“Time in Teaching,” Part 2: T.H. White’s Merlyn

A Guest Post Series by Joseph Torres, Ph.D.

Merlyn the Architect

To explore Merlyn’s teaching style and decisions as they related to his reversed timeline, we will first explore White’s purpose in having Merlyn live backwards in time. According to La Jeunesse, White’s novel is “a literary science experiment in which White attempts to engage the subject of war with the intent of producing a real-world solution” (23). In other words, White uses the novel as a means to explore the causes and nature of war and ultimately to find a path to permanent peace for his own time. In this context, Merlyn’s backwards living is a device which enables White to send a character into the remote past who has White’s knowledge of the effects of war. That is, White crafts Merlyn into a vessel that enables contemporary knowledge to interact
with the remote past. Thus, in order to solve the problem of war, White constructs an experiment in the establishment of peace by sending Merlyn as an avatar of himself back to the young Arthur to tutor him. Since we have established White’s use for Merlyn’s inverted timeline and Merlyn’s
purpose in educating Arthur, we should now analyze the methods Merlyn uses to accomplish his goal. First, observe that Merlyn usually seeks the Wart’s input as to the type of educational experience he might prefer to have. For instance, when Merlyn begins Arthur’s education, Arthur expresses his wish that he were a perch (White 45). It is only after this that Merlyn grants his request. Therefore, Merlyn builds Arthur’s educational experiences using Arthur’s input. Furthermore, the experiences Arthur has in animal-form cause him to confront his own presuppositions concerning war. When he is a perch, Arthur has the experience of victimhood under the tyrannical pike who believes “Might is Right” (White 52). When he is among the ants, he experiences the use propaganda to motivate hatred of neighboring communities and eventually
war against those communities (White 129). Finally, Arthur’s experience as a goose teaches him of the abhorrence which war against one’s fellow human should inspire and the utter meaninglessness of borders (White 170). Thus, Merlyn helps Arthur understand the problem of war in “The Sword in the Stone” by giving Arthur experiences of the relationships of different
species to violence and war.

Now that we have analyzed the substance of Merlyn’s formative techniques, it remains to discuss Merlyn’s assessment of Arthur’s progress. Before they leave Arthur’s castle for Bedegraine, Merlyn observes that Arthur is trying to trick his tutor into thinking for him. Merlyn responds, “You will have to think the rest yourself. Is might right – and if not, why not, give reasons and draw a plan” (White 225). Merlyn refuses to solve the problem of war for Arthur. Therefore,
his approach to education precludes even hinting at a solution or even outright admitting that might does not make right.

Before the battle at Bedegraine, Arthur summarizes for his advisors the problem of war. The scene resembles the defense of a capstone project, since Arthur makes claims such as “Might is not Right” (White 247) and must defend them orally to his advisors. In this capstone defense, Arthur does not only demonstrate an understanding of the problem, but also proposes a solution to
the problem (White 248). He organically develops this solution rather than having an algorithm thrust upon him by his tutor. Indeed, his tutor does not even ask leading questions to help Arthur arrive at a solution. Thus, Merlyn’s assessment of Arthur resembles an oral capstone defense in which the student must ultimately demonstrate an understanding of the problem as well as
developing his own solution to the problem.

We should finally note the way in which Merlyn evaluates Arthur’s performance in his capstone defense. Merlyn responds to Arthur’s proposed solution through the recitation of the beginning of the Nunc Dimittis (White 248). Here, White references the prayer of St. Simeon in the second chapter of St. Luke’s gospel. In St. Luke’s account, St. Simeon receives a promise from God that he will witness the coming of the Christ. Therefore, the Nunc Dimittis is a prayer of
thanksgiving to God for the fulfillment of one’s life. Merlyn’s recitation of the Nunc Dimittis is a strong endorsement of Arthur’s solution, since it amounts to a statement that the purpose of Merlyn’s life has been fulfilled. Not only has Arthur passed his defense, but he has also caused the fulfillment of Merlyn’s goal.

We may now compare Merlyn’s pedagogical style to Harootunian and Quinn’s archetypes. Their Architect “stresses the importance of understanding the problem first and then forming an appropriate plan for solving it” (18). However we have seen that Merlyn’s education of Arthur consists in a set of experiences that cause Arthur to encounter the problem of might, and then
allows Arthur to develop his own solution based firmly in his own understanding of the problem. Therefore, Merlyn certainly focuses on cultivating an understanding of the problem first.

Furthermore, Harootunian and Quinn’s Architect “values the input of his tutees” and uses that input to model further experiences (18). This is also consistent with our observations of Merlyn, who constructs Arthur’s experiences as various animals based largely on Arthur’s own
input. Hence, Merlyn is a prime example of the Architect.

Failures and Successes

Having analyzed Merlyn’s teaching methods and philosophies, we turn now to the efficacy of those methods. To begin, we will observe Merlyn’s one great failure. In “The Sword in the Stone”, Merlyn reveals to the young Wart that Merlyn’s mind is muddled with respect to time as a result of his backwards living (White 35). His time-muddled mind causes him to neglect
to warn Arthur that he and Morgause share a mother (White 311). At the end of “The Queen of Air and Darkness”, White ascribes the eventual failure of Arthur’s kingdom partially to Arthur’s unwitting act of incest with Morgause and partially to Mordred, who was the fruit of that incest (312). Therefore, if Merlyn were not muddled about time, he might have prevented Arthur from
begetting his eventual downfall. It follows that due to Merlyn’s failure to clarify the distinction between past and future in his mind, he is a partial cause of the eventual downfall of Arthur.

The question now arises as to whether Merlyn’s failure erases his success as a tutor. As we observed earlier, Merlyn was certainly successful in the short term, since Arthur did eventually understand the problem of war. As a result, Arthur is able to teach most of his knights the value of peace and unity, which is particularly evidence in the reconciliation of the Pellinore and Orkney
clans (White 455). At the end, Arthur tells his tale to Tom of Newbold Revell and convinces him to pass on Arthur’s ideal to later generations (White 637). Therefore, Merlyn’s education of Arthur still ends in a form of success.

Furthermore, this success is due to Merlyn’s reversed timeline. Adderley states that Tom “is keeping alive the dream of civilization Arthur had” (57). This is the “candle” that Arthur asks Tom to carry (White 637). Merlyn knew this would be the result of his education of Arthur and thus his backwards living enables him to let that idealism take root in English literature. Adderley
rightly sees this as Merlyn’s ultimate success (57). He points out, “Merlyn’s education has been designed to make Arthur think for himself, and this is what Arthur enables the rest of mankind to do in the last chapter” (57). Therefore, while Merlyn’s failure brought about the fall of Arthur’s kingdom, it did not end all hope for civilization. Indeed, through Merlyn’s education of Arthur, we
have all been taught the ideals of justice and peace for which Arthur worked and sought paths.

Furthermore, we may consider the novel insofar as it is an experiment in peace. La Jeunesse comments, “in the scientific world, it isn’t unheard of for an experiment to fail, for the scientist to die before results are achieved, and for another person to pick up the work where his predecessor left it” (34). White’s novel is an initial experiment in peace. However, in science, even a failed first
experiment gives insight. It enables the scientist to modify hypotheses and then try a new experiment to test those. Thus, in this reading, by sending himself through an avatar backwards in time, he enables his readers to formulate their own solutions to the problem of war and to develop
their own experiments to establish peace.


Time in Teaching: Merlyn and Morgan as Anachronistic Educators, Part 1

A Guest Post Series by Joseph Torres, Ph.D.

Educators use their personal histories and past experiences to develop methods to teach their students to conquer new problems. This implies that an educator for whom the past and future are mingled or confused might teach in a different way from teachers with traditional relationships to time. It is no surprise, then, that T. H. White’s Merlyn and Mark Twain’s Hank Morgan accomplish impressive feats in their respective students. However, their methods, while not strictly possible for most educators, may illuminate some aspects of education that are otherwise difficult to notice.

T. H. White wrote The Once and Future King mostly during World War II, although it was not published in its complete form until 1958. In the novel, Merlyn lives backwards in time. In other words, he was born in the future from the perspective of White’s other characters, but ages into the past. Merlyn’s anachronistic living is significant, since he remembers the twentieth century
and can use those memories to educate people in the distant past. C. M. Adderley suggests that Merlyn’s backwards living enables him “to be an idealist”, since he is not haunted by the “ancestral wrong” that plagues Arthur and his contemporaries (57). In turn, this enables Merlyn to form the
young Wart into an idealist in Merlyn’s own likeness.

Similarly, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court tells the tale of the anachronistic Hank Morgan. While Morgan does not live backwards as does Merlyn, Morgan’s memories are still of the ideals and events of the future. In Morgan’s case, these memories are from the American post-Reconstruction era of industrial capitalism, which matches the context in which Twain wrote the novel. Also like White’s Merlyn, Morgan uses his memories of the future to
educate the denizens of the past. In this guest post series, I will explore the effects of Merlyn and Morgan’s anachronism on their respective pedagogical techniques and the efficacy of those techniques.

Literature Review

In “The Best Thing for Being Sad”, Adderley claims that education is the organizing theme of White’s novel. He first explores a significant teacher-student relationship in each book of the novel and then speculates about the ideal educator and purpose of education based on the Merlyn/Wart relationship. In so doing, Adderley contributes a thematic reading of White’s magnum opus
centered on education. As he discusses Merlyn and Arthur’s relationship, Adderley directly addresses the issue of Merlyn’s reversed relationship with time. In this section of the paper, he anticipates a potential objection to his claim that Merlyn is the ideal teacher, when he acknowledges that Merlyn “knows that Arthur will fail” (57). He insightfully responds that Merlyn also knows by his future memories that Tom of Newbold Revell will transmit Arthur’s ideals to new generations so that the death of Arthur cannot be equated with the ultimate failure of Arthur. However, I will argue that Adderley
neglects a real failure on Merlyn’s part which may itself be due to Merlyn’s time-backwardness.

In “T. H. White, ‘The Once and Future King’, and the Scientific Method”, Jake La Jeunesse gives a complementary reading to Adderley’s. La Jeunesse argues that White’s novel is an anti war experiment that White himself is conducting through Merlyn who is his in-text avatar. La Jeunesse reads White’s experiment as an effort to study solutions to the problem of war. Therefore, while Adderley focuses on Merlyn’s actions themselves as actions of an educator, La Jeunesse’s research yields insights into Merlyn’s purposes in education. While Adderley’s article directly addresses the question of anachronistic pedagogy, La Jeunesse illuminates the question of the text’s pedagogical relationship with time. If Merlyn’s reversed timeline is for changing the future and promoting White’s pacifism as La Jeunesse argues, then it is an experiment from which White’s reader may learn about the nature and ethics of war and peace. The article also implies that White favors an experience-based approach to education which itself has implications for teachers. In this paper, I will use Adderley and La Jeunesse’s insights to analyze both White and Twain’s respective novels.

Finally, Jeff A. Harootunian and Robert J. Quinn identify three tutor archetypes in “Identifying and Describing Tutor Archetypes”. In this study, Harootunian and Quinn performed observations of a state university’s mathematics tutors. Based on their observations, they posit the existence of three different philosophical approaches to tutoring which they personify in the archetypes of the Pragmatist, the Architect, and the Surveyor. They explain that the Architect
“strives for his tutees to gain an understanding of the problem first” (16) and that he views himself as “a project foreman who highly values input from […] the tutees” (17). We will see that this resembles the pedagogical approach of White’s Merlyn. In contrast to the Architect, Harootunian and Quinn’s Pragmatist “favors questions that have a direct answer” and provides “critical analysis for her tutees rather than allowing them to make their own analysis and connections” (16). We will explore this description in the context of Hank Morgan’s educational pursuits and techniques.

Joe Torres works at a small classical high school in the Catholic tradition in southern Michigan where he primarily teaches mathematics. He earned his PhD in Mathematics from Texas A&M University, his Graduate Diploma in Language and Literature from Signum University, and is now working on an MA in Philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He has been working in mathematics education in both high schools and colleges for 12 years. His interests include curriculum design, the integration of mathematics with the humanities, and having great conversations about math, philosophy, theology, literature, and education with his friends.


Teacher With Magic- Marie Prosser

Hi friends! I’m so pleased to present another Teacher With Magic! This is a fun exploration of how to blend fantasy and science in the classroom! A big thank you to Marie for her participation.

And remember, if you would like to participate in this informal survey, you can click here for the original form. Thank you, and happy teaching!

Name: Marie Prosser

Subject/Age Range:

I teach high school science – biology, chemistry, physics, environmental science, earth science, etc.

Which Fantasy texts do you like to use in your classroom? Why did you use these particular texts?:

This past year, I used The Hobbit when discussing erosion in Earth Science, and I used “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from Alice in Wonderland when discussing oysters in the Chesapeake Bay in Environmental Science. In the past, I have used family trees from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter when discussing genetic inheritance patterns in biology (blond hair in hobbits, magical ability in wizards). I also use an episode from the anime Fullmetal Alchemist to teach the concept of conservation of mass in chemistry. These are all texts I enjoy, so I share them with the students in case they might enjoy them, too.



How do you use these Fantasy texts in your classroom?:

I like to use them for classwork/class discussions. I think it throws students to see something like this out of context, so I don’t like assigning it for homework or using it on a quiz. It’s more fun and less frustrating for them if there is some guidance provided as to why we are using something ‘fake’ or made up in science class. It helps them apply concepts we are learning in class by practicing identifying those processes in a subcreated world.

What were some of the results? What worked, and what didn’t work?:

Handing the students a worksheet with problems without explanation tends to have poor results in any situation, but especially when it’s something out of the ordinary. Working through examples as a class, and letting them work together on the assignment tends to work better for this type of activity.

How did using these texts help student engagement? Did you find that your students made stronger connections with the subject material through your chosen fantasy texts?:

Some did. Some found it fun, while others found it confusing or frustrating. Some find reading difficult, so they need to have others read the passages aloud. It’s something different, which helps with engagement.


The Science of Reading is Magic!

In the last few years, the Science of Reading has gotten attention from schools, school board members, curriculum designers, and literacy teachers all across America. Some call it the latest buzzword or fad, while others say that it’s essential for reading instruction. For the last twenty years, it has been the subject of critical studies and research, and it has also been heavily criticized by those in favor of other reading movements such as the Whole Language Approach and Reading Recovery. But what is the Science of Reading, and why is it such a hot topic among teachers?

The Science of Reading is an interdisciplinary study of scientifically based research on how we read. It has elements of cognitive neuroscience, psychology, education, and linguistics (The Reading League). All of these elements have led scientists, psychologists, and teachers to conclude that students need systematic, explicit instruction in order to successfully read. In other words, students need to learn the foundations of word recognition (letters and their sounds, phonics concepts, and sight recognition) and language comprehension (syntax, vocabulary, background schema) in order to be successful readers.

Sounds obvious, no? Unfortunately, the last 20 years of reading instruction in America have NOT included explicit instruction in these concepts. Instead, we have invested in programs that encourage inferencing, memorization, and guessing. Kids who were successful in K-2 (or, rather, appeared to be successful) in reading failed or scored poorly in state tests by 4th grade because they didn’t understand how to effectively decode words or their patterns. Their previous programs worked under the idea that if we taught students to love the act of reading (looking at the pictures, taking time for independent reading, and curling up in a corner with their favorite topic), the rest would come later.

Unfortunately, this means that we have a literacy crisis in America. Only 35% of public school students are literate by Grade 4. According to BeginToRead, 67% of students who don’t have proficient reading skills by the end of 4th grade end up in jail or on welfare, either as teenagers or adults. 23% of adults in America are illiterate. That’s 23% too many.

Teaching students to love books is great. Don’t get me wrong. But explicit instruction needs to come first. We’re seeing the results of programs like Reading Recovery and the Whole Language Movement are proving problematic for all readers, including those with learning disabilities.

But wait… this is a fantasy account! What does SOR have to do with wizards and hobbits?

Great question. It’s my working theory that we teachers can use Invented Languages (for the moment, I’m specifically working with Tolkien’s Sindarin and Quenya) to teach students about patterns in English Morphology.

When I teach The Hobbit, I spend some time on Tolkien’s philological work. I show them some words in Sindarin that have the same roots- for example, Branduin and Celeduin, Ered Mithrin and Ered Luin- and their translations. Much like Tolkien would have in his Philological work, we use the clues within these roots and their translations to work backward and determine what these roots might mean. “Uin”, for example, means “river,” and “Ered” means “mountain.”

I also give them a short activity for creating their own invented language with prompts to consider- what roots or root words exist in their language, how does the language indicate plurals, and how does the writing system work in their language?

Greek, Latin, and Old English roots work similarly in the English language. Reading Specialists and SOR experts practice with these roots all the time. It’s part of teaching phonemic awareness and word recognition. Understanding and noticing these patterns within word roots, plurals, prefixes, and suffixes are critical for students to successfully decode words, but they need explicit instruction in order to get there.

This is just the beginning of my research into connecting the Science of Reading to Fantasy Literature, but you can learn more about Linguistics and Word patterns by reading the guest post series by DigitalTolkien here.

For more information on the Science of Reading, you can read:

Shanahan, Timothy: What Constitutes a Science of Reading Instruction

Reading Rockets: What Is the Science of Reading?

The Reading League: The Defining Guide: What is the Science of Reading?

I highly recommend the following podcasts for more information on how the Science of Reading has impacted education:

Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong

Science of Reading: The Podcast by Amplify


Happy 2023!

Happy 2023, Followers! I’ll admit, it was a tough year at Teaching With Magic. I had a lot of changes happen over the course of the year, but many of those changes were wonderful. My son, my Little Smauglet, came into the world, and I’ve spent the last year trying to keep up as he changed right before my eyes. I had to shelve a lot of projects as I chose to be a working stay-at-home mom, but it was absolutely worth it. Smauglet will be going to school part-time in April, which means I will have a little more room for projects, content, and research. I took some time to reflect on what I wanted Teaching With Magic to be, and to look like, over the course of 2023 and I am quite happy with the results. Here are some of the BIG goals that I have for the next year:

🪄I’m launching a podcast! The Teaching With Magic Podcast will be an audio version of my blog posts on Teaching With Magic, with some additional content sprinkled in between. I’m working on enlisting some friends and educators for interview episodes. Fingers crossed! The podcast will officially launch in May, which will give me time to record some episodes and get my little dragon settled into school.
🪄I want to share current research and data in reading, literacy, and teaching with you! It all connects, I promise.
🪄Read, read, read!

Man, I tell you, postpartum does crazy things to the brain. Reading became a lot harder for me after my son was born, but now I’m working on carving out specific times and goals for reading.
🪄I want to know more about what would help YOU! Are you a teacher? Parent? Lifelong scholar? What can I do to help you engage with my content? What do you want to see on my page? In my blog? Let me know in the comments!

Remember, you can follow my posts here on WordPress, and you can follow me on Social Media: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter!

Finally, you can also support Teaching With Magic on Patreon! I’ll always be transparent with y’all as to where your donations are going and what they are used for. Click the link to see!


New! Teachers With Magic!

Hello friends and followers! Are you a teacher who loves fantasy? Are you a teacher OF fantasy? I want to hear from you! I’m researching how teachers in the primary world use fantasy in their classrooms. Are you a science teacher who teaches environmental sustainability with hobbit houses? Are you a history teacher who uses Star Wars as a framework for teaching World War II or the Vietnam War? I would love to hear your thoughts, your methods, and your why! You can do this by filling out the form below, and all submissions are private unless you give me permission to publish (see options below). Thank you so much in advance!


“Music of Middle Earth,” “The Council of Elrond” and the Magic of Multimedia

How do we foster creativity in the classroom with art and multimedia? Read about my use of creative projects, fanart and multimedia, and film adaptations to make connections with the text. Art by Alan Lee, “The Council of Elrond.”

At the end of every book club session, I ask my students to show me what they have learned from the text through a creative project. You can see some examples towards the end of a previous post, Reflections of Book Club. I give the students a few parameters, some suggestions for possible products, and then I let them go. I don’t even give them a rubric because I want them to focus on their response to the story, not on any stakes behind the project (I also choose not to give any grades in Book Club, but that is a post for another day). My students have given me incredible results, from clay sculptures to slideshows, from from paintings to stop-motion video presentations. I love seeing their creative imaginations blossom and how their visual art shows their interpretations of the story.

Last May (2021), I had the distinct pleasure of attending and presenting at The Prancing Pony Podcast’s inaugural Moot (Huzzah!). There was one particular presentation that stood out among the rest (though they were ALL fantastic). Chad Bornholdt, affectionately known to the PPP audience as “Chad from Texas,” and PPP producer Jordan Rannells worked together to create a fantastic audio production of “The Council of Elrond” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II Chapter 2). Chad gathered voice acting volunteers from the “Friends of Mr. Underhill” Smial (a chapter of the Tolkien Society) in Texas, while Jordan used his technological prowess to create an immersive audio experience, complete with soundscape audio and music. I was blown away by this project- it was a wonderful way for these fans and scholars to process, discuss, and experience Tolkien’s words.

Immediately, I emailed Chad and Jordan and begged them to let me interview them for my students. I wanted to share their project as a resource when it came time for us to discuss “The Council of Elrond,” and I wanted to show them how much was possible for their creative projects. I knew that the audio production itself would be a wonderful resource for my Auditory Processing Learners (those whose preferred way to learn is by listening) when it came time to read the chapter.

Jordan and Chad were wonderfully gracious and only too happy to talk with me. They also provided the script they used for the production for the students to read. The chapter itself is told mostly through flashbacks, and the different characters and narrators can be, at times, confusing to keep track of. I include the video here for you to see (sadly, the recording cut off towards the end, and my video editing skills leave much to be desired. However, it is a worthwhile resource and I cannot sing Chad and Jordan’s praises enough).

Thank you, Chad and Jordan!

To hear this incredible audio experience, you can visit Jordan’s podcast, “Music of Middle Earth” on your favorite podcast streaming site, or click this link.

To hear more from Chad Bornholdt, Chad High, and the Texas Tolkien Society, you can listen to “The Texas Tolkien Talk Podcast.”

Many students truly gravitate towards artistic ventures for their projects, and so another pathway I try to take is to make connections with the text through visual media. Additionally, my students mention film adaptations throughout the course of all of my book clubs. In my LotR or Hobbit classes, we will compare images from different film adaptations (Peter Jackson, Ralph Bakshi, Rankin & Bass) and artists such as Ted Nasmith, Alan Lee, or John Howe to see how visual artists and filmmakers have interpreted the text. The students responses often range from “That’s exactly how I imagined ___!” to “That’s not my vision of ___ at all!” As an addendum, I always remind them of the following:

“This is just one artist’s interpretation, one person’s “final creative project.” What you show, share, and imagine could be entirely different.”

This is especially true when talking about Peter Jackson’s adaptations. “P.J. just got the funding for his project. That doesn’t make his work the only adaptation, or the most important one.”

Visual art and multimedia productions provide so many pathways to enjoy and read a text. The creative mind should always be nurtured and these projects and productions give readers, audiences, and students alike the opportunity not only to receive the text and process it for their own, but also to share their experiences and interpretations of the text. The reader experience is multidimensional, and so is art. What beautiful experiences we have when we allow our creativity to flourish!


Teacher Feature: Gandalf

Expert teacher, or expert troll? Why leaving students to their own devices can sometimes be the best lesson.

Want to hear an updated version of this post? Go to the Podcast page for the Gandalf Episode!

Whenever I’ve taught a Tolkien-related course, Gandalf immediately becomes a hot topic of discussion. Students range from questions about his origins to observations of his abilities, and whether or not he uses these abilities enough. One student this past summer was consistently vexed because they felt that Gandalf just wasn’t doing enough to stop the Nazgul and squash them once and for all. They were practically in conniptions when he rode out to meet them with a beam of light on Pelennor fields (Return of the King). “Why hasn’t Gandalf done that before? Has he been holding back this whole time?! What’s the point of his powers anyway?! What does he even DO?!” This led to a (slightly heated) discussion about Gandalf’s abilities, his connection with the Elven Ring Narya and what this Ring allows him to do, and his original directive from the Valar. One student responded with the following.

Gandalf’s job isn’t to save the world- his job is to guide the Men and the Hobbits to do it. Your teacher isn’t going to tell you the answer on a test, but they are going to show you how. That’s what Gandalf is doing.

Brilliant Child

Oh, from the mouths of babes. This statement, I think, is the best summary of Gandalf’s role in Tolkien’s stories, and a perfect explanation of what kind of teacher he is. Many teachers in current fantasy literature operate from the classroom and show the hero the way that magic the sword, or their powers work. Gandalf, however, is not there to teach Frodo or Aragorn how to use magic or combat skills. He is there to put out the fires when an emergency occurs, but ultimately it is the residents of Middle Earth (Frodo, Aragorn, Eowyn, Theoden, and Faramir, to name but a few) need to be the ones to defeat Sauron, for they are the ones who need to live in Middle Earth peaceably, and ultimately thrive.

Gandalf operates similarly to a teacher who engages in classroom experiential learning. I describe the concept in more detail in my 2019 presentation at the Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Conference, but, in essence, the teacher acts as a facilitator while students try out the concept on their own. The teacher can provide guidance, pose questions, and offer hints, but ultimately the students work through the problem at hand with the information they are given and a little creativity, and they devise a solution. (For more information on how Hogwarts professors use experiential learning, you can watch my presentation in the link above or read my Teacher Features for Professors McGonagall, Flitwick, and Snape).

This, I think, is what frustrates my students when they encounter Gandalf. Many modern fantasy texts provide magic as the solution to problems, or at least a magical problem that needs a magical solution. In Harry Potter, there is always a perfect spell, curse, or potion that causes some kind of reaction, and oftentimes provides the happy-ever-after solution. Every curse or spell has some kind of counter curse, and Harry only needs to figure out what that counter is. In Marvel and DC publications, the superhero wins the day because they apply the right amount of power in just the right sequence and outsmarts, or physically beats to a pulp, the villain (Yes, this is a very reductive analysis and counterpoints can easily be made, but it’s a structure that seems to be on the surface of my students’ minds). But what my students don’t realize, at first, is that Tolkien doesn’t write stories about magic powers. Magic is just a vehicle, a pathway for events to occur. Tolkien writes about people, about heroes who must use their own strengths to save Middle Earth, not just from Sauron or Morgoth, but from their own hubris and failings.

Gandalf’s “good morning” is a fantastic microcosm of this concept. Bilbo has his own preconceived ideas of what “good morning” means, and assumes that Gandalf also operates from this schema. Shire Hobbits, as you may know, operate in a very closed, close-knit society, and anything outside of their norms is considered “queer.” Bilbo can’t conceive of Gandalf understanding “good morning” as anything other than a customary greeting. Gandalf challenges this notion by posing his famous retort.

What do you mean? … Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good on this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?

The Hobbit

This flummoxes poor Bilbo, which, of course, sets him up for his entire unexpected journey. Gandalf poses questions and places Bilbo and the Dwarves in difficult situations then leaves them to devise their own solutions. Bilbo, ultimately, must use his wits (with the help of a certain “magic ring”) to outsmart and out riddle Smaug, and Thorin must overcome his pride and greed in order to be the true King-Under-the-Mountain, if only for a short while.

The same notions occur in The Lord of the Rings, though the danger is far more complex this time. As an Istari and an emissary from the Valar, Gandalf’s task is to “advise and persuade Men and Elves to good, and to seek to unite in love and understanding all those whom Sauron, should he come again, would endeavour to dominate and corrupt” (Unfinished Tales). Gandalf is only able to accomplish this because of his choice to act as a wanderer, not because of his magic or ownership (or borrower-ship, I suppose) of Narya. Gandalf travels over the vast lands of the Wild, Eriador, and other kingdoms of Middle Earth, making connections with all of its citizens- Men, Elves, Dwarves, and even the seemingly “inconsequential,” ordinary Hobbits. Saruman and Radagast ultimately fail in their assignments because they close themselves to the outer world and focus on their own Lore (and where have the two Blues gotten to? Only Tolkien knows). Gandalf’s true power, therefore, is in the “human” connection (if you’ll pardon the expression). Gandalf brings Middle Earth together, whether it is through the stories told at the Council of Elrond (see what happens when everyone just talks to each other?), the Fellowship, or the Company of thirteen Dwarves and one burrahobbit.

The ultimate lesson that Gandalf teaches us all is to rely upon one another, to rely upon fellowship above power, strength, or greed. He encourages Frodo to take companions with him, but only if they can be trusted. Frodo cannot complete his journey or his task alone- my students will tell me time and time again that Frodo was only able to get through Mordor to Mount Doom because “Sam did all the work.” (Their words, not mine) Frodo wasn’t even able to complete his quest- ultimately, Gollum was the one who (though accidentally) cast the Ring into Mount Doom, but only because Frodo listened to Gandalf’s advice and musings about trust, pity, and trusting in his heart to show him the way forward. Gollum may not have been a trustworthy friend, but he was still granted fellowship for a short while, and that enabled him to be exactly where he needed to be at the right time.

I am coming with you at present, … But soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.

“Homeward Bound”, Return of the King

Fall 2021 Class Offerings!

Fall is here, and so the school year begins! Many states and countries are still up in the air in their responses to COVID 19, leaving many parents unsure of how consistent their child’s education will be. Luckily, with my classes, your child will receive flexible yet consistent rigor in their learning and have fun all the while!

Since I teach on multiple platforms, I’ll split the post into categories for visual ease. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to email me or comment!


Fantasy Book Club: The Horse and His Boy
In this 8-week book club, students will explore the magic of C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy and discuss questions of leadership and democracy through a fantastic perspective. An 8 week course for ages 8-12, once a week for 1 hour.
Fun With Fairy Tales!In this fun Fairy Tale course, students will read their favorite fairy tales and learn critical literary terms! Each week is devoted to two fairy tales, a lesson on the literary term of the week, and fun interactive notebook activities for multimodal learning. A six week course for ages 7-10, 2x a week for 1 hour.
One on One Literacy Tutoring
For Ages 3-5
Ages 6-8
Students receive individualized instruction based on their individual needs and age range. These classes offer instruction on concepts such as:
-Story Comprehension
-Phonemic and Alphabet Awareness
-Fluency and Automaticity
-Fiction vs. Nonfiction Comprehension and Text Features
-Sight Words
-Word Families and Rhyming Concepts
-Beginning Grammar concepts. Classes are offered on a subscription basis for 1 hour a week, with the opportunity to sign up for additional instruction as needed.
Tolkien Story Time! In this ongoing course, learners will engage with J.R.R. Tolkien’s poetry and short stories in a flexible book club group! This informal Book Club will meet to read and discuss Tolkien’s short stories and poems, such as The Adventures of Tom Bombadil or Leaf by Niggle. Bring snacks, your imagination, and a love of stories and poetry! This course is subscription based for 1 hour a week to allow for maximum flexibility.

Signum Academy

Signum Academy Book Club is for kids and teens who love to read. Each week, students will meet online with their book club group to talk about stories they enjoy. Each child will have a chance to share their thoughts about the story, their favorite characters, and more.

Signum Academy Clubs typically meet 2x a week for 1 hour in age based cohorts (3rd – 5th grade, 6th – 8th grade, and 9th – 12th grade). This month, I’ll be teaching Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson: The Sea of Monsters. Next month, we will be reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. However, this is just one section! If you and your child would like to join our current group, or invite a group of friends to make your own section, you can register for Signum Academy Book Club at https://signumuniversity.org/academy/book-club/

But the fun doesn’t stop there! Signum Academy also offers courses in writing and language studies. Take a look at the table below, then click on the link to Signum Academy’s home page for more information!

Writing ClubSignum Academy Writing Club helps young people learn to express themselves through different styles of writing. Each week, students receive writing prompts from the club leader and create drafts based on the prompt or on their own long-term projects. During club meetings, they take part in interactive, encouraging workshops with the teacher and other student writers. Monthly events such as Worldbuilding Day, character interviews, or Flash Fiction Day deepen the writers’ skills and experience.
Conversation ClubSignum Academy Conversation Club helps young people learn and practice language conversation skills in a variety of foreign languages. Group sessions use immersive language-learning techniques to help students achieve understanding and fluency quickly. Currently, Conversation Club groups are available for the following languages: Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Mandarin, Gaelic, and English for non-native speakers. Additional languages may be added over time.
Translation ClubSignum Academy Translation Club helps kids and teens develop and practice language translation skills. Students will learn how to translate foreign, extinct, and constructed language texts in weekly group sessions with a preceptor who is an expert in that language. Currently, Translation Club groups are available for the following languages: Latin, Old English, Old Norse, Biblical Hebrew, and New Testament Greek.
Additional languages may be added over time.

Private Literacy Tutoring

If you’re unsure what your child needs, what your schedule entails, or if you’re simply uncomfortable with the idea of signing up with a specific platform, I also offer one on one tutoring through Zoom. You can email me directly to schedule a needs assessment or conference Students receive individualized instruction based on their individual needs and age range. These classes offer instruction on concepts such as:
-Story Comprehension
-Phonemic and Alphabet Awareness
-Fluency and Automaticity
-Fiction vs. Nonfiction Comprehension and Text Features
-Sight Words
-Word Families and Rhyming Concepts
-Beginning Grammar concepts. Classes are offered on a subscription basis for 1 hour a week, with the opportunity to sign up for additional instruction as needed.


Initial Needs Assessments: $30 per hour.

Lessons: $50 per hour, with opportunities for discounts and coupons.

Use the form below to register for private tutoring only. In the Other Details section, please let me know what you would like from your child’s tutoring experience, when you are available for meetings, and other relevant details.

Thank you all, and happy reading!


Here’s What’s Coming…

What’s next for Teaching With Magic? Find out today!

Hello, my friends and followers!

It has been QUITE the summer this year! There have been lots of surprises, lots of fun, and there has been lots of joy.

This summer’s “Lord of the Rings” Book Club has been absolutely wonderful, and my students have been filled with zeal, curiosity, and an absolute love of Tolkien. They have asked countless questions that are thoughtful, insightful, and incredibly detailed. Their final creative projects have been funny, outstanding, and… well, creative! Their attention to detail has been unmatched. I am extremely happy with this summer’s results, and I will certainly be blogging on them soon.

Another reason for my lack of posts is some schoolwork. This past semester, I have been focusing on the research portion of my Final Thesis for Signum University. I am focusing on textual analysis through modern fantasy series texts, which means I’ve had many, many books to read for my core texts in addition to secondary source material. Phase I is complete, and I am progressing onward to Phase II, which is the actual writing portion. Hopefully, I will have the headspace to write a blog post or two in the meantime.

Now, for announcements! Teachers Pay Teachers is having a sitewide sale for Back to School on August 3rd and August 4th. All of my products in The Literacy Learning Lounge will be 20% off both of those days. If there is a product that is in my Curriculum Resources page but not listed on TPT, then please contact me and I will make sure that you receive that resource with a 20% discount.

And finally, I am happy to announce that my husband and I will be expecting our first baby this coming February. We are very excited for our little bundle to come. I’ve already been buying all of the baby books and look forward to reading them when I have time (who knows when that will be?). I’ll be posting some book reviews in the future as I look through them.

Thank you, and have a happy end of summer!


Digital Recovery at the Prancing Pony… Podcast… Moot!

Oh, what a joyous springtime it has been, dear readers! As the sun begins to shine more warmly upon our faces and blissful summer approaches, I look back on this past year and what it has meant for me as an educator and as a student. I’m constantly in awe of the things that my students teach me, and all of the things that I have yet to learn and devour. This year has had its trials and its problems, but it has also shown me that we are all continually growing, learning, and discovering new things, even as adults. Recently, I had the opportunity to present some of the lessons that I have learned from my students and I reflect upon how much I still have yet to do and learn.

The Prancing Pony Podcast held their inaugural moot last weekend, and it was a rousing success (If you are a fan of Tolkien but unfamiliar with the Prancing Pony Podcast, I highly suggest that you give them a listen)! Not only was this their first virtual Moot (a setting to which many organizations have struggled to adapt), but it was their very first Moot… well, ever! Thanks to the hard work of various volunteers, producers and coordinators (the lovely Katie McKenna!), and of course the Valiant and Stalwart Hosts, Shawn Marchese and Alan Sisto, a fun and raucous time was had by all. The various participation platforms- whether it was through Zoom, Discord, and multiple Slack channels- made for rich discussions, silly side conversations and jokes, and new friendships to blossom over the course of the three days without detracting from the presentations. We were able to interact with one another in ways that, frankly, would have been distracting and insufficient during an in person conference.

The Moot’s theme was focused on the notion of “Digital Recovery.” Tolkien discusses the notion, and indeed the need for recovery in his famous essay, “On Fairy Stories.”

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. …so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

Personally, I cannot think of a better topic for a digital moot, especially in a time when the pandemic has forced so many of us into isolation. In the past year, we had to find alternative ways to bond as a community… and boy, did we! In this Moot, our shared love of Tolkien and Faerie brought hundreds of people together, and the digital world was a means to uplift us rather than hinder us.

There were so many fantastic presentations from everyday members of the PPP community to prolific Tolkien scholars such as Amy H. Sturgis, Tom Shippey, Bill Fliss, and Michael D.C. Drout. Their topics were incredibly rich and gave us insight into the many gateways that one can engage with Tolkien’s work. From fandom studies to oral histories, from Old Norse to Old English… Tolkien invites us all to engage with his stories in a multitude of unique ways. Their talks also gave us the opportunity to reflect how readers connect with one another through a shared love of stories. There were incredible scholarly presentations, artistic and creative demonstrations, workshops, and reflections on how Tolkien has taught us all to hope, especially in times of darkness.

I had the wonderful privilege of presenting with my good friend, James Tauber. Together, we reflected on our friendship and the wonderful work that has come out of our collaboration since our first meeting. Initially, we had hoped to collaborate on teaching materials in person before COVID hit, but unfortunately the pandemic had other plans, leaving poor James stranded in Australia. However, thanks to the digital nature of my work on Outschool and the Digital Tolkien Project, we were able to collaborate and plan for my Hobbit Book Club in a way that we had not even dreamed of. If you recall, dear reader, the same James Tauber wrote a series of guest post on the nature of “planting linguistic seeds” in children through The Hobbit. Together, we took the seeds of his blog post and created a curriculum that engaged my students.

What was truly inspiring, however, was the fact that my students were able to teach the two of us as well. More than once, my students made fantastic observations about the text that excited all of us! Of course, my first instinct would be to check my research and to check with James to see if anyone had ever commented on these observations before. This created what we termed our “cyclical feedback loop,” in which student observations would lead to our research, and would then lead to teacher prompts and questions for the students to use as a reflection.

James and I chose this process as our example of Digital Recovery because it was such a beautiful light in a dark tunnel. The nature and success of our work and our partnership was changed- in fact, I think, for the better- because of the pandemic and the move to online teaching. Would my students have engaged in the same rigor in their lessons if we hadn’t been forced to work online? Would our collaboration and our partnership have been the same, or nearly as successful? I truly think not.

After the presentation, many participants asked us thoughtful, moving questions about our pedagogical process and the nature of teaching Tolkien to young students, particularly in the online format. In fact, many participants asked if I taught adult classes! While I currently do not, the idea of doing so is particularly exciting and of course the cogs in my brain began turning… As a result, James and I created a contact form for those who might be interested in adult classes and book clubs- please feel free to fill out your information if you are interested!

Finally, I want to give a rousing “thank you” to Alan, Shawn, Event Coordinator Katie McKenna, and the many producers and volunteers who made the Prancing Pony Podcast Moot such a success. It was an incredible few days, and it was another incredible example of Digital Recovery that we all so desperately needed in a time when hope can be hard to find. Our health has been renewed, a clear view regained, and all things can be seen clearly again. Thank you, all.


New Updates!

Hello, followers! It’s been an exciting few months here at Teaching With Magic!

I’ve been spending a lot of time the last few months creating fun, accessible literacy based curriculum for my one-on-one preschool and elementary students. Many of them are only just learning how to read and it’s been exciting to watch them grow and make connections to their reading. It’s also been exciting trying new tactics with them to help them automatically recognize words, sound out new ones, and comprehend what they are reading. With that, I’ve started listing more content on my Teachers Pay Teachers store, and now I want to bring that content to YOU!

As a Follower and Reader of Teaching With Magic, you now have direct access to my content on my Curriculum Resources page. From there, you can click on the resource you would like and it will take you directly to the listing on Teachers Pay Teachers. I am also taking requests for materials (price negotiable upon request). If there is something you, your classroom, or your family needs, I am happy to provide it for you.

Keep on the lookout for promotions and sales over the next coming months. Any time I have a sale, you as a follower with have first access to sales codes and promotions.

Thank you so much for your support!


Reflections of Book Club

This post revisits my online fantasy book club pedagogy and provides new critical insights as I reflect upon my process.

Firstly, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to James K. Tauber for his contributions to Teaching with Magic in his guest post series. His contributions were integral to some of my lessons in The Hobbit Book Club that I hosted for the past few months. His expansive knowledge of linguistics provided an alternative perspective to the story that fascinated my students, one that I would not have been able to offer without his expertise. Thank you again, James!

I have been working with Outschool for the past six months offering Book Clubs, writing classes, and one on one literacy tutoring. In July, I wrote a post about the benefits and how to’s of teaching a book club online. This post is a reflection of both of these works and the observations that I have made since then, and especially since teaching “The Hobbit” for the first time.

Since May (2020), I have offered three Fantasy Book Club classes, the first being C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Offering several sections throughout the summer gave me the opportunity to reflect upon my practice, how I was presenting information to the students, and how I was facilitating the discussion throughout in order to let the students dominate the conversation rather than the teacher. Since then, I have been very fortunate that some of my students (from various sections) chose to reenroll in my other Book Clubs for Lewis’ Prince Caspian and, most recently, Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

The students each decided and wrote down what they considered good qualities of a leader. They then debated how three different characters in “The Hobbit” showed these qualities throughout the text.

Time and again, my students have amazed me with their critical observations of the text and their questions. Every student reads the text differently depending on their own individual experiences, their relationship with fantasy books and with the world around them. One of my students will happily debate with me in regards to the “Chronological vs. Publication Order” approaches to reading the Narnia series, and he will insist upon reading a novel’s prequel before even attempting another (which has also led to an interesting discussion regarding Tolkien’s The Silmarillion). Another student will point out various patterns in word choice and poetry with the close reading skills of a college professor. My job as their teacher is to celebrate these observations, lead them further into their questioning, and occasionally break out into a dance when they do so.

My students often came to their conclusions based on or tangentially related to the journal questions that I would post for them to answer before class. Since my July post, I made one major change to the process that has been invaluable. I now require that all of my students come to each meeting with one discussion question to ask the rest of the class. I provide an instructional video for students during the first week that is specifically for constructing questions while reading. This strategy helps students come up with immediate but thoughtful questions while they are reading the text. Sometimes the questions are easily answered in the text, but other times students have provided critical exploratory questions or “if you were in the story” questions. Each class has garnered interesting results, and is not only reflective of the individual student’s personality but of the class as a whole. Some classes preferred comparing the texts with their own personal experiences while others were interested in more critical close reading of the text. Having the students provide their own questions gave them further opportunities to discuss the book that otherwise would have been overlooked if we had stuck solely to my understanding of the text or their answers to the journal questions.

My favorite (and saddest) day of Book Club is the last day. On the 8th and final meeting, we have a Creative Project Presentation and Tea Party. My students will come to class dressed in their favorite outfits and eating their favorite snacks as they present their project to their classmates. This final project is never graded, but I do provide guidelines for them to use and feel successful in their presentation. They must create something that reflects their understanding of the text and explain their artistic choices in a written defense of their work.

The results have been astounding.

From fanfiction chapters, comic strips, scenes written with computer code (Scratch AND Python!), and fashion design to (drawn) Social Media accounts, photographs, 3-D cards, and musical performances, each student and project has brought something unique. No two projects have been alike, and even my repeat students choose to creatively explore the text in a new way every time. Providing flexible guidelines, options, and possible topics to explore has given my students the opportunity to bring their unique creativity to the text without the restrictions of standardized rubrics and grading.

I am very fortunate to teach these students the magic of books. While this saying is a bit cliché, I truly have found that they teach me just as much, if not more, than I teach them. I’m certain that they will have even more success with their reading and with their reading skills as they continue their magical journey through their books.


Planting Linguistic Seeds with Tolkien: Part 3

A Guest Post Series with James K. Tauber

James K. Tauber is a philologist, linguist, and software developer who works with scholars around the world using computers to better understand languages and texts. This is the third of three guest posts, based on a presentation given at New England Moot in 2019, on how Tolkien’s works can be used to introduce children and young adults to some fundamental ideas in language.

In my first post, I looked at the runes in The Hobbit and how they can be used to introduce some core concepts in the way that languages and writing systems interact. In the second post, I looked at two more aspects of language exemplified in Tolkien: how the different sounds in a language can be organised and how those sounds can cause other sounds in a word to change.

Seed 4: Sounds in a language can be organised and described based on how they are produced

Seed 5: Individual sounds in a word can cause changes in other sounds around them

In this final post, we’ll look at the wonderful subject of naming things and how Tolkien did it.

Seed 6: Sometimes names are transliterated, sometimes they are translated

The following is a passage in the Old Norse saga Vǫluspá, dating back to the 10th century.

This saga is one of our major sources for the myth of creation and the end of the world in Norse mythology. This passage is listing a bunch of dwarfs (not dwarves). But look at some of the names. We can find Durin, Bifur, Bombur, Nori, Fili, Kili. In the top right: Gandalfr, Þorinn, Þrar, Þrainn (written with thorns, a vestige of the rune we saw earlier) and at the end Eikinskjaldi. This is where Tolkien got many of the names for The Hobbit.

Tolkien left Gandalf and Thorin intact. But notice he translated “Eikinskjaldi”. Names often work this way…

Seed 6: Sometimes names are transliterated, sometimes they are translated

Sometimes they are transliterated — basically written in the new alphabet trying to match the sounds fairly closely. Or alternatively they are translated — trying to keep some sort of meaning or connotation the same.

Interestingly in Tolkien, though, names aren’t always translated into Modern English. Tolkien certainly translated the Common Tongue (or Westron)  into Modern English but in order to capture the language of Rohan, for example, he decided to translate the names into a dialect of Old English.

It’s important to note, Rohirric isn’t Old English. Théoden’s real name was actually Tûrac. “Théoden” is just an attempt at an Old English equivalent to give English readers a flavour of what Rohirric might have sounded like to Westron speakers.

Similarly, Tolkien retroactively explained his use of Old Norse names for the dwarves in the Hobbit as him translating their real names into Old Norse to reflect the language spoken by the Men of Dale. Note that Elvish names are almost never translated into primary creation equivalents. Elvish names are transliterated.

People are often surprised that, with the exception of the Elvish names, most of the names in the Lord of the Rings are translations. Some were transliterations, like Brandywine (from Baranduin) and Took. But the Hobbits actually called themselves “kudukin” and the Shire “Sûza”. Bilbo and Frodo’s surname was actually “Labingi” and they lived at “Laban-nec”. Tolkien just translated these into a sort of English equivalent—“Baggins” and “Bag End”—and encouraged others translating Lord of the Rings into other languages to undertake similar word play. Sam’s real name (or nickname anyway) was Banazîr, Hobbitish for “half-wit” and the Old English for “half-wit” is “samwís”. Rivendell is one of the few truly translated Elvish names. In Westron it was Karningul or in Elvish of course, Imladris.

In the following passage from Lord of the Rings, Gimli boasts about how he didn’t need a map as he was so familiar with the area.

He rattles off various features of the Misty Mountains giving their names in Khuzdul (the dwarvish language), Englished versions of the Westron name (like Dwarrowdelf, Silvertine, Redhorn and Dimrill Dale), and the Elvish name.

Seed 7: Many names are made up of components that each have some meaning

The final seed I want to plant is that these names above are incredibly rich and realistic.

In The Hobbit, most of the place names are descriptive: the Lonely Mountain, Lake-town, the Iron Hills, the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood. Most place names start off like this: some description people use in their own language to identify the place. But over time, the transparency of the name is lost for a variety of reasons. Names become shortened or misheard, languages change, names are translated or adopted by outsiders who don’t understand the original language, or an invader’s name for the place is forced upon the locals. The places themselves may even lose the very characteristic that led to their initial description.

All of this means that the names of places tell a story. They have a history behind them and sometimes uncovering that history is a puzzle that involves breaking up the pieces that make up each name.

For example, Gimli says that the Black Pit (a nice description in English!) is called “Moria” in the Elvish tongue. If you suspect “Moria” might mean something like “Black Pit” in Elvish, you’d be right. There are hints of this in other Elvish names for dark things: Mordor, Morgul, Morgoth.

By looking at a collection of names and identifying both the common element and common meaning, you can start to build a picture of the components that make up the name and reveal something of its history.

Here is just a small subset that is fun to explore.

What does the common element in Angband, Angmar, Angrenost, or Ered Engrin mean?

The common element is “ANG” (Engrin comes about through i-mutation) and all of these have something to do with IRON. Angrenost is the Sindarin named for Isengard which is itself just Tolkien translating the archaic Westron name into an Old English equivalent (“isen” being one form of the Old English for iron).

In Doriath, Gondor, and Mordor, the common element is “DOR” and they are all lands. Doriath means “land that is fenced”, Gondor “stone land”, and Mordor “black land”.

What about the common element in Angrenost, Belegost, or Fornost

“OST” means a “fortress”. Angrenost is an “iron fortress”, Belegost is a “great fortress”, and Fornost is a “northern fortress” (think also of “Forochel” or “Forodwaith”).

What do Ered Mithrin, Mithril, Mithlond, and Mithrandir have in common?

Mithlond is the Sindarin name of the “Grey Havens”. The Ered Mithrin are the “Grey Mountains”. Mithrandir, or “Grey Wanderer” was Gandalf’s Sindarin name. The element “MITH” means “grey”.

These examples are just scratching the surface but it’s a wonderful puzzle for children and young adults to explore and it gets to the heart of Tolkien’s secondary creation and its incredible linguistic realism.

These seven seeds are just the very beginning, but hopefully I’ve given you an initial sense of just some of the things that can be explored in Tolkien’s books that can plant the seeds for a better understanding of how languages work and how they can be explored, not just in the secondary world but the primary.

Even if kids don’t become linguists or philologists, we can give them a much richer understanding of language through Tolkien.



Planting Linguistic Seeds with Tolkien: Part 2

James K. Tauber of “Digital Tolkien” reveals how Tolkien’s fictional writing systems and languages highlight significant patterns in the English language.

James K. Tauber is a philologist, linguist, and software developer who works with scholars around the world using computers to better understand languages and texts. This is the second of three guest posts, based on a presentation given at New England Moot in 2019, on how Tolkien’s works can be used to introduce children and young adults to some fundamental ideas in language.

In my previous post, I looked at the runes in The Hobbit and how they can be used to introduce some core concepts in the way that languages and writing systems interact:

Seed 1: Writing systems are not the same thing as languages,

Seed 2: Letters borrowed between writing systems aren’t necessarily used for the same sound,

Seed 3: Individual letters are not the same as individual sounds.

I was fascinated by The Hobbit runes at age eleven, but the real turning-point in my own linguistic seed planting was my twelfth birthday. My aunt knew I was a huge Hobbit fan and so bought me… The Return of the King. I hadn’t read the first two parts and so didn’t want to start with the story. Instead I just browsed the Appendices. And boy did I find something of interest…

The tengwar! And a new set of runes that are mapped to sounds in a completely different way to the Hobbit runes.

Seed 4: Sounds in a language can be organised and described based on how they are produced

A chart of tengwar letters from Tolkien’s Appendices

The bows and the stems looked so systematic, like there was a pattern to them. And there is! A pattern intimately tied to the sounds they represented and how those sounds are produced by our mouths and throats.

And so we come to what became one of the most significant seeds planted in teenage me: there’s an organising that can be done of the sounds in a language and sounds can be described in terms of how they are produced.

Seed 4: Sounds in a language can be organised and described based on how they are produced

Let me explain with some tengwar examples…

Notice you can have a single curved bow on a letter or two bows. In tengwar this indicates whether the consonant is voiceless or voiced—in other words, whether or not the vocal chords vibrate. Sounds like “P” and “B” (in the International Phonetic Alphabet, /p/ and /b/) both involve closing the lips briefly and then opening them to release a burst of air. The difference between them is whether you also vibrate your vocal chords. The relationship between “T” and “D” (/t/ and /d/) or “K” and “G” (/k/ and /g/) or “F” and “V” (/f/ and /v/) is the same, voiceless or voiced.

Now the difference between a /t/ and /p/ and /k/ is where in your mouth you stop the air. If you put your tongue behind your teeth, that’s a “dental” /t/. If you use your lips, that’s a “labial” /p/. And if you use the back of your tongue against your soft palette, that’s a “velar” /k/. That difference is called the “place of articulation”. And the tengwar uses stem placement and an underscore to indicate this in a systematic way! Now voicing and place of articulation are alone not enough to get some of the other sounds shown here. Another way consonants vary is the manner in which the airflow is modified.

We’ve already seen the “stops” where you actually stop the air and the release it. There are also fricatives where you don’t completely stop the air, you let a bit through causing some turbulence. If you do this with your lips and teeth you get F (/f/), if you do it with your tongue on your teeth you get “TH” (/θ/) and if you do it with the back of your tongue you get the German “CH” sound in Bach (/x/). A third manner in which you can modify the airflow is to let it through the nose instead. And this is how you get “N,” “M,” and “NG” (/n/ /m/ and /ŋ/). Again, though, the tengwar systematically represent this manner of articulation with the height and direction of the stem.

There’s a lot more complexity to the tengwar, its history and its use for different Elvish languages. And not all the letters are organised so systematically. There are the so-called “Additional tengwar”. But the point is the rows and columns and the “meaning” of the stems and bows and underscores introduces many important phonetic concepts and terms. My first phonology class at university was filled with terminology I’d already learned from Tolkien! But even more generally, the tengwar is what really opened up teenage me to the idea that language had patterns that could be studied like a science! 

Seed 5: Individual sounds in a word can cause changes in other sounds around them

Let’s turn to a different area of language patterns: how plural forms are made. Now you might think in English we just add an “s” but that’s a property of our spelling, not the language itself.

We sometimes add an “S” (/s/) sound (like in hobbits or orcs) and sometimes a “Z” /z/ sound (like in goblins or wargs). We use the voiceless /s/ or the voiced /z/ depending on whether the preceding sound is voiceless or voiced. Which plants another seed…

Seed 5: individual sounds in a word can cause changes in other sounds around them

It actually gets a little more interesting in English words ending in “f”.

We get “cliffs” but “wives”. Note the spelling change of the “f” to the voiced equivalent “v”. But should the plural of dwarf be dwarfs like cliffs or dwarves like wives? Disney said the former and that was by far the more common of the two in 1937 when Snow White came out. In The Hobbit, however, published the very same year, Tolkien used dwarves.

