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!


Disney’s Obi-Wan Kenobi and Teacher Burnout

Once upon a time ago, I promised that I would write an updated Teacher Feature on Obi-Wan Kenobi after the release of the Disney show. However, after watching the show, I decided to take a different route. There were some ideas and themes that met my expectations for the show, but there were others that only hit me several weeks after I finished the show. This reflection is a bit more personal than analytical, but my hope is that it speaks to a wider issue that many teachers experience and a choice that many contend with.

Disney’s Obi-Wan Kenobi takes place in the interim period between the downfall of the Galactic Republic and the events of Episode 4: A New Hope. In my last post, I explored how his exile on Tatooine informed his practices when mentoring Luke, and what he might have learned about the Living Force from his long-dead Master, Qui-Gon Jinn. As the show begins, the audience learns that while Obi-Wan has been watching over young Luke, he has not been successful in connecting with his old Master. His memories, anxieties, and guilt over losing Anakin to the Dark Side prevent him from making that connection. He is reluctant, therefore, to return to the wider galaxy because he feels that he has failed Anakin and has nothing to offer. In truth, the burden does not fall to Obi-Wan alone- the Republic, the Sith, and the Jedi Order all had a collective part to play in the disaster. However, Obi-Wan still feels a personal responsibility for losing Anakin Skywalker to the Sith.

This despair and depression that Obi-Wan feels reminded me of my personal experience with burnout. As a highly sensitive person, I have a bad habit of taking things personally. In the first three years of my teaching career, I taught in three different schools- one private, one public, and one charter. Moving from one school to the next meant that I had to start from scratch for three consecutive years. I had to relearn the school’s culture, its students, their parents, and the various levels of accountability (meetings, PDs, emails, and oh so much more). To say that it was exhausting would be a serious understatement. Every mistake, every slip-up, every tense moment, I took as a personal failure. I knew that the first five years of teaching would be hard, but I had a hard time discerning which mistakes were within my control, and which ones were beyond my scope as an individual. There were some situations that were simply endemic to the population and the systemic issues with the Department of Education, and that holds true with any teaching position out there.

By the time I received notice from my third job that I was not getting a contract for the following year, I was done. I was angry and tired of starting over, and, frankly, I was tired of the politics and hierarchy issues that came with teaching. It was then that I decided that I was done with traditional schooling, that it simply was not a career that I was made for, and that I had failed at it. I took a break for a few months to enjoy my wedding and my honeymoon rather than panic (once again!) over job applications. Once I returned home, I took my time looking and found a job teaching part-time in an early childhood literacy center. The center offered extracurricular activities for young children, and my job was simply to use the program and teach the students (and have fun!). I didn’t have to spend countless hours writing lesson plans, sitting in a dull professional development session, grading, or fighting with irate parents or administrators. All I needed to do was focus on my own teaching practice and on how to help my students.

As I watched Obi-Wan Kenobi, I couldn’t help but see my own experiences reflected in Obi-Wan’s journey. I vividly recalled the self-doubt and doubt in the system. While none of my schools were run by an Empire manned by Stormtroopers, the systems that were in place often made it difficult for me to make meaningful connections with my students and the other teachers. In one of the three schools, my students fought me every single day for one simple reason- they didn’t trust me. And why should they? Most of the adults in their lives were not worthy of their trust. Why should I have been any different? Gaining their trust was impossible because they were used to a system that failed them from the minute they were born. Similarly, Anakin Skywalker’s journey was doomed from the moment Qui-Gon died. While he made his own choices (as he later explained to Obi-Wan), all of the systems around him, including the system that was supposed to teach him and give him a home, failed him from the start. The Jedi /Order failed Anakin because they could not find the faith needed in order to trust him or the prophecy. They did not have the skills to teach him how to master his fears- they could only tell him that his fear needed to be eradicated, or else.

Obi-Wan’s final battle with Darth Vader was the scene that touched me the most. Not only was this a battle between the Dark Side and the Jedi, but it was also a battle that helped Obi-Wan to master his guilt. But when Darth Vader’s helmet cracks, Obi-Wan finally sees what he couldn’t before- that Anakin is ultimately responsible for his own choices, not Obi-Wan. Indeed, Darth Vader says to him,


Obi-Wan Kenobi Episode 6

Like Obi-Wan, I had to learn to let go of my guilt over the systemic issues within education. There were some moments in my teaching, as with Obi-Wan’s, that needed improvement, but I was not the cause of many of the issues in the schools where I worked. Overall, the education systems, as well as many other systems, within the United States are rife with problems that are beyond any one teacher’s control. Teachers are asked to complete monumental tasks for minimal wages. The media glorifies teachers that can “do it all” and teach “for the kids,” and there are very few systems that support teachers in their efforts, especially for those who teach behaviorally challenged students.

My experiences aside, teacher burnout is a very real problem. In a recent study by Gallup, 44% of K-12 teachers in the US experience burnout, with college and university workers following at 35%, “making educators among the most burned out groups in the U.S. workforce.” