I’m mainly in agreement with your educational & political observations. It was a very informative topic & I think you covered a lot of ground in a short time & did a good job working on little sleep. Hopefully no one chided you too much for your educational ideas afterwards.

    Liked also your examination of socialism & JKR’s socialism but not a Marxist type of one. Strangely enough in Europe quite a few Christian political parties are also titled Social parties. Their emphasis was on the fact that life is a social activity & that Christ came to change society as well as save mankind. So, being a socialist in an European democracy doesn’t necessarily have the negative connotations that it does in America.

  2. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the whole podcast yet but I’m interested to hear that you’re going to be reading MacDonald’s Christmas stories. I read _The Gift of the Child Christ_ aloud to my 5-year-old a couple of years ago. It was a tender, poignant story, but kind of a shocker. I hadn’t pre-read it before reading it to Lucy and was surprised by her kind of unfazed acceptance of the way the story turned out while I was inwardly cringing and wanting to shield her from some harsh realities and (in our time and culture) strange practices. I’ll look forward to hearing more of your analysis and hope this is one you read!
    And, I’ll look forward to hearing the rest of the podcast when I get a few moments!

  3. Hi, I’ve recently discovered your podcast in search of more literary and intellectual analysis of the books, like HP Progs; and partly for a good podcast. It’s a great discussion of the books’ true value from what I’ve heard so far, as well as a fun podcast to listen to. So far I’ve subscribed and downloaded a few episodes “for the road.”

    This episode was great, and really enlightening about foundations of our society, government, and education, as well as its interpretions through Harry Potter. I await future episodes 🙂

  4. Wow. Very thought-provoking episode. I just had a long “educational theories” conversation with a friend last night who homeschools her children. We send our kids to public school and talk continually about whether we are helping them become “literate” and educated in all the ways that matter. We wrestle with integrating their religious/moral education into their minds and souls as well. It’s an ongoing conversation in our home between my husband and I.
    It’s fascinating to think again about how JKR wove these educational principles into her stories. Dumbledore did an amazing job with Harry, esp. contrasted with the Umbridge philosophy. So far, we’ve been pleased with our girls’ teachers. They DO a lot of the standardized teaching and testing (as I suppose they have to!) but I feel like there’s enough “other” learning that goes on that keeps the children interested and invested. At least for now. And our district has a “no homework” policy…the children are just supposed to read books (of their choosing) for 20-40 minutes per night. We definitely try to push good literature into their hands for this!
    I do have a lot of homeschooling friends, though. And I read the blog of one Christian woman who does what’s called “unschooling.” Anyone heard of this?
    Interesting idea, but I’m not sure if it truly would produce “literate” children. I know it might produce an insane mother, at least in our family! 🙂
    I’m totally rambling, but this is a huge area of interest for me….

  5. It is for me as well, Leanne. I think our plan at this point is to begin saving up for a good private school for Sophia, though she’d likely be in public school if we lived in a different area of the city. We’re so far removed from what I’d like as an ideal for education, it’s hard to know what to do. I have some friends who have an interesting set-up. They help with a part-time classical school in their area, so their kids are part-time home-schooled, and part-time getting a classical education with other students.

    I’m looking forward to the MacDonald stories. He definitely wasn’t a conventional guy. Colin Manlove puts him in the same fantasy-fiction category as Rowling – a subversive (as opposed to Lewis and Tolkien, both “save the Shire” conservatives).

  6. I think that this pubcast was very interesting, but as a public school teacher I disagree with some of the educational directions you are coming from. First, I somewhat see the connection with standardization and Umbridge philosophy, however, I think this is more of a problem if you have bad standards. I think our science standards – all about exploration, process, and how to do a good experiment, are extremely important. So many Americans have a fundamental misunderstanding of science, which is why they don’t understand what Theory is, don’t understand global warming, don’t understand stem cells, etc. Our National Science Standards are fantastic.

    As far as No Child Left Behind- I used to think like this, but in my Masters program we talked about it, and I have read through and looked at the document, I have changed my mind. I think it is a great thing – and I hope it stays – but of course it depends on WHOSE standards you are talking about – Kansas vs New York vs Texas are very different. I taught in inner city New York City – and one of the thing that my colleague who was a Special Ed Teacher said was this “I love No Child Left Behind because it is the first time that *my* kids matter. Before this, my kids could fail and be passed on socially and get out of high school without being able to read, and *it was okay* but now it is NOT okay”. And this is sorta what I see about it – finally these schools HAVE to care about those other students that they just “passed on” before.

    I teach Genetics (though I guess it might not be ‘ministry approved’ as the District Superintendant is trying to make everything standardized as in in 9th grade we teach this, 10th this etc) and I find students have a hard time designing an experiment and being complete inquiry. I use guided inquiry but complete inquiry tends to be very chaotic – we need to scaffold for them.

    As far as religion in schools – I love separation of church and state – the church and home should be the location of religious / moral education. I also think that you learn more at school than just academics – how to interact socially with other people – how to interact socially with people of a different ethnic group, socioeconomic group, and culture than you. I guess I come from a city with good public schools – we have 44% white, 30% black, 20% Asian, 6% hispanic. This mixture is something that is SO valuable – we also deliberately design classes so that students will be able to interact with each other. I believe this makes a richer person, and certainly did so for me. Our culture is multicultural, and school is a place to help students in that area.

    I guess I see your points regarding education in some ways – we have people pushing AP classes versus our more exploratory science classes go more into depth and helps kids connect to things they are interested in. The higher up in the District who is pushing all AP classes is NOT a science person and doesn’t know how bad those classes are in general – all memorization, and you hardly have time to really think about WHY you are doing something, HOW it really helps you understand etc. So I do see those “Ministry” aspects, but I think we need to be careful if we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  7. Thanks Renee! You’ve just confirmed what has been our experience with our public school. You are obviously a very thoughtful and concerned teacher, and the teachers our children have had are similar. I love your comment about needing to “scaffold” for the children. I have heard our girls’ teachers complaining about all the testing, etc, but without the standardization, I wonder how much would get done. It seems to provide a structure to start with, and then a wise teacher springboards into some of the more participatory learning and experiential insight.

    As far as the religious/ moral education, I think our school is doing a decent job, and I agree that the responsibility for this falls on the parent. Obviously it’s not comprehensive and “Christian” per se, but they have a character development program that focuses on a different trait each month (honesty, perseverance, etc.) and my children come home with stories they’ve read that exemplify this trait. We try to reinforce this at home in addition to our own moral/religious training that we try to do based on what we see happening in their character, and what season of the church year it is. It’s not perfect, but I think if parents stand in the gap and do their job, kids’ education can be nicely rounded out.

    Just last week, I did my weekly volunteering in my daughters’ 4th-grade class and they are reading from the Junior Great Books series. I quickly read the short story by Langston Hughes called “Thank you, Ma’am” and then led small groups of students through discussion. This was a fantastic little story of grace and redemption and compassion, and some of the children were very perceptive in analyzing and identifying with the characters. All good literature has themes that echo Biblical concepts. As I think I’ve heard Travis say, “It’s the only story that WORKS.” (or something like that! Sorry if I’ve misquoted you! :))

    Anyway, it’s just a small example that though the system is flawed in a lot of ways, good teachers and involved parents can go a long way in helping create great, literate kids. At least I hope they can….

  8. Renee, thanks for your thoughts! It sounds like you’ve been in and have heard of some excellent situations where creative and caring teachers have been able to make a difference, and NCLB is working out great.

    I don’t think this is the case for everyone, and I while I agree some sorts of accountability are needed, I’m not a big fan of the NCLB way of doing it. My wife, brother, and sister-in-law are all high school educators who feel the consequences of high-stakes testing and the atmosphere of threat of removal of funds, etc. The stories my wife can tell…

    I agree that good teachers, parents, etc. can make a huge difference and create great, educated kids. I tend to think they’re more likely to do better with more educational freedom. I don’t think one size fits all. And “whose standards” really is the key question! I think you’ll find that the “standards” that usually count end up going a long way toward making white, middle and upper class folks feel really smart.