He actually addresses this in Appendix F. But note what he says:

He suggests that if it were more like man / men or goose / geese, the plural would have been dwarrows. Now we don’t have time to get into why that might be the case but I want to come back to the man / men / goose / geese example…

This is another way to make plurals in English. Change the vowel.

Man > men; woman > women (notice both vowels change even though only one in the spelling); foot > feet; goose > geese; mouse > mice. This is a process called umlaut or i-mutation which happened in Germanic languages. These plurals did have an ending “iz” two thousand years ago. First the “z” dropped off. Then “i” influenced the preceding vowels. This is called vowel harmony, where vowels in a word try to become more alike. Once i-mutation happened, it meant one could tell the plural just from the earlier vowel and the “i” at the end was redundant. By the time we get to Old English, the “i” was no longer pronounced or written. Other sound changes like the Great Vowel Shift further changed things, but you get the idea of a general historical process that happened.

Tolkien made extensive use of i-mutation in the plurals of the Elvish language Sindarin, and this sometimes goes by the Sindarin word prestanneth.

The Sindarin for “hill” is Amon as in Amon Sûl but the word for “hills” (plural) is Emyn as in Emyn Muil. Barad is “tower” but “towers” would be Beraid. One Orod, many Ered

Those of you who play Lord of the Rings Online may have come across craban vs crebain, grodbog vs gredbyg, morroval vs merrevail. Aragorn is a Dúnadan, one of the Dúnedain. Note that in the Quenya, a more conservative Elvish language, the “i” is still there: Núnatan vs Núnatani. The vowel harmony and subsequent loss of final “i” only happened in Sindarin. But it’s the same sort of process that happened in English and other Germanic languages.

We see Tolkien using realistic language changes in the creation of his own languages, and observing the phenomena in Tolkien can highlight these linguistic concepts in our own languages like English.

In the third part of this series, we’ll introduce our two final seeds, focusing on some of the names in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.



Planting Linguistic Seeds with Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”

What are some ways to get children invested in language and linguistics? James Tauber of Digital Tolkien explains how in this guest post series!

A Guest Post Series with James K. Tauber of Digital Tolkien

James K. Tauber is a philologist, linguist, and software developer who works with scholars around the world using computers to better understand languages and texts. This is the first of three guest posts, based on a presentation given at New England Moot in 2019, on how Tolkien’s works can be used to introduce children and young adults to some fundamental ideas in language.

My academic training is in linguistics, the systematic study of language. Like many linguists, I can trace my interest in studying how languages work to Tolkien. It’s not that I read Tolkien and decided I wanted to be a linguist. I didn’t know such a thing existed at the time. But rather, when I started studying linguistics, I realised I’d already picked up a few of the fundamentals and perhaps my initial interest from Tolkien. In this series of blog posts, I’d like to explore seven of these sorts of “linguistic seeds” that might be planted in the minds of children and young adults as they encounter language in the works of Tolkien.

Seed 1: Writing systems are not the same thing as languages

It all started for me with The Hobbit which I first read at around ten or eleven.

Immediately I was confronted by these strange symbols.

What language was this?

Well, it turns out, perhaps anticlimactically, it’s just English! But it’s English written with a different kind of writing. It was intended to depict the writing of dwarves, but it’s in fact just a slightly modified version of the Anglo-Frisian runes that Old English was sometimes written in. For the eleven-year-old me, it was like a code to decipher. But there’s an important seed here:

Seed 1: Writing systems are not the same thing as languages

The writing system, that is the system of symbols used to convey a language in written form, is NOT the same as a language itself.

Gandalf makes this point with the ring inscription (emphasis mine): 

“The letters are Elvish but the language is the Black Speech of Mordor.”

The same language can be written in multiple writing systems and the same writing system used for multiple languages. Yiddish, a Germanic language, is written in the Hebrew alef-bet. Persian, an Indo-European language, is written in the Arabic alphabet. Serbo-Croatian is written in the Latin alphabet in Croatia but the Cyrillic alphabet in Serbia. Writing systems are not the same thing as languages.

Seed 2: Letters borrowed between writing systems aren’t always used for the same sound

Let’s return to decoding these runes.

Tolkien doesn’t give explicit mappings between these runes and English sounds in The Hobbit but all the passages written in runes are provided in the Latin alphabet too so it can all be worked out. This is a very fun puzzle!

Some of the runes look quite a bit like the corresponding letters in the Latin alphabet. Some look completely foreign. Yet others look related to the Latin letters but actually represent something completely different—these so called “false friends” on the last line. Which brings us to a second little seed to plant in your minds…

Seed 2: Letters borrowed between writing systems aren’t always used for the same sound

Different languages have different sounds and when they adopt the writing system of another language, they adapt it: abandoning some symbols, repurposing other symbols for what are unused sounds in the target language for new sounds not previous covered; and sometimes inventing completely new symbols or modifications of existing ones.

Seed 3: Individual letters are not the same as individual sounds

Take a look at these four words, written in Hobbit runes and in the Latin alphabet.

Firstly notice one symbol is used for “TH” which is, of course, written as two letters in English. As a kid I thought of this as one rune representing two letters but that’s actually not the right way to think of it. “TH” is ONE SOUND. It makes sense to use one symbol.

It is an accident of history that in Modern English we use two letters for this one sound. In Old English we used just one: a “thorn” Þ which looks like the rune! Similarly with the vowel in “feet” or “door”. Notice only one vowel sound is written in runes and the sound for “door” is the same as “or”. “feet” and “door” do not have multiple vowel sounds. They each have just one vowel sound but two letters are written to represent that sound.

There are lots of other examples in English of multiple letters representing one sound. The “SH” in “ship” is a single sound as is the “CH” in “school” (corresponding to the sound usually written “K”). In the word “enough” the “GH” corresponds to the single sound more commonly written as “F”. The “OU” too corresponds to just a single vowel sound. In “ought” or “bought” the entire four-letter sequence “OUGH” is just a single sound.

And so we plant the seed that individual letters are not the same as individual sounds. Sometimes a sound can be expressed as sequence of multiple letters. Much of the time this has to do with the history of the language and the writing system and English is particularly complex in this regard, but that’s a whole jungle in itself and we’re just planting seeds for now.

Seed 3: Individual letters are not the same as individual sounds

In the next part of this series, we’ll introduce two more seeds using a new writing system and a way of making plurals that Elvish has in common with the ancestor languages of English.

Interested in learning more about language and linguistics in Tolkien’s writing? You can go to Digital Tolkien’s website or follow Digital Tolkien on Twitter @DigitalTolkien.


Video: “Potter Pedagogy” at The Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Conference, 2019

Last year, I wrote to you about the Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Conference and shared my experiences in presenting my paper on active learning models at Hogwarts. Here is my presentation in full!


Book Clubs… Online??

We know and love that book clubs work. They are a wonderful way to get your friends together and talk about your favorite stories. It is beautiful to think that the book that is so closely tied to your heart is shared with a group of common minded people, a group that can be as small as one pair to millions of people around the globe. But book clubs are changing in this brave new world, and we can change along with them.

Once upon a time, we could meet on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, snuggle on a bean bag chair or a comfy couch and sip hot chocolate while chatting with our friends about the assigned reading for the meeting. In our new normal, however, that may not be possible. That’s not to say that sipping hot chocolate is out of the question- perish the thought! But there’s more than one way to enjoy each other’s company and learn from each other.

For the past two months, I have been teaching the first of my Fantasy Book Club classes on Outschool, an online learning platform for homeschooling families. On Outschool, I am encouraged to offer focused classes on my favorite subjects rather than scrambling to teach curriculum that has been handed to me by administration. Here, I can be creative, ask critical questions of my students, and easily adapt my lessons to fit their individual needs.

One student and I tackle Lewis’ dedication to Lucy Barfield in “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” One short paragraph can reveal so much about a child’s analytical skills.

In the three rounds of Book Clubs thus far, every group of students has approached the same text in different ways. They have tackled C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe with absolute gusto, devouring each morsel of text as if it were Turkish Delight itself. They have asked questions about race, feminism, morals and core values without realizing it and without my prompting. They have sent poor Edmund Pevensie to court and argued for a punishment for his treason or for forgiveness. One little one begged me to tell him all about the Inklings and how they met every week at The Eagle and Child, while another child wondered how the story would have changed if Peter and Susan had gone through the wardrobe first. And they have all done it from behind a screen, armed only with a camera, a microphone, and the text.

Book clubs work when the students are given the room to talk with gentle direction. Teachers and parents should work to be facilitators of book clubs and refrain from telling students what the “right answer” is. I start all of my Book Club sessions with the phrase, “who has a question for today?” Even if I get the ever popular “I don’t have a question,” I simply smile and say, “yes you do, it’s right in front of you.” I give the students the room to use questions that they have devised during their reading or to simply read from the assigned journal prompt for the week. Sometimes the question is as simple as “What the heck is a Faun?” As long as the conversation is student driven, then it will all fall into place.

I also provide a series of optional videos to watch for added enrichment and context. Some of the videos are created by me, others are from other creative people who can provide more context to the story. That way, students can have more than one avenue to explore the story.

You can start a book club through any media you desire. There are many fantastic podcasts out there, such as Mythgard Academy, The Prancing Pony Podcast, and the Lamppost Listener that delve into texts and meet weekly through an audio or video setting, such as Twitch. Many teachers on Outschool have used MMORPGs such as Minecraft to build and explore ancient civilizations or book settings to talk about their favorite subjects. Anything is possible if you can conceive it, and you can teach in an adaptable, personable way and teach the students in your community how to adapt to this changing world.

Most importantly, don’t try to adapt a brick and mortar model to the online classroom. One of the downfalls of online learning in this pandemic has been some schools’ inability or lack of resources to be flexible and adapt their curriculum to the online setting. What works in a school probably won’t work online, and trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole does not work. Rather, reshape the round hole into a square hole. Consider how your media access lifts your curriculum rather than hinders it. Make changes, ask different questions, and provide resources for your students to learn along with you. Now, more than ever, students need to learn how to grow and change with the world, and you can grow and change along with them.

Foster community. Provide access. Talk about your books and the connections that students make with these texts. Help them lose themselves in the story and learn to love reading. Isn’t it magical?


Announcement: Fantasy Book Club Series on Outschool!

Hello readers! I’m very excited to announce that I’ve listed my first Book Club on Outschool!

Outschool is a platform for kids ages 3-18 to take courses on their favorite subjects. It’s great for children who are home schooled or want to learn more about their favorite topics. This summer, I’m starting my Fantasy Book Club series with C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” This club meets once a week for 8 weeks, but I have multiple sections listed so that parents can choose which day works best into their schedules! During the week, students will have journal questions, optional background information videos, and other fun activities to engage them in different ways.

I’m truly excited to start this venture. My goal is to use this classic fantasy text to spark children’s imaginations and give them the opportunity to strengthen their reading, writing, and discussion skills in a fun, low stakes environment. “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” has been one of my favorite texts since I was a young child, and I can’t wait to share that joy with more students!

For more details on how the class is run, click the link here to sign up for my class!


The Other Side of Remote Learning

This Isn’t Exactly an Ideal Situation

“There are too many equity concerns to grade remote work fairly.”

“Remote learning just doesn’t work. Kids need to be in school.”

“My kids don’t show up or turn in their work.”

“I miss my kids too much, I want to see them again.”

For the past two months, many of my colleagues and friends in the teaching world are expressing their frustration with the new remote learning mandates that are the result of mandatory social distancing and school closures. Major cities such as NYC, Los Angeles, and others are suffering especially because their budgets don’t allow for equitable learning on a regular basis. Kids are falling through the cracks and missing out on work because they don’t have phone or internet access in order to do their schoolwork.

But here’s the thing- even before COVID, this was a problem. Children in poverty or lower socioeconomic status have been cheated of a quality education time and time again. So why is remote learning getting some of the blame now?

The core of the problem is the lack of funding, and the fact that many leaders don’t understand how remote learning truly works. School budgets are consistently cut, teachers work more hours than they are paid and then receive the blame when someone’s precious angel doesn’t get a perfect passing grade. Too many school leaders are asking teachers to take their in school curriculum and magically changing it to fit the online world- but it’s a square peg in a round hole. What works in a physical classroom can and should be assessed differently and changed in order to meet online needs. And yes, it can be done well.

The time for training teachers how to teach online was before a crisis, not during one. The time for funding and flexibility was then, too, not just now.

The Other Side of Equity

I myself have had experience not only as a remote student, but also as a remote teacher. I’ve seen students fail spectacularly in the brick and mortar classroom, to the point of being asked to leave the school rather than tarnish their graduation statistics. When I taught in the Bronx, many of my seniors transferred (only some voluntarily) to different schools in the area and take online classes for credit so that they could graduate on time. Some of my students needed to work to support their families, and they found that the online environment was more conducive to their needs and their schedules. I’ve also had students in my remote classes with chronic illnesses and mental health differences, which made attendance at their school almost impossible. The online learning environment gave them the opportunity to work with me and curate their own schedules and due dates for assignments rather than facing the Sisyphean inflexibility of their schools (Illnesses often don’t adhere to state mandates!)

So then, why did these students fall to the wayside? Why did they come to close to slipping through the cracks? Why is it that my Bronx seniors didn’t have the option of taking online classes until it was very nearly too late?

Yes, school is and should be a safe space for children who need a structure, who need a meal or a counselor when they are receiving none at home. Many students are losing necessary Special Education services during this time of crisis. However, there are students whose diagnoses don’t fit the cookie cutter mold of brick and mortar schools and would thrive in a remote learning setting.

What ARE The Benefits?

