As the new Harry Potter film marks the close of a series that has brought much controversy to our new millennium, it seems only fitting to reflect on what lessons might be learned by our journey with Harry. To echo reader response theorists Louise Rosenblatt, Donald Graves, and Constance Weaver, reading only results in meaning when we transact with the text and bring our own unique experiences to it. So in reflecting on Harry Potter, I share the meaning that I have found in Harry Potter as an educator, parent, and Christian.

As an Educator

Harry first caught my attention as I began my graduate work because he had an entire world reading. Young and old stood in line together swapping theories of what would happen in the next Harry Potter adventure. They dressed in costume and presented at conferences. They scribbled theories on walls about whether Snape was good or evil and if Harry would marry Hermione or Ginny. Communities grappled with this new phenomenon and argued about how the series might affect our youth. Some found it evil and decided to ban it from libraries—along with other classics like Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and Gone with the Wind.

Intrigued by the phenomenon, I read the books and in bringing my own experiences to it I found the Christian message of love. In transacting with the story—my knowledge of Scripture and Christianity collided with the tale of Harry Potter.  I also found it to be an invitation to reflect on my own struggles and challenges in life, and as I discussed it with others we found shared meaning. It became the topic of my thesis, a shared conversation with my children, conference presentations and a published book. Some found my work evil—but others found it deeply inspiring and found healing and fellowship. Importantly, I could reinforce to my students (and children) that reading leads us to understand ourselves and others--and also to write!

As an educator, I realized the true power of reading. The story of Harry is not really about magic—it is about good and evil, identity, healing, the power of community, friends, family, and ultimately about the power of love! Magic doesn’t solve any problems—love does. And there are many problems (much like our own): a struggling (and sometimes abusive and corrupt) education system, death and loss, tragedy, anger and rage, abuse, bullying, poverty and so on. In Harry’s journey, we find our own.

This is where I really grew as an educator. When we invite our students to read, we must also invite and encourage them to find themselves in the reading. We can do this by facilitating meaningful discussions and assignments that allow for students to transact with the texts. When we do this, we help them find meaning and purpose in their reading. That is why the story was such a success worldwide; Harry’s struggles with free will and fate and search for identity in the battle of good and evil mirrored the eternal questions of humanity. Thus, the storyline became a springboard for dialogue and learning among communitiesand in the classroom.

Yet . . . when educators attempted to use the books solely for comprehension checks and reading rate assessment, reading once again lost its luster (ex. Accelerated Reader programs). The lesson: reading is a powerful learning tool when it invites inquiry and sharing—but less appealing when it is used only as a measure of assessment. Learning is active and social—and so is reading. To have meaning, it must have intrinsic, student-centered purpose. For example, think of the difference between Professor Umbridge and Professor Dumbledore? Which professor would you learn most from? Which would you prefer for our children? In reflecting on these questions, you have just meaningfully and actively transacted with the text of Harry Potter—and hopefully took away some type of understanding that might be shared with others!