  9. Another listener who eagerly awaits each pubcast here.
    Education and Harry Potter sounds like it could be a subject worthy of an entire book.

    I don’t have a problem with standardized testing. One aim of education is to ensure that students will be able to participate as intelligent citizens in their government. Standardized tests can help ensure that students are learning the necessary skills and that teachers are teaching them. (Remember that Dumbledore told Trelawney that he wanted Divination students to sit their OWLS?)

    That being said, I do have issues with NCLB. Since funding, teacher status, and school status depend mostly on test scores, other important things can get shunted aside. Renee listed some of these things above. I’d also add subjects other than reading, writing, math, and science. What happens to history, the arts, foreign languages, physical education and extra-curricular activities? Are they not vital? Some students learn best through these subjects. (Would Harry have learned the Patronus charm if not for Quidditch?) Too many standards also restrict teacher freedom. Teachers may not have time to teach through materials (like HP) that they are really passionate about, or to teach through projects that their students are interested in. (Education without passion and imagination is like History with Binns. Did the trio learn anything in his class?)

    It would be interesting to compare the teaching methods of some of the teachers besides Dumbledore and Umbridge. There’s also Quirrel, Lupin, Flitwick, Trelawney, Hagrid, McGonagall, Binns, Snape, Moody, Slughorn, and Harry. I think Rowling speaks about teaching through all of these.

  10. Much of my own experience is in outdoor education. I’m a real believer in it. The range of things you can teach to and learn from others when in the outdoor envronment is quite amazing. Children seem to be more teachable when removed from the structured classroom environment. A generalisation, I know. It also gives “non-classroom” kids a chance to shine.
    Here in Australia Outdoor Education is a curriculum requirement. What’s it like in other countries?

  11. Education and Harry Potter sounds like it could be a subject worthy of an entire book.

    miles, indeed, it is! I had hoped to propose just such a book. But Zossima already has someone on the task, writing a book called No Wizard Left Behind.

    Thanks for your thoughts. I hear what you’re saying about standardized tests. I’m fine with standardized testing as one among many ways of assessment. But it’s so obviously clear that some people just aren’t good at taking tests that you’d think by now people responsible for education and assessment would have realized that standardized testing alone does not give an accurate picture of what students have learned.

    I think you’re absolutely correct that over-standardization removes teacher freedom, creativity, and even necessity. If it’s really true that “rote is right,” and there are certain basics and building blocks of knowledge that are immutable, then the teacher is more and more removed from the actual task of educating, and instead becomes a facilitator of so-called “scientifically-proven” methods of pedagogy (read: “Ministry-approved curriculum”).

    Matthew, no required “Outdoor Education” here, and sometimes physical education is limited, because teachers need more time to prepare for the standardized tests in subjects that “count” or whatever.

  12. Must have blocked it from my mind that you mentioned that “authentic” is the new educational buzzword from your presentation. Authenticity has pervaded the business community for some time now. I’m a little tired of hearing about it in marketing, because faking authenicity works as well as authenicity itself (as long as you don’t get caught faking it). Probably way too much theory here, but I don’t know if it would affect how authenicity is used in education, so those are just my thoughts.

  13. Brent, very astute observation. Yes, “authentic” easily becomes something you fake. I was tired of hearing the word in my current degree program about halfway into the first class.

    I tend to like thinking of an apprenticeship model, rather than trying to use words like “authentic.” Apprenticeship assumes that you’re already participating in the work, but your participation changes (grows) over time.

  14. I know readers here also like Madeline L’Engle. Has anyone else read _A Circle of Quiet_? She talks a lot about education throughout this book, and about educators giving the child a “self.” Interesting thoughts… This quote in particular stood out as I skimmed through the book again. She’s talking about how objective testing doesn’t demonstrate artistic or creative ability…

    “There are educationists who think that creativity itself can be taught, and who write learned, and frequently dull treatises on methods of teaching it. The creative impulse, like love, can be killed, but it cannot be taught. What a teacher or librarian or parent can do, in working with children, is to give the flame enough oxygen so that it can burn. As far as I’m concerned, this providing of oxygen is one of the noblest of all vocations.”