Edutopia recently released an article on the positive effects that teachers and students are noticing with their recent remote learning experiences since the pandemic started. These are the benefits that they have noticed thus far:

  • Self Pacing:
    1. Students are deciding how and when they do their work, giving them the opportunity to critically examine how well they are completing the assignment, rather than rushing to meet a deadline.
    2. Students are giving themselves breaks and exercise, allowing them to come to class refreshed and ready to work.
    3. Students are learning to take responsibility for their own daily schedule and their schoolwork, rather than having someone micromanaging them daily.
  • Time Management and Prioritizing Their Needs
    1. An inflexible schedule during the day made it impossible for many students to squeeze in homework.
    2. Mandatory extracurricular activities and the pressure to impress colleges with sports and clubs have been almost eliminated, giving students a chance to focus on their schoolwork.
    3. Teachers and schools are also reconsidering how the daily school schedule (7-8 classes per day, minimal time for socialization) gave kids too many tasks to do with no time to complete them.
    4. Kids (and teachers!) are getting more sleep!
  • Lowering the Stakes
    1. Schoolwork and tasks are changed in order to fit the online structure, which is relieving the intense pressure that comes with ordinary schooling.
    2. Some students are excelling more so now because they no longer feel the pressure that comes with academic failure.
    3. The focus is now on learning instead of testing.
  • The Shy, Anxious, and Bullied Students
    1. Anxiety due to the peer pressure and social relationships is lessened.
    2. The shy student has the opportunity to be heard through other avenues besides hand raising and cold calling.
    3. The anxious student doesn’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing or being bullied for wearing the wrong clothes.
      1. This is not to say that online and cyber bullying does not occur. Rather, this is to say that the pressure that comes with being bullied at school, physically or verbally, on the bus or in the lunchroom, is eliminated.

So, Now What?

Now is the time to consider the future. Now is the time to consider the forgotten student who doesn’t fit the brick and mortar mold. Now is the time to reconsider the pressure that schools have been putting on students for far too long. Now is certainly the time to consider funding for students in poverty, students with disabilities, and for schools (and teachers!) who are pushing themselves to meet students’ needs every single day and failing because of circumstances out of their control. Let’s think about all of the students. All of them.

Remote learning and education does work. We’re just doing it wrong right now. But we can do better. And we will.


Teaching and Working from Home: Adapting Education and Online Learning Models

Teaching online is a brave new world in this current climate. School closures and government mandates have led administrations to scramble to provide effective online education to their students. But what is effective online education?

Author’s Personal Note: I started writing this post about a week ago. When I did, I was full of hope about providing a resource to friends and teachers. Then, as it tends to do, self doubt and panic started to set in. As knowledgeable and experienced as I am about technology and education, I wondered if this post would truly provide the help and incentive that teachers and parents need right now. I decided to take some time and observe the Twitterverse to see what insight it could provide. I noticed that many teachers are already experienced in technological tools and websites, but there current concerns are thus; how do we help our students learn when the world seems to be falling apart? How do we help those who have limited access to technology? While there are giant, systemic issues that are beyond our control, such as State Testing mandates and access to basic needs, there are some things that teachers can do. We can be flexible, and we can have hope.

It’s no surprise to hear that school and office closures have led to some panic and confusion. Many teachers and professors are confused about the new requirements and requests to make their classes and content online, and many parents are left wondering how they are going to teach or entertain their children during these recent mandates. However, there are many fantastic teachers and schools that have shared their own tips and tricks for how they teach effectively online, and how you too can make learning effective, even through a computer screen.

The simplest way that one can teach online is with a camera. Using any kind of telecommunication or streaming service such as Skype, Zoom, GoToWebinar, or Google Hangouts/Meet can bridge the gap between staying at home and delivering content face to face. Even something as simple as a FaceTime session with an individual student can help. Test out the video service for yourself before using it in order to determine what bells and whistles come with the service. For example, GoToWebinar provides organizers and presenters with the ability to share their screen so that the other viewers can see content such as PowerPoint slides, videos, and web searches. Participants can click on a hand raising button to respectfully request to speak, and they can mute their microphones in order to minimize background noise. Make sure you do some test runs to ensure that any technological glitches that can be avoided are avoided.

Recent Minecraft news in response to the COVID crisis

If you have the means and the tools, this is also a good time to get creative! Some teachers who are experienced in gaming, such as The Tolkien Professor, are using and have used MMORPGs (Online role playing games) to host classes. Students can create a character in the game and can meet in large groups to have class. Students can chat with each other in-game using a microphone system or the chat feature, or teachers can host lectures in a predetermined location in-game with their microphones and field questions using Twitch, Discord, or another chat interface. If you can have fun, why not? For more on MMORPGs and teaching, click here.

A 2017 tweet calling interested parties to action for Exploring LOTRO. You don’t necessarily have to have a character in game- you can participate in the discussion through Twitch or Discord while watching and listening to Corey Olsen critically discuss the Lord of the Rings

Many schools are already partnered with educational tools and programs that teachers use to create content. The following is a list of tools that I have used in the classroom in order to boost participation and deliver content effectively:

  1. Google Classrooms
  2. Nearpod
  3. Socrative
  4. YouTube
  5. Quizlet
  6. Khan Academy
  7. Kahoot
  8. Goodreads
  9. Twitter

However, you must be sure to have clear expectations for your students in order to make sure that they are using these tools effectively. And remember- they are tools, and they are only effective if they are planned for and implemented properly. They do not replace effective content and teaching. What do you want to do with the technology? How do you want students to interact with each other? What should your code of conduct be for polite, respectful conversations? Planning for these moments at the beginning will help your classes run smoothly.

Above all, this is the time to be flexible, not only with your students, but with yourself. Everyone is learning how to adapt at this time, and some teachers have different resources at hand than others. Use the tools that you do have, and don’t worry about completely reinventing your curriculum. Your students are transitioning as well, so now is the time to take a deep breath and evaluate how you can be flexible during this time. Perhaps instead of making daily or weekly assignments, this is the opportunity to do a long project. Ask your students to document their project on a daily or weekly basis in a journal (handwritten or online). What are they exploring? How are they exploring it? How are they testing out their hypotheses? What are their methods?

Many teachers are also exploring the option of creating “Pandemic Journals.” This is an activity that asserts that this COVID-19 pandemic is a “living history” moment, and as a result we can create primary source documents that historians can discover and research in the future. Let them use their daily experiences to inform their writing and ask questions. Use email or text messages to provide prompts to students if they need help thinking of what to write.

Most importantly, be kind and be flexible with yourself. You are learning too. Research ways that you can help your students if you don’t know the answer. Find support groups online that can give you ideas if you are having trouble thinking of one on your own. Take brain breaks and give yourself boundaries. You may not be in a brick and mortar environment, but just because technology is at your fingertips does not mean you have to ALWAYS be available. Create time for yourself, your families, and your health.

If you need additional resources and help through this process, this link is a good place to start. Signum University has many different resources at your disposal, including a new mentor program for teachers and organizations. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it.


There Are No Limits to Imagination

Today’s post is an informal reflection of a concept that I have been wrestling with for a few weeks. It is a concept that is implicit to many of you who read my blog, and to many of my colleagues and fellow researchers who work in the world of fantasy literature, and even education. Imagination is a wonderful, magical world in which many of us retreat to when the real world is either too boring or too difficult to process. Many times, imagination is a haven from harm, or it is simply a fun retreat. In November, I wrote a post about Dramatic Play in Preschools, and how important it is for young children to engage their imaginations for their overall development. However, the question I have been pondering recently is thus: what happens when we have limited to no imagination?

I have had the experience of working with a student or two in one on one sessions. Some of them are creative and fun to work with, and they answer my questions with different possible answers. However, some have difficulty with the imaginative approach. One, in particular, struggles with using their imagination in my class because they* have had little to no exposure to imaginative thinking. Their parents completely forbid screens in the home (which is another conversation entirely), and when they see them after class there is very little dramatic or imaginative play in their interactions.** As a result, my student often stays in their own comfortable boxes that they have created. They are interested in subjects that are “true,” and they tell me when “that’s not true” or “that’s not real.” To my understanding, they read very few imaginative fiction books at home, except for the occasional Dr. Seuss. Fairy tales and fantasy are a complete mystery to them. While these choices are not wrong, they did lead him to have some difficulty when it comes to certain imaginative thinking skills that present in the classroom. If I pose predictive questions about the text (“What do you think is going to happen next?”), his automatic answer is “I don’t know.” When he draws in his Story Maps, he feels more comfortable drawing things realistically, and will refuse to draw if I ask him to “use his imagination.”

What, then, are the consequences for this student? What happens when imagination or creative thinking is limited or undernourished? A study by M. Root-Bernstein and R. Root-Bernstein (2006) posits that imaginative world building in early childhood contributes to creative thinking in adults. While previous research declared early imaginative play to be “uncommon and associated with the arts,” the data in Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein’s study “validated [their] expectation that individuals inventing imaginary worlds in childhood participate as adults in a wide variety of disciplines,” including scientists, artists, and those who work in the social sciences and humanities.

Particularly in the social sciences and sciences, creative (older) individuals were significantly more likely to have engaged in childhood worldplay than students anticipating careers in these fields. In addition, over one half of the study’s select and general populations recognized an important role for worldplay in their adult vocations and avocations. Many perceived mature worldplay in their work; others in their recreation. Still others continued to engage in worlds first invented in childhood. Finally, the prevalent perception of connection between childhood play and adult endeavor argues that the invention of imaginary worlds is not some obscure form of make-believe, but rather a phenomenon of wider cognitive import. …

Finally, we argue that worldplay at any age and in many guises presents a microcosm with which to explore the complex nature of creativity itself. Mature worldplay at work, in particular, may add a nuanced perspective to the ongoing discussion of creative individuals as generalists or as specialists. Creativity is such that an individual must combine previously disparate elements of knowledge and action into something novel and effective.

M. Root-Bernstein and R. Root-Bernstein, (2006) “Imaginary Worldplay in Childhood and Maturity and Its Impact on Adult Creativity.”

This research ultimately shows that imaginative play and world building is not only consequential for the child, it is also consequential for the adult. Engaging the imagination gives children and adults the opportunity to consider all possibilities when faced with a problem or a question. Entrepreneurs, scientists, and artists all need imagination in order to thrive and grow in their respective vocations, just as a child needs imagination and play to be happy in their day to day experiences.


Root-Bernstein, M., & Root-Bernstein, R. (2006). Imaginary Worldplay in Childhood and Maturity and Its Impact on Adult Creativity. Creativity Research Journal18(4), 405–425. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326934crj1804_1

*Here, I use the gender neutral pronoun “they” in order to maintain anonymity and adhere to privacy rules and laws in the state. This is not the student’s personal gender identity, but it is necessary for me to keep the student anonymous.

**In due fairness, I spend 180 minutes per week with this child, and I receive information secondhand and through my limited interactions with the parents. It is entirely possible that I may be receiving misinformation or an incomplete story.


Book Review: “The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child” by Donalyn Miller

Donalyn Miller’s “The Book Whisperer” is an incredible journey from a teacher who instills a love of reading in every student who has come her way.

Donalyn Miller reminds us all of what it truly means to be a reader, and how we can teach our young ones to love reading. Reading is a magical experience, but too often schools are bogged down by state and test mandates to truly teach a child how to read. When one reads for pleasure, no one is asking them to find the main idea or mark a Scantron sheet. They are simply absorbing the text, and then later articulating what they did or did not enjoy about the text. Miller’s approach was crafted through years of experience, anecdotes of successes and (perceived) failures, and above all a love of reading.

Pennac’s “The Rights of the Reader.”

This book is, frankly, a godsend for all teachers who want their students to become strong readers who enjoy reading, can talk about their reading, and steal reading time at every moment. Rather than filling up time with warm up exercises, busywork, or worksheets that will eventually just end up in the trash, she works with her students to implement structured routines for reading. Waiting for line during Picture Day? Read a book. Finished with all of your worksheets? Read a book. Class trip? Read a book while waiting in line for the bus. For many adults, these stolen reading moments can be implicit in their reading practice, but they must be taught to young readers so that it becomes implicit for them as well. Her approach is to require students to read 40 books in the school year, and she uses teaching moments to show them how to make good reading choices, decide what to do when a book simply is not working, and make plans for their reading goals.

This book includes anecdotes from students and assignments from Miller’s teaching. Helpful appendices that can be copied as worksheets are also included!

Miller provides effective strategies for teachers to implement in their classes to replace some of the traditional teaching that have turned students against reading. For example, instead of traditional book reports, her students write book reviews and letters to the teacher in their reader’s notebooks. Conferences and book chats replaced or minimized tests on the content, and the students engaged in critical activities that showed them how to not only interact with and review a book, but also how to criticize it and make their own choices about their future reading and relationships with books. While one result was an increase in their State Test scores, Miller reflects that test scores are only a small part of her students’ reading journey. More importantly, she believes that every child should become a lifelong reader, and the journey has to start by abandoning “drill-and-kill” methods and simply give the students the opportunity to read.

If you would like to learn more about Donalyn Miller and her work, you can visit her website at bookwhisperer.com.


Teacher Feature: Severus Snape

Many fans are conflicted with their feelings about the Potions Master, Severus Snape. Up to Book 7, we see him as a bully and a murderer, until it is revealed that he has been playing double agent out of love (or guilt, however you choose to see it) for Lily Evans Potter. Whatever his intentions as double agent, it cannot be argued that he was, in fact, a terrible teacher to many. What is worse, he could have been an incredible teacher that could have made a difference to many little potions masters to come. Unfortunately, he was not able to do what many teachers are currently asked (even demanded) to do every day, which is to leave his emotions and biases at the door. He had a brilliant mind, but he was not able to guard himself and follow his own advice…

“Fools who wear their hearts proudly on their sleeves, who cannot control their emotions, who wallow in sad memories and allow themselves to be provoked this easily — weak people, in other words — they stand no chance against [Voldemort’s] powers!”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
J.K. Rowling

This material may be protected by copyright.

While Snape may pride himself on being an excellent Occlumens and gifted with the ability to play both sides, the strain of doing so affects his teaching abilities and his students’ mental health. His story is one of missed opportunities and a human effort to face impossibilities.

