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July 1, 2020

Teaching Literature with Wizards and Magic

400 million copies sold. 68 languages. 228 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

We’re talking, of course, about Harry Potter, the boy wizard who exploded onto the world stage in the late 1990s and continues to capture children’s imaginations through books, movies, theme parks, a Broadway play, and countless events and online communities. Nearly two thirds of kids say that reading Harry Potter made them more interested in reading, and in a time when a million buzzing and colorful apps are competing for students’ attention, these books can be a great way for teachers to inspire a love for written fiction in their students.

Although author J. K. Rowling has made headlines for controversial views, her stories can still offer educators a wealth of classroom teaching ideas. In this article, we’ll look at how Harry Potter can be a fun starting point for some social–emotional learning discussions and fun classroom activities—plus recommendations for other magical stories to share with your students.

Social–Emotional Learning in Harry Potter

The goal of social–emotional learning is to teach students to manage their emotions, set and achieve goals, make good decisions, and build positive, empathetic relationships with others. These concepts can sometimes be difficult for students to grasp, so stories can often provide memorable, relatable examples for the kinds of values you hope your students will emulate.

Harry Potter is chock full of SEL illustrations. Whether your students have already read Harry Potter or you’re reading the books together as a class, make sure to pause and help students connect what they’re reading to their lives and relationships with others. Here are some examples (spoilers to follow):

  • Harry’s cousin Dudley antagonizes and bullies Harry for most of the series, but at the end, he shakes Harry’s hand and wishes him luck. This shows students that even if they (or someone else) have made mistakes in the past, they can always decide to make a positive change and extend respect and goodwill toward others.
  • When students arrive at Hogwarts, the Wizarding school, they are sorted into one of four houses (see classroom activity below). The Sorting Hat (a talking hat with human intelligence) tells Harry that he would do well in two different houses: Gryffindor and Slytherin. Although he has natural abilities for both, Harry has strong personal beliefs that lead him to want to be in Gryffindor rather than Slytherin. This moment is an excellent illustration to show students that they’re not limited by their past or natural inclinations; rather, their beliefs and their choices have a big impact on the direction of their lives.
  • Harry Potter tackles discrimination head-on throughout the series. One of the evil Lord Voldemort’s tenets is that wizards who don’t have “pure blood” (i.e., who do not come from Wizarding families) are inferior and should not be invited into the magical community. Similarly, some characters are suspicious of not-quite-human creatures such as centaurs, elves, and the half-giant Hagrid. Time and again, Harry and his friends prove that such discrimination is not valid or virtuous, and one study showed that these strong lessons actually help reduce bigotry and prejudice in students.

Classroom Activities Fit for Witches and Wizards

One of the toughest things about reading about a fantasy world is having to leave it. But you can keep the magic going with these unique classroom activities inspired by the Harry Potter books.

House Application Personal Essays

In Harry Potter, students are sorted into four “houses,” or groups of other students with whom they live and take classes. Each house attracts certain personality traits and values:

  • Gryffindors are brave and bold (but sometimes arrogant or reckless).
  • Hufflepuffs are loyal and hardworking (but can be seen as weak or misfits).
  • Ravenclaws value learning and intellect (but can sometimes be overly pensive or competitive).
  • Slytherins are ambitious and cunning (but sometimes overly concerned with power).

Explain the house personalities to your students and ask them which house they think they would be sorted into based on their personality, abilities, and preferences. Then have them write a personal essay explaining to headmaster Albus Dumbledore why they’d like to join this particular house and why they would be a good fit.

Partner Potions

In this SEL-focused exercise, you pair your students up and have them interview one another with a predetermined set of questions. The end product will be a potion of “personality ingredients,” like 10% love for drawing, 20% interest in math, etc. Students can then present their interview partner’s “potion” to the rest of the class.

