31 January 2011

Harry Potter vs. Lord of the Rings

I once made a vow never to read any of the Harry Potter books. It was one of those things I said just to sound a bit smarter than all the other folks who had read them. Well, I'm halfway through The Sorcerer's Stone. Vow broken.

The main reason is to hold up my end of a bargan with a student, you know, as part of my plan to encourage students to read more - even better (!) - books. We were arguing, my student and I were, about whether Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings was superior.

Our conversation went like this:

Without a doubt, Lord of the Rings is better (says the teacher).
No way (student), Harry Potter.
Have you read L of R?
Have you read H P?
Well (hm, how do I say this?), no.

So, again, I'm halfway through book one (he, by the way, is working his way through The Hobbit - ha!)

Let's just get one thing straight before we go any further: J. K. Rowling has nothing - nothing - on Tolkien.

Yet (stay with me here), I couldn't put my finger on the "how" quite like I can now. And this is it, Rowling, in her haste to write a good story, wrote a story that moves quickly. It's easy to read, and the characters are likable when they're supposed to be. Tolkien, on the other hand, didn't just write a story. In fact, he spent most of his life creating a world, a very beautiful world I might add.

So when I'm reading Harry Potter and I'm enjoying myself, I'm enjoying myself in a much different fashion than when I'm reading about Middle Earth. When I read about Harry making his path at Hogwarts, I smile because I want him to make it, and I want Malfoy to biff it on his broom. But when I read about Lothlorien and the trees of the Golden Wood, I am struck by awe. Or when the unlikely friendship between Gimli and Legolas develops into a bond beyond brotherhood, I am reminded that love for others breaks down the thickest and oldest of walls. And lastly, and maybe the most sobering, is the sacrifice of Sam for Frodo to the very end. Just typing about it makes me smile.

Basically, I want to be able to read a page and appreciate it for its beauty alone - not just read a story.

And that's it. Depth of thought.

Could this be THE problem with our withering literary landscape?

25 January 2011

So, I'm a Teacher

I teach 7th grade Language Arts. This is my first year. If you've taught at all, you know those words are pregnant - ready-to-pop pregnant.

State assessments are about a month away. All the material that I haven't taught yet is pointing a fat finger at me, and all the lessons that flopped over the last few months are rolling around on the ground laughing their heads off. (Would my students be able to pick out the figurative language I've used in this post so far? Ah, good question.)

So, what will I do with the month that's left? abcsdefgnnjhijkjkkklnmnloopqrstuvvvvvvwxyz. (Just a brief interlude by my son who's learning his letters. It probably won't be the last.) Where was I? One month to go, right.

For Christmas I received a book called The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller.  And, wow, I was so convicted about my methods up to that point in the school year, that I'm now (as of yesterday) taking much advice from the book. Miller is an experienced 6th grade Language Arts and Social Studies teacher in Texas, as well as a consultant with the North Star of Texas Writing Project. (Article about Miller here, her blog here.) The gist in one sentence: in order to improve reading, wait for it, students have to read (cue light bulb above head). The simplicity gets you, no? Especially since I KNEW that already. Because, as a reader, even as a student-reader who hated assigned reading, I know that I still loved to read the books I wanted to read.

Independent reading with instruction that will help students engage their own books - that's what the rest of the school year will be like in my classroom.

And even though the state assessment just might make me puke before it's all said and done, I will push for the end of the year goal of 20 books per student. I'm gonna do it too. And maybe, just maybe, I'll inspire some non-readers to become readers, and some already-readers to read better and better literature.
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