Snape’s initial meeting with Harry Potter is telling to his teaching style, and one that directly conflicts with most of the other teachers’ at Hogwarts. Immediately, he tests Harry by asking him exceedingly difficult questions that Harry couldn’t possibly know the answers to (but certainly Hermione knows). On the surface (and I’m sure was intentional), this interaction was a power move and a moment that meant to intimidate and humiliate. However, it was also a teaching moment for everyone in the classroom, and let them know exactly what Snape would expect from his students. He expects them to come prepared with the content, theories, and background so that when the practical events and experiments present themselves in the classroom, or other “extracurricular” moments (say, a logic puzzle to reach the Sorcerer’s Stone, or shoving a bezoar down your friend’s throat when he has been poisoned), the students will be prepared for anything. (For more on this subject, see Lorrie Kim’s post “J.K. Rowling, Giftedness, and the Ghost of Ravenclaw”).

Bullying, temper, and tortured soul aside, Snape has little to no excuse for his ineffective teaching practice. He is brilliant in his field, as evidenced by his marginalia in his old copy of Libatious Borage’s Advanced Potion Making (Half Blood Prince 189). His notes prove not only that he is an astounding wizard and potion artist, but it also proves that he was once willing to experiment and correct an expert’s knowledge and provide more effective approaches. However, as both Conn and Dickinson state, being brilliant in your field does not constitute an effective teacher. He uses closed questioning tactics* and homework as a punishment, rather than an opportunity for his students to learn from their experiences (Conn 1178, Bixler 76). He never models how to make a potion for his students, which detracts from the students’ need to see how a “perfect” potion is made. While Johnson claims that the lack of demonstration adds to the students’ active learning environment, she then amends that he practices this ineffectively because the students’ only guidance is their textbook and the potion recipe, with no chance for any student collaboration or student to teacher dialogue (82-83). Snape had an opportunity to be the best Potions master that Hogwarts could have, but squandered it over petty jealousy and a lack of compassion.

The question then becomes “What is the lesson for us as teachers?” Do we take the good with the bad, or do we cherry pick the qualities that we enjoy about Snape’s teaching and see beyond the angry veneer that he presents? What might we do in Snape’s stead, with fewer grudges and conflicts to face and more pride in our teaching? Do we look to Snape, or do we look to the young Half Blood Prince as our model?

*Closed Questioning refers to the use of “Yes”, “No,” or “one right answer” questions that limit the students’ chance for exploration, debate, or experimentation. For example, “Is a bezoar an antidote for poisons?” An example of an open questioning tactic would be “Compare and contrast the benefits of these three different antidotes to poison,” or “What are the benefits of using a bezoar instead of ____ as an antidote for poison?”


Holiday Reading Challenge

There are times when I wonder if insomnia is a blessing or a curse. Recently, it’s been a bit of both. My semester at Signum is over for the present, and the lack of sleep (as well as a decent commute to work) has given me the opportunity to get quite a bit of reading done. I’ve been reading more books than I thought were possible, thanks to my access to ebooks through Libby (managed by Overdrive) and my local library. While I did not set out to complete a Reading Challenge, I was quite surprised to see that I had passed my Goodreads Yearly Reading Challenge- so why not keep the challenge going?

Usually, when I set out to find a new book to read, I check out my Goodreads “Want to Read” list to find the next chronological book I added in order to stay on top of the ever growing pile of books that I will probably never finish reading. Suffice it to say, it is not always the best strategy. This time, I started with a recommendation list from a classmate in my Modern Fantasy class. This particular list was created as a reaction to Harry Dresden’s casual sexism (Sorry, not sorry Jim Butcher) and a desire to read more gender inclusive and feminist fantasy. Let me tell you, I was HOOKED. I read book after book on the list, and it reawakened the child in me that would sit up at night under the covers with a flashlight, immersed in fantastic lands, folklore, and heroic conflict, with no thought to how I was going to function the next morning. Thankfully, I’m old enough for coffee now.

Group chats, threads, and forums can be very valuable, as this particular thread proved to me.

When that list ran out, I decided it was time to simply let it all go (cue snowflakes and inevitable cease and desist order from Disney) and fall down the rabbit hole of recommendations. My (wonderful) husband has a strategy for choosing a movie to watch on Amazon- click on a film that he might enjoy or has watched previously, then click on the “Customers Also Watched” link to find something similar. He will click on that link at least five times and scroll through all of the lists of all of the possible movies available before he is satisfied that he has found the perfect one that suits his mood, if he picks one at all (I’m usually sitting on the couch inwardly screaming, “Just pick a movie already!!!!”). However, when lying awake at three a.m., it was actually a perfect strategy when I was not sure what to pick next and I did not have the brain energy to think critically about my choice. So, I scrolled through Libby’s ten-plus Fantasy recommendations, read a few blurbs, and checked out the ones that captured my interest. I had no idea if I would like these books, if they were books that my peers at Signum or on Twitter might have read, or if these books were secret gems waiting for me to discover them. However, I dove right in, and here are my results;

In a space of about six weeks, I read 17 books (I’m a fast reader, but I’m usually not THAT fast).

Out of those 17 books, I found three that were not to my liking, and one that I returned early. You must know that this is highly unusual for me- while I tell my students all the time that they are not obligated to finish a book that they don’t enjoy, I often stick to a book until the end just to see if there is a eucatastrophic event or change in writing style that I would otherwise miss. In those three books, this was unfortunately not the case. I shan’t tell you what they were, in case you might want to read them yourself, and I don’t want my personal bias to affect your enjoyment.

I rediscovered my love for Jane Yolen in her “Sister Light, Sister Dark” series. This was especially intriguing for me because of the book’s setup- in addition to the plot itself, the books are punctuated with various fictitious myths, songs, ballads, and folklore pertaining to the matriarchal society in the story, much like a folklorist, historian, or anthropologist would see when Studying a specific culture. It even includes letters, articles, and diary entries written by historians, though they are of the school of Harold Bloom and protest the school of thought of another fictitious scholar (whose writing we do not read) who posits an alternative theory to the canonical writings (his theory, as you read the story, turns out to be factual).

Jane Yolen’s “Sister Light, Sister Dark” series.

This deep dive and random approach to choosing my reading was a valuable experiment. Too often as teachers we thrust a book into a child’s hands, telling them that we know we will enjoy it, or curriculum dictates that we must assign a reading, then grin through clenched teeth and pray that the student doesn’t chuck the book in your face. I wonder now what would happen if we, students and teachers alike, simply let go of our preconceptions of choosing books and let the book choose us. Close our eyes and pick up the first one we touch on the shelf. Pick a recommendation list and choose the fifth book. Perhaps it will be a book we will enjoy, perhaps not. But isn’t it fun to find out?


Scholarship in the Potterverse

Hello friends! I’ve been battling a nasty cold for the past few days, and it has left little room in the brain for thinking. Therefore, today’s post shall simply be the sharing of a wonderful podcast episode from “Reading, Writing, Rowling,” in which I participated in a panel of interviewed scholars after the conclusion of the Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Conference of 2019. In addition to sharing my thoughts and reactions to the conference, I also take a moment to reflect on my own presentation, in which I examined teachers at Hogwarts through an active learning lens. It was an absolute blast, and I hope it inspires you to come to the Potter Conference next year!


The Case for Dramatic Play

Recently, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from parents who are interested in my company’s Preschool Prep program and who see this idea in various preschool programs. They ask me, “What is Dramatic Play, and why is it necessary in preschool programs?” “Why does my son’s classroom have such elaborate play centers?” “Why does it matter?” In terms of literacy… it can matter quite a lot!

Firstly, Dramatic Play is a set space and time in which teachers allow for activities that include dress up, play sets that mimic life experiences, and guided prompts from teachers. In Dramatic Play, teachers and students strengthen their oral language skills and social development, and encourage students to use their imaginations to solve puzzles, create language, and determine the social nuances needed for the situation.

Excell and Linington (2011) assert that play activities are crucial in developing the implicit pathways to literacy that are present in perceptual- motor skills (a child’s developing ability to interact with his environment by combining the use of the senses and motor skills) and sensorimotor integration (the capability of the central nervous system to integrate different sources of stimuli, and to transform such inputs in motor actions).They cite the use of well planned, good quality play (Wood, 2009) to stimulate and link the neural pathways between these motor skills and literacy development. A pedagogy of play must include not only free play and spontaneous movement activities, but also structured, purposeful guided movement experiences designed to support specific aspects of gross motor, fine motor, and perceptual motor development, which thus lends itself to early literacy development (2011). The benefit of a pedagogy of play is that it is flexible, and that teachers are expected to link these movement-based activities with multiple literacy facets, such as oral language, communication, and critical thinking skills. A pedagogy of play and movement can help students strengthen, for example, the link between visual and auditory memory (being able to remember what is seen or heard) and the link between a letter and its sounds (Excell & Linington, 2011).

Excell and Linington’s Perceptual Motor Develppment and Behaviors Supporting Links to Literacy

With Dramatic Play, students not only have fun dressing up and playing with toy sets, they are also learning how to manipulate the toy sets based on norms set by the teacher, and by previous experiences they’ve witnessed at home. For example, with a kitchen set, students know that they have to turn on the “Oven” in order to cook the food. In most cases, the students have witnessed their parent cooking, or the teacher has given them the instruction to turn on the oven and cook. With guided instruction, students learn how to manipulate tools and social situations through these Dramatic Play sessions. Teachers should also be sure to use oral instruction and important vocabulary during these play sessions so that the students’ oral development skills are growing, and they are learning to associate certain vocabulary words with specific situations. For more instruction on integrating vocabulary in oral instruction, view this video here.

Many teachers take the opportunity to integrate literacy skills in Dramatic Play by giving the students a task to complete, and then creating literacy cards or worksheets that supplement the task. For example, when creating a Flower Shop, this teacher integrated math and literacy by providing different baskets with flowers, flowerpots, seeds, and a set space to plant a “garden”, complete with a cash register and receipts. Not only does this Dramatic Play sequence integrate math, it also requires them to write down the final product for the recipient, and it puts the students in the roles of consumer and shop owner, so that they can learn the social interactions that come with buying something at the shop. Providing clip boards, sticky pads, or forms (real or created) enhance the natural connection between play and the written word (Writing in the Dramatic Play Center). 

Parents and Home school teachers can benefit easily from engaging in structured Dramatic Play with their children. Reading a story with your child, and then providing the Dramatic Play center based around the book’s theme helps to integrate their Giving your children ample opportunities to dress up and integrate literacy and writing in everyday situations helps prepare students not only for reading and writing in the long run, but also for their social-emotional development and their attention to understanding the world around them. Dramatic Play is a beneficial opportunity to teach students about social situations that may be complicated or uncomfortable, and act out possible solutions to problems. For example, Greg Hogben @MyDaughtersArmy retweeted a post on Tumblr last year that had many parents singing praises.

The parent in question had taken an overused and uncomfortable trope (Princesses who need to be saved) and transformed it through the use of excellent and guided dramatic play. This father knew that there was more to being a princess than simply dressing up in cute outfits, and he took the opportunity to use his daughter’s love for princesses to teach her how to be a leader, a negotiator, and a strategist. This is the magic of Dramatic Play- using your imagination and theirs to counter and question, and to develop critical thinking through the magic of pretend.

For more on how to use dramatic play in your classroom and at home, visit Teaching2and3yearolds and Pre-Kpages.com.


Excell, L., & Linington, V. (2011). Move to literacy: Fanning emergent literacy in early childhood education in a pedagogy of play. South African Journal of Childhood Education, 1(2), 27-45.


The Pedagogies of Earthsea, or Ways to Become a Wizard.

A few weeks ago, my classmates and I voyaged together through Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea for our Modern Fantasy class. This was my very first foray into LeGuin’s world of the Archipelago, and I am still amazed at her smooth storytelling. Through the eyes of the arrogant young Ged, we learn what it means to truly have power over a thing, and how tantalizing that power can be. It is a fantastic story woven with strands of chronicled “history,” dialogue, and lessons from friends and teachers alike.

Ged has many teachers in this story, starting from the very young age of seven when he demonstrates to his hedge-witch aunt his natural proclivity for magic. When his powers outgrow the skills his aunt is able to teach him, he is apprenticed to the Wizard Ogion, who takes a practical but slow approach to the teaching of magic. Frustrated and impatient, Ged chooses then to go to the School of Roke which has the more traditional approach to education that Ged was initially looking for. While each of these different “schools” teach magic in a different way, it is interesting to compare and contrast these approaches throughout the text, and wonder which might have been the more “effective” approach for Ged and perhaps for ourselves.

Thus, I posed the following question to the discussion board:

“Hello friends! I was intrigued by [our professor’s] questions of Ogion and his methods in teaching Ged about magic, the true names of things, and the Equilibrium of Power. I was also interested to listen to his musings about Roke and how they approached teaching, not only Ged but the other students magic. As many of us are teachers … I thought it would be interesting for all of us to discuss how each of Ged’s teachers and educational systems contribute to his ultimate “mastering” of magic. Which pedagogical approach, do you think, was the more effective? Which pedagogical approach might resonate with you if you were a student of magic in Earthsea? Who would you choose to be your teacher, and why? Would you choose the experiential, Socratic quiet with Ogion, or would you respond to the rote learning and theory based discussions in Roke?”

I received a number of responses, all of them critical and thoughtful in their approach. Some of my classmates are teachers, which made the question all the more interesting. We discussed not only Ogion’s silent approach to teaching Ged, but also comparing it with various teachers on Roke who would have a different approach.

Ogion- the Metacognitive Approach

“I don’t think I would respond well to Ogion, though I’d like to say I would. I definitely do better where I’m given more information. I think Ged also needed more than Ogion simply because he never would have learned what he needed to in the state he was in when he first met Ogion. It maybe he would have, but it would have taken him much much longer. It’s said that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. I think that’s definitely true for Ged and we can see that in how quickly he transforms from a prideful boy to a wise wizard.”- M.