This is a great opportunity for students to get to know each other, establish good relationships, and practice conversation skills, so make sure to pair up students who might not know each other well. Here are some ideas for interview questions from Park Slope Parents:

  • What’s your favorite part of the school day?
  • What do you enjoy doing outside of school?
  • What is your favorite subject? What do you like about it?
  • What is your favorite book? Why is it your favorite?
  • If you could be any character in a book, who would you be and why?
  • If you could meet someone famous, who would it be?
  • Who do you want to be when you grow up? (This answer can involve more than sharing a dream job; it can include where students want to live, what kind of family they want to have, what kind of volunteer work they want to do, etc.)
  • If you went to the Olympics, what sport would you be competing in?
  • If you were in a band, what instrument would you play?
  • If you went on a road trip, where would it be to? What music would you listen to on the way?
  • If you started a YouTube channel, what would it be about?

Favorite Character Explanations

If you ask students their favorite character in Harry Potter, they’ll probably have an answer pretty quickly. Encourage them to delve a little deeper by having them write an essay or give a presentation on why their favorite character is their favorite. In doing so, students will have the opportunity to do a character study, diving into the character’s psychology and examining why certain traits are appealing to them.

Harry Potter Plays

Harry Potter has inspired countless fan fiction, fan art, and other quirky (and sometimes not kid-friendly) fan homages. In this tradition, challenge your students to write mini-plays based on Harry Potter and then perform them for the rest of the class (or even parents, if you want to make it a bigger production). This exercise will encourage students to interact with the text from a new vantage point, which will help them better understand character development and motivation.

Other Activity Ideas

In addition to these, the National Education Association has curated a list of Harry Potter lesson plans, games, and activities, including cross-curricular activities, lessons on everything from genotyping to character development, and even field day game ideas. Check them out here.

Non-Potter Magic to Share with Students

Believe it or not, Harry Potter is not the only children’s series to pack magic, life lessons, and a captivating story into a single package. Here are some other award-winning books and series that are sure to pique your students’ imaginations:

The Earthsea Cycle: Written by speculative fiction legend Ursula Le Guin, this series of five books (plus several short stories) begins with the story of Ged, a powerful magician who, in his youthful arrogance, unleashes great evil on the world and later seeks to undo the damage. This powerful story of redemption and the responsible use of power includes dragons, magic, a world of islands and the high seas, and much more that will captivate your students (and you as well).

A Wrinkle in Time: This beloved book by Madeleine L’Engle is actually the first in a series of five called the Time Quintet. Following the lives of Meg Murry, Calvin O’Keefe, and their families, these stories tackle themes and subjects including the power of love, time travel, microbiology, the triumph of good over evil, and more.

The Hobbit: This classic by J. R. R. Tolkien is the predecessor of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and a delightful children’s story in its own right. Expounding on virtues of bravery and stepping out of your comfort zone, this story follows reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins as he’s swept up on a journey with 13 dwarves to reclaim their treasure, stolen by the wicked dragon Smaug. Your students will fall in love with Bilbo’s adventures dodging trolls, meeting elves, and discovering the creature Gollum and his mysterious ring.

Matilda: In this book by Roald Dahl, Matilda is neglected by her parents and harassed by her school’s headmistress, the evil Ms. Trunchbull. But Matilda’s got a secret: She can move things with her mind, and she’s ready to unleash those powers on the adults abusing her and her fellow students. But more than her telekinesis, Matilda’s greatest powers are her intellect, her love of reading, and her friendship with kind people like Miss Honey. In addition to the over-the-top adventures, your students will love and sympathize with clever Matilda.

Young Wizards: Thirteen-year-old Nita faces constant bullying and abuse from her classmates—but that all changes when she discovers she is a wizard. Along with fellow wizard Kit, Nita sets out to defeat the Lone Power, and along the way, she and her friends learn about the importance of sympathizing with everyone, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, and how to choose between right and wrong no matter how old you are. With eleven books in this series by Diane Duane (plus multiple spin-offs), these stories will entertain your students for years to come.

Fairyland: In this five-book series by Catherynne M. Valentine, September, a 12-year-old mortal girl, visits Fairyland to escape her lonely life (her father is off fighting in World War II and her mother works at a factory all day building airplane engines). September encounters witches, wyverns, marids, changelings, and more as she travels Fairyland to rescue her friends and thwart the evil Marquess.

Bring More Magic to Your Reading Curriculum

One of the greatest gifts Harry Potter brought to the world is that it gets kids excited about reading. Whether you use Harry Potter or other great books to inspire your students to read, we hope these ideas will help you bring the lessons and magic of the page into your students’ lives.


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