Campus: CSU Sonoma -- November 12, 2001

Frisbees With Fangs! They Learn To Teach About Harry Potter In Children's Literature Class at Sonoma State University

Flying motorcycles, soccer on broomsticks, self shuffling cards, letters that howl at you when you open them, frisbees with fangs, and flags that play their own national anthems--not only children delight in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels and look forward to the upcoming film. SSU students do too.

Potter is now a solid part of the curriculum in Professor Sandra Feldman's Children's Literature class. "Harry Potter is just one of the restive characters we find in children's literature," says Feldman. Potter, now famous beyond many of literature's finest, stands tall next to Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Harriet the Spy.

In English 342 there is a great deal of talk, much writing, and a hefty amount of reading in this "kids lit" course. Most of the forty plus students are working towards their multi-subject teaching credential. As part of their teacher preparation, they delve into the vast body of children's literature in hopes of gaining methods and insights that will help them in their future roles as educators.

"Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone" is one of five novels the students read along with numerous selections from "The Riverside Anthology of Children's Literature," The other novels include Natalie Babbitt's "Tuck Everlasting" and J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy, "Lord of the Rings."

Excerpts from Twain's "Tom Sawyer," "The Diary of Anne Frank", "The Hobbit," "The Wind in the Willows", "Charlotte's Web", "Wizard of Earthsea," Rachel Carson's "The Sea Around Us," nursery rhymes, myths, a collection of folk tales, biographies, and "Little House in the Big Woods," and "The Bridge to Terabithia" are also discussed.

Still one of the highlights of the course for students is reading the first Harry Potter novel. Though the students are required to read only the first in a series of four novels by Rowling, many students end up reading all four because after Harry's first adventure, readers are hooked.

The reading requirement for the course is hefty, but students delight in revisiting their childhood favorites. "I read this when I was a kid, they say of 'Charlotte's Web', but " I really didn't see all the detail I now see."

"Some of the best critical essays written in my class," says Feldman, "are those that treat the themes in Harry Potter novels. I encourage students to critically look at the value of the works and think about why they are so popular; I ask them to think about what children learn."

Students discuss things like why novels are banned, or why Rowling has sold more books than any other author of books for children in the history of publishing.

Some students say "The Sorcerer's Stone" is "riveting." "Readers are chilled to the bone by Voldemort and his Dark Arts, yet our hearts are warmed by Harry, the loveable orphaned hero wizard," says Feldman. "His is a story as powerful and compelling as any hero in literary history; he's just much more modern! He's hip."

Tim Wandling, Chair of SSU's English Department says that the aspect of mystery in the series is what keeps us reading and Feldman agrees. Wandling likens Rowling's fourth book, "The Goblet of Fire" to an epic; it's the best of all, he says. Professor Feldman hails Rowling as a "skilled, well read, prolific raconteur; she's brilliant! The designs of her boarding school thrillers are complex; a second read is often necessary to get all the details."

On Feldman's radio broadcast on KRCB, "A Novel Idea" she collected a panel of kids she calls "Potter scholars." "Some of these children have read each of the four books nine times! They know every detail, every character, every event; it's really uncanny."

Why is Harry Potter so appealing? Feldman says Rowling's novels cross genres, cultures, and generations. At once they fit into epic, myth, fairytale, legend, and fantasy. The author unspools her tales with vigor and humor. Rowling's worlds are alive with light and dark, magic and the ordinary.

The children at Hogwarts have the same obligations students at SSU have; they must deal with a variety of professors, muster daily, go to class, do homework, be responsible, face challenges and go through the paces all students must go through.

Though Potter takes the lion's share of popularity as kid lit protagonists go, there are many more reads worthy of children's attention. "Our focus at SSU is not only on this very popular novel, but on the works children have been learning from for centuries," the professor adds.

"Reading is everybody's business," says Professor Feldman. "We must all encourage this very creative past time, particularly now. Rowling is just a delightful shot in the arm!"


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