    She talks about standardized testing in this book, and I can totally see where it limits children of certain races/classes/ or even I.Q. I guess as a parent and not a professional educator (and not a “protester” or “reformer” by personality) I am trying to work in the framework of the school curriculum (standardized though it be) to help each of my children develop in their learning and knowledge and also their character and compassion.

    As long as I’m at it here, I’ve got to add one more quote that so nicely sums up how important good stories are to children’s education: “I have to use what intellect I have in order to write books, but I write the kind of books I do in order that I may try to set down glimpses of things that are on the other side of the intellect. We do not go around, or discard the intellect, but we must go through and beyond it. If we are given minds we are required to use them, but not limit ourselves by them.”

  15. I recently read “A Circle of Quiet”, and found that I liked that much better than the Time books. I found that I agreed with her more often than not – especially the bit about teaching creativity. It’s so important for children (of all ages) to learn the basics and then for teachers to help them find ways to explore their on their own.

    Unfortunately, some of the most creative kids are the ones who are sometimes disruptive – they just don’t always fit if the teacher isn’t able to allow a child to see something in their own way. I used to say that we all saw the world in one way, and our youngest saw the world a bit sideways. I quit trying to make her fit into my preconceived notions of what she should do and just delighted in the fresh approach she brought (and still does at age 26) to everything. Some of her teachers appreciated her creative approach, and some clearly did not, so school was sometimes a difficult place for her to be.

  16. Leanne, well said, and great quote by L’Engle. One of my biggest complains about the teaching degree I’ve been going through is that it’s almost entirely geared toward protest and reform, and there’s almost nothing practical about how to deal with the situation as it is right now. I’ve made that point to every professor I’ve had. Mostly got blank stares.

    Eeyore, very, very true. Just goes to show how “schooled” learning doesn’t get it right, and always ends up leaving some kids behind. Makes you really appreciate the teachers who did appreciate her creative approach!

  17. Hi everyone:

    I love thoughtful HP discussions 🙂 I completely agree that NCLB has a LOT of issues – particularly the way that it is implemented. *cough* Unfunded mandated *cough* – I’m expected to do SO MUCH more without any extra pay. Of course, I teach in an urban school in inner-city Seattle – the pay and are not reasons why I went into the profession. I consider it my “mission” I guess – I love science and I love urban students and I see it as an issue of Social Justice. I like the idea in NCLB of giving more to schools that need it BUT the extra restrictions and somewhat vindictive nature of it are a problem. There are a few issues – we need to FUND things they ask us to do – if we are required to do intensive extra tutoring, IEP reports, extra things like this, then we need help. There are issues of getting a black mark on your record if you don’t do all of these things.

    I have to say too that sometimes I wish we weren’t unionized (in my same Politics in Education class, we talked about unions being a beast – something that is dangerous, but also protects you). I wish we could get rid of some teachers who dont’ really take things professionally. I wish that people who weren’t good teachers didn’t get promoted and start working in administration. I wish we had some sort of accountability like a business – and I would love some sort of merit pay or high needs pay (as a science teacher, especially : ) ) It is frustrating when the muckety mucks higher up tell us “you need to fill out this form, and do this thing etc” – I think about what people high up in the District make – 6 figures often. However, I guess I knew about this when I went into teaching. I so often wish that everything was black and white, but its not, and so I live and work in the gray and hard and I do my best everyday – trying to do what is right and not easy.

