Media Matters

Media Matters

Have you ever seen one of the eight Harry Potter films? Or read one of the seven books? Perhaps you’ve visited the Wizarding World in Orlando, Florida, or Los Angeles, California, or taken a studio tour in London?

Harry Potter is undisputedly a cultural phenomenon, but why? Chapin’s new interdisciplinary FOCUS course invites students in Classes 10-12 to take a serious look at pop culture by applying a critical lens to this series (and others) that we love.

During the first three weeks of class, students were asked to ponder Harry Potter as a “thing in time and space – as literature,” by examining the history of children’s literature and education, looking as far back as the 1800 and 1900s.

Students also dissected the success of the fantasy genre, which seemed to also take off around the time of the 1997 publication of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. However, for some, fantasy and children’s literature are often seen as “lowbrow” or “not real literature.” Liza Oldham, Director of the Annenberg Center for Learning and Research, and the teacher for this course (titled Media Matters: Harry Potter), asked students to counter that stereotype and consider what makes something serious literature.

From there, students remained steeped in their historical analysis by viewing Harry Potter as a “historical object,” surveying the factors that may have influenced J.K. Rowling – author of the series – from Britain in the 1960s (she was born in 1965), to the 1990s, which was the rise of the internet and when the first woman was elected to be Prime Minister. Students also studied the history of British boarding schools.

Finally, the students viewed the series through today’s cultural lens. Preceding this was a critical analysis of pop culture using the work of bell hooks.

To select the specific work that students would analyze, Ms. Oldham provided a summary of all seven Harry Potter books. Each student chose their favorite, writing a brief paragraph about why they should study it as a class, which resulted in books three and four being selected as the finalists. Ultimately, book four (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) was crowned the winner.

During a recent class, with thick green, purple and gold paperbacks resting on their desks, the intimate group of ten were dissecting chapter 26: “The Second Task,” a pivotal period in the novel. “What did you notice?” Ms. Oldham prompted. Students, demonstrating their thoughtful and high-level thinking, spoke about a wide range of topics from Harry’s emotional maturity, dynamics of power, gender, and class; to ethics throughout the book.

Next, Ms. Oldham introduced her students to “PaRDeS,” a sacred Jewish reading practice with roots in the Middle Ages. “Rabbinical scholars and other students of religion use it to help them discuss and find different layers of meaning in religious texts,” said Ms. Oldham.

PaRDeS is, first, an acronym for Parshat, Remez, D’rash and Sud. Each Hebrew word represents a step of the reading practice with, she said, “each one delving deeper both analytically and philosophically.”

PaRDeS is also a standalone word. The vowels “a” and “e” were added to the acronym to make “pardes,” which is Hebrew for “garden” or “orchard.” The premise behind the PaRDeS reading practice is that texts can be thought of like an orchard – you can pluck any sentence (the fruit) from the text (the orchard) to be nourished and inspired.

Parshat, meaning simple, refers to the literal and surface-level meaning of the text; Remez, meaning hint, refers to patterns and symbols; D’rash, or concept, encourages readers to think of non-text specific ideas and themes. Lastly, Sud, means hidden.

To apply this practice, Ms. Oldham gave the students the following line from book four: “Merpeople were emerging on all sides now, watching him eagerly, pointing to his webbed hands and gills, talking to each other behind their hands.”

The students thoughtfully deconstructed the sentence sharing comments such as: “People are always talking about him,” “Similar to his scar,” “It’s like when his name came out of the goblet,” (Remez) “People are always watching him – the feeling of alienation is apparent,” (D’rash) and “There’s a level of secrecy, it parallels how people of authority in Harry’s life keep things from him.” (Sud).

“Interesting, right?” Ms. Oldham said excitedly.

As the stimulating class came to an end, the students packed up their things, ready to tackle the remainder of the novel throughout this thought-provoking course.