“At my school, we’ve been talking quite a bit in the last few months about metacognition and how reflection on the learning process aids students in the long run. When students are struggling with something, or are having a hard time seeing the purpose of an activity, I’ve found spending the time to explain the larger connecting pieces helps them to invest in the activity/unit. Ogion’s approach doesn’t seem to incorporate that. There’s the wizardly stereotype of only giving evasive answers, which likely isn’t very good for student learning. That’s why I don’t think Dumbledore is actually a very good teacher.” -Jens

“When I was listening to Professor Olsen discuss the teaching styles, I immediately thought about Montessori teaching philosophy in comparison to Ogion’s style. Independent, self-directed/discovery. I also found it interesting that Ogion was reflective of the fact that his teaching style may not have been appropriate for Ged to learn the things that he needed to learn.” -Miriam (See quote below for reference)

“How am I to know these things, when you teach me nothing? Since I lived with you I have done nothing, seen nothing—”

“Now you have seen something,” said the mage. “By the door, in the darkness, when I came in.”

Ged was silent. Ogion knelt down and built the fire on the hearth and lit it, for the house was cold. Then, still kneeling, he said in his quiet voice,

“Ged, my young falcon, you are not bound to me or to my service. You did not come to me, but I to you. You are very young to make this choice, but I cannot make it for you. If you wish, I will send you to Roke Island, where all high arts are taught. Any craft you undertake to learn you will learn, for your power is great, greater even than your pride, I hope. I would keep you here with me, for what I have is what you lack, but I will not keep you against your will”.

(LeGuin 24)

The Doorkeeper- The School of Humility

In Earthsea, I think the Master Doorkeeper is probably my favorite. There’s a quiet patience about him that is willing to let the student struggle but without abandoning them. He waits, he watches, he listens, and I don’t get the sense that he’s judging either. He requires that the student explore the riddle/question and the overall goal is only met not simply by producing the right answer (like ticking a box), but by actually getting the meaning/purpose of the activity.” -Jens

“In the end, I believe it changes based on how you define effective.
In terms of amount of learning gained, I would say Roke taught Ged well the content of his toolbox. However, they did not focus on discovering the how, when, or why to apply these tools. They gave basic causality lessons and instructed their pupils on when not to use magic. Roke was a school of “do this” and “do not do this” that covered in essence, the history and mathematics and magic. Ged was not lacking the bits and bobs when he left Roke. However, what Ogion attempted to teach Ged is something that I do not believe can even be encompassed in a lifetime of learning. Ogion was constantly listening and learning and very rarely acting. He was essentially passive (except for the titanic instance of stopping the earthquake). Ogion was teaching the how, when, or why, but I believe, how to determine the how, when, or why of magic for yourself.” -Laurel

Finally, I would like to share thoughts from Sparrow Alden and her fantastic presentation from New England Moot. She discussed her teaching and the lessons that she learned on how to be a great educator through fantasy stories, particularly through Kohlberg’s Framework of Moral Education and Fowler’s Framework of Faith.

“This is the School,” the old man said mildly. “I am the doorkeeper. Enter if you can.”
Ged stepped forward. It seemed to him that he had passed through the doorway: yet he stood outside on the pavement where he had stood before.
Once more he stepped forward, and once more he remained standing outside the door. The doorkeeper, inside, watched him with mild eyes.
Ged was not so much baffled as angry, for this seemed like a further mockery to him. With voice and hand he made the Opening spell which his aunt had taught him long ago; it was the prize among all her stock of spells, and he wove it well now. But it was only a witch’s charm, and the power that held this doorway was not moved at all.
When that failed Ged stood a long while there on the pavement. At last he looked at the old man who waited inside. “I cannot enter,” he said unwillingly, “unless you help me.”
The doorkeeper answered, “Say your name.”
Then again Ged stood still a while; for a man never speaks his own name aloud, until more than his life’s safety is at stake.
“I am Ged,” he said aloud. Stepping forward then he entered the open doorway. Yet it seemed to him that though the light was behind him, a shadow followed him in at his heels.
~ LeGuin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle Series Book 1) (pp. 37-38). HMH Books. Kindle Edition.

“And that is Fowler’s earliest stage of Faith development – Trust, Faith in things not seen.””I am here, you are safe, trust that I will take care of you.”

How often do Moms say this to toddlers who are struggling to separate? How often are we asked to believe in something that we cannot physically touch and do not understand? This is a powerful lesson that Ged learns not through direct, didactic instruction, but by being asked to struggle, and then fail.

I sincerely thank all of my classmates who chose to participate in this discussion, and who have elected to share their thoughts to this blog. I hope I have done your comments justice! I would love to continue the discussion, and I ask you, my readers, to continue on Twitter and in the comments of this post. Thank you all, and happy teaching!


The Case for Audio Books: “Magic” to their Ears

One of my favorite memories of my childhood is of our cross country road trips as a family. My Dad is a history buff and loved taking us to Civil War memorials and American Revolution reenactments. We would stuff the car with snacks, coloring books, water, and toys to keep us company. During that time, the Harry Potter novels were coming out and so my mom would make a quick trip to the library and rent the cassette tapes or CD’s to play during the trip. As much as I liked the monuments and the reenactments, the memory that sticks out the most will always be the sound of Jim Dale’s voice in my ear as the trees, cows, and hills outside the window raced by. Sorry, Dad!

Fast forward about fifteen years later. I’m teaching at Nameless Charter School, and I’m about to start my Fantasy Literature Unit for my Literacy classes (Grades 6-8). My supervisor shows me a stack of small iPods that she keeps in her classroom for her students, complete with a subscription to Audible. I then tailored my lessons to include reading time, with the option to listen to the audio book on the iPod, and then prepare for Book Club discussions through questions and worksheets.

Soon came the days when they were Sorting themselves and giving themselves House Points!

Every day, my students would rush into class to put on the headphones and listen to the audio books for Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia while they were reading. Many of the students that I was working with had Generalized Learning Disabilities, which often included issues with processing text or comprehension. Some of the kids had test scores that showed a 3rd grade comprehension level- in Middle School, that’s a tough road on which to catch up. I only had one rule for these audio books- they had to be reading along as they were listening. They could pause the recording at any time to jot down notes or questions, and they could slow down the recording if it was too fast. Ultimately, it was up to them how they understood the reading and how they used the technology to help them, and they did. They were engaged, they enjoyed the story, and they enjoyed asking me questions about the books. My only regret was that I wasn’t able to bring Turkish Delight to class!

This child would complain every day about reading, but he loved The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe!

Every teacher has different feelings about technology in the classroom. Some say, “no way!” and will never allow a cell phone or computer to cross their threshold. Other teachers and schools mandate iPad use and require that students use a plethora of apps, videos, and presentation materials. In my view, it’s all about finding what works for you and your kids. Knowing that every child learns differently, and that every child can access a text through different modes is critical for their growth. For my kids at Nameless Charter School, they needed a different pathway to access the text. The audio books made a difference to them, just as Jim Dale’s voice made a difference to me as a child. If it works, give them that access- whether its a free YouTube video or an Audible subscription. It might just make the difference that gets them reading independently.

There are lots of ways to bring audio books into your classroom or your home. If you have old iPods lying around your house, label them by number and turn them into a resource for students to quickly access them. Set norms for storage, classroom use, and upkeep (They have to stay charged, after all!). Write a grant or If iPods aren’t an option and your class is reading a book together, play the audio book over the loudspeakers. Better yet, use Audacity or other recording software on your computer to have your students make a class audio book to help exercise their fluency skills. The possibilities are endless!


Motivation- It Can Be an Aggravation!

Tips and tricks on motivating your child to read.

“My kid hates reading. What do I do?”

“It’s such a struggle getting her to read every night!”

“How do I motivate my child to read?”

These are some of the most common questions that parents and the general public often ask me as a Literacy teacher. Some kids have no trouble finding a book to read, (my own parents had to take away my independent reading books so that I would do my homework), but with others reading can be a struggle!

Many kids struggle with reading for a myriad of reasons: for some, reading has become synonymous with “work”. Mandatory school reading can sometimes take the fun out of reading for pleasure. For others, it’s due to a reading difficulty or disability. Many kids need or simply like to take their time with reading, but feel rushed due to outside pressure from parents, teachers, or their peers.

But I’m going to let you in on a little secret… it can. Be. Done.

I believe to my core that the key to motivating students to read boils down to one word: CHOICE. Giving your child choices when it comes to reading makes an incredible difference when it comes to developing a child’s positive reading culture. My overall thesis pertains to the choice of reading when it comes specifically to fantasy novels, because growing up those were always my choices for independent reading. However, it was not the best feeling when I was told “put it away” or “save it for later” when it came to my schoolwork. I’ll always be grateful for the breadth of choices and exposure to nonfiction and canonical works of literature that my teachers gave me, but there was always a little nugget in the back of my mind saying, “Why can’t we read fantasy too?”

So, without further ado, here are some tips on how to motivate your child to read:

1. Create a culture of reading in your home and your classroom.

Let’s face it- kids see EVERYTHING. Even when you think they’re not paying attention, they are watching and taking in the world around them. If kids see you reading, they will read too! Taking the time to model how enjoyable reading is can go a long way. Invest some time in taking them to the library- show them how you pick out a book, what interests you, and what you do to find a book when you’re stuck (and best of all, libraries are FREE!).

If your child is young and likes to be read aloud to, take the time to read to them even if it’s only for ten minutes. If they’re picking the same book over and over again (I have Brown Bear Brown Bear memorized by now), that’s okay! They’re taking in the vocabulary and the prosody in which you are reading, and they’re picking up the skills that you are modeling for them. Ask them questions as you read, and let them ask questions too.

Fun Fact: Reading aloud to your child helps develop their early vocabulary acquisition and their oral language skills!

If your child is older and reading independently, read alongside them and show them your reading interests. Many schools and teachers require 20 minutes of reading a day- take those 20 minutes and read as well! It doesn’t necessarily need to be a novel- if you like to read the newspaper, a scholarly or medical journal, or a magazine, you can read that too, as long as your kid sees that you’re reading. This also may be a good opportunity to put down your technology and read a print book, but if you do use an E-Reader, make sure you stick to the book!

Teachers, I know your lives are full- you have all of these mandates from the District, you have Common Core Standards that you need to teach, as well as the new professional development strategy that you just learned at the last meeting. But here’s the deal- no matter how many strategies you try, how many gimmicks the higher ups give you, there is nothing, nothing that will raise your test scores higher than giving your students time and space to read. Consistent, timely practice is critical for students to develop their reading skills and become better readers. Set aside SOME time for your students to read- whether its ten minutes in a 40 minute period, 30 minutes in a 70 minute block, or one full period a week (scary, I know!), make sure that your students are reading!

2. Give your kids choices.

Now, when I say choices, I’m not only talking about the books they’re reading. Giving your child choices about reading and motivating themselves to read gives them the opportunity to learn strategies on what does and does not work for them. There’s no “one size fits all” strategy when it comes to how WE read, so why not try them all?

Some kids are motivated with extrinsic strategies and rewards. Work with your child and decide what those strategies might be. You can try a sticker chart, a reading log, a journal, or a point system. Many kids and adults get satisfaction from seeing the progress they make in their reading (future post on Goodreads, coming up!). Talk to your child about what helps them feel accomplished, whether its in reading or in other activities. However, be careful about the rewards you give for reaching their goals. Rather than framing it as “If you read ten books, I’ll give you candy,” try something that relates to reading, like “If you reach your reading goal of five stars, I’ll buy you your next choice of book at Barnes and Noble.” Bribing your child with TV or candy won’t build a positive reading culture, but you do want them to see the reward of reaching a goal (particularly a difficult one!).

When kids have the power to choose the books they are reading, they are more likely to consistently read. Have book options available for them, either at home, the classroom, or in the library based on their interests. Many teachers create “book bins” for their classroom library for organization purposes: each bin can be labeled by genre, topic, or interest. This will help your child make positive reading choices, and eventually you can coach your child to explore outside of their comfort zone once they’ve started independently making reading choices.

3. Talk to your kids about their reading.

Have you ever asked your child, “What did you do in school today?” And their first answer is, “I dunno.” That’s because conversation is a practice, and it needs to be approached in different ways. Sometimes kids simply don’t have the language yet for describing their emotions or their tastes, and they need models for what those conversations can look like. For example, instead of asking, “what did you do in school today?” You can start by asking, “What was your favorite activity in science today?” Asking specific, framed questions about their interests and activities gives them a specific talking point, rather than a general one. Start small, and work your way up.

The same goes for reading. There are lots of things we may like or dislike about a book, but if someone asks me, “Did you like it?” Then my brain freezes. Ask your kids questions about the plot, characters, or even simply break it down by page or chapter. “Why is Ron Weasley your favorite character?” “What was your favorite chapter in The Hobbit?” “Which illustration in this picture book did you like the most?” Starting small and asking specific questions can lead to the bigger questions and supported conclusions on their reading.

Furthermore, do the same with your own reading. Talk to your child about the parts that you enjoy, even if you’re worried that the content might be too complicated for them. When I talk to my own students about my reading, I tell them about the characters, the structure, and the major plot points. For example, if I’m reading The Lord of the Rings, which is WAY above my toddler’s heads, I would say, “I love how the characters in my story work together to make sure that everyone is safe in their community.” While I don’t have to go into extraordinary detail about Tolkien’s sophisticated world building and the intricacies of Elf and Dwarf politics, I’m sharing an important theme with them that will last. They still understand that I enjoyed the community building and fellowship (pun intended) in the story.

Final Thoughts

The list can go on and on when it comes to motivating kids to read. The possibilities are endless when parents and teachers put their noggins together and share ideas. If you’re looking for some more resources on how to motivate your child to read, I’ve included some links below!

Reading Rockets: Simple Practices to Nurture the Motivation to Read

NYTimes: How to Raise a Reader

Reading Rockets: Top 10 Resources on Reading Motivation

International Literacy Association: Choices Reading Lists

Happy Reading!

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