    I also agree that these standardized test are skewed towards white, middle/upper class folks. When I taught in inner city New York, I told the kids (somewhat paraphrased), “yes, these tests are skewed and racist BUT you need to figure out ways to go around it. It sucks, but its what we have to deal with.” I was able to help my kids do well on the test without particularly teaching to the test. I think a good teacher will not have to teach to the test (unless their admin is a little crazy) – at least if the test is good. The test we have here in Washington is a pretty good test – because it emphasizes critical thinking skills, process, analysis, etc. Of course, that’s not how our students were taught science in the past, so its hard to get them out of the “memorization” phase and into the “process” phase. My goal in my class is to make thoughtful citizens who are critical consumers of knowledge and who have enough science background to know when something seems “too good to be true” etc. I hope they will be able to know how to look up information, and know some basic things through the class – but if they don’t memorize all the cell parts, do I care – if they can talk about WHY certain parts are important or understand the cell as a living thing – that is more important. Really I think we sometimes emphasize silly first-level thinking things in class. I also teach Ethics, which I believe is extremely important in a good science education class, and will be important for students as they move on in “real life” (and I am actually thinking about moving a presentation on Ethics since I have been teaching it for two years now at Azkatraz this summer – I have found that teaching students about different ethical perspectives helps reduce the arguments they have with each other – someone with a Ends Perpective “Oucomes” will have a different pov than a Means Perpective “Values” and when students can acknowledge this different perspective, they are able to talk to each other without getting so angry – I think some HP people get very angry at each other thinking disdainful things about each other when they come from different perspectives – especially thinking of DD characterization, Harry’s Use of Unforgiveables, and Snape). Fortunately for me, the National Science Standards support this approach to science, but unfortunately, we don’t always go by these standards.

    Happy Thankgiving everyone – I love having this great HP fandom to read. Sorry for going off a bit 🙂

  18. Travis, you’re guest appearance on Hogwarts Radio was good too. It made me miss Steve Vander Ark on Pottercast (anyone who wants to throw tomatoes at me can now), because it’s nice to hear the critical literary analysis perspective in the more “mainstream-type” fandom shows (couldn’t think of a better way to phrase that that) since it adds much more depth to the show. Since they’re inviting you back, it sounds like they enjoyed that aspect too.

  19. I have always told my children that learning to take standardized tests is one (of many) skills you need to learn. It is often helpful in life, i.e. SATs, ACTs, bar exams, doctor’s boards, etc.
    That said, I think that there is no educational method which can work for all children all of then time. They think so differently, have such different abilities. That is why I cannot understand our country’s lack of interest in school choice. (At least we are not as bad as the Potter universe – one school, no choices, for all of the witches and wizards in England!)
    Korg – here in Colorado our 6th graders do 1 week (I know not much) of outdoor education, up at one of several camps in the mountains. So memorable! There is also a new Catholic college in Wyoming which incorporates outdoor ed, including an Outward Bound session the summer before freshman year.

  20. ‘ One of my biggest complains about the teaching degree I’ve been going through is that it’s almost entirely geared toward protest and reform, and there’s almost nothing practical about how to deal with the situation as it is right now. I’ve made that point to every professor I’ve had. Mostly got blank stares.’

    Sing it, brother! While there was essential methods teaching etc, it was far outweighed by what you said. I remember student teaching and thinking that we were not prepared for the reality of the classroom. My friends at the time and I agreed that a better method would be to apprentice a student-teacher with a teacher over the four-years in college.

    I’ve taught in both private and public school, and in the former, (a charter-type-experiment thing) standards were not addressed at all, and then they were finding that there was no way to measure progress, nor give teachers a ‘goal’ to shoot for. It actually turned into the vision of teaching and knowledge that suited the principal’s opinion (an Umbridge-like situation without standards, if you will). Not pleasant.

    I am happier teaching in a public school, rather than the ‘anarchy of the different.’
    Yes, we are held accountable, but I find that there’s one thing that cannot be legislated– myself. Kids notice a phony and they notice if somebody loves what they’re doing. I take the situation as it is, and work within it, and learning (hopefully)does occur. I say hopefully because there really is no true way to measure learning whether it is using traditional, or non-traditional methods. I find that if the students are participating, asking questions in class, challenging me sometimes, and happy to see me in the hall, I’ve done my job. The rest will come from within them or it won’t.

  21. Is anyone else having trouble with this Podcast? iTues refuses to download it (maybe its too large?) and if I play it online or try to download it, it plays for about 2 minutes and then stops. Any suggestions?

Leave a Reply