Harry Potter can be a very powerful tool for learning, and below I’ve listed a few of the lessons that can benefit from using the books in class. The obvious pro to using this series is that children love it: it is guaranteed to grab the attention of both boys and girls at this age. One of the cons might be to do with parental attitudes to the content of the series: this is something the school should be sensitive to, but shouldn’t necessarily rule out using Harry Potter in class a tool for debating right and wrong (in the higher age groups).
1. English reading/writing
Although the books are probably too difficult to read for the younger ages, and some of the less able older children, they always go down well when read in group reading sessions. The advantage of this is that it gets children listening to a story, and enthusiastic about it: this can be a very powerful advocate for children’s reading. The books can also be used as a starting point for creative writing: for instance, get the class to write the story of how Harry’s parents met, or how Remus Lupin became a werewolf.
For the older kids, you can use the “magic” that happens in the Harry Potter world to discuss how it can be done in real life, using science and technology. For instance, objects can be made to levitate using magnets; the invisibility cloak is something that could soon become a reality; and so on. There is an excellent book called “The Science of Harry Potter” that discusses all these things, and while it’s probably too difficult for elementary readers, it can be used as a prompt in class.
3. Myth, stories, legends: the creative arts
Children are turned on by stories, especially a good adventure story, and the Harry Potter series replicates many of the world’s oldest stories. You can use the books as starting points to discuss the myths and legends that survive in our culture. For instance, the series draws on many ancient myths: Greek, Roman, Abyssinian, Norse, Egyptian and Celtic. Think of Oedipus and the way his life was rule by prophecy. Think of the symbolic underworld that Harry enters when he tries to reach the Goblet of Fire, and how it might link to the Greek myth of Orpheus. Think of the similarities in naming between the Goblin Ragnok, and the Ragnarok (world end) of Norse myth; or the giant Golgomath and the myth of Gilgamesh. Most world myths relate to the birth/death cycle, and Harry Potter is no exception. It can also be compared to other hero journeys, such as that of King Arthur in his search for the Holy Grail, or the Fisher King legends, or even the journey of Luke Skywalker. Mythical beasts have also been used, and can be related to all myth cultures in creative story writing, drama or art in the classroom.
4. History, philosophy, sociology
The Harry Potter series contains a great many moral conundrums. Why do wizards think they are superior to Muggles; is it right to enslave House Elves; is there such a thing as redemption? These also link to the crucial moments in our history; the slave trade, the civil rights movement and Hitler’s Holocaust. For older students, there is a lot of Nazi symbolism in the books, from the name Durmstrang (from Sturm und Drang, a Nazi-favoured art movement) to the Ku Klux Klan-like masked Death Eaters. The books can therefore be used as a tool to start debate on what’s right and wrong, what we’ve done in our history, and whether the ‘real’ world is just as bad as the ‘magical’ world for prejudice and racism. Using these books might just bring alive for kids a topic that they normally wouldn’t be able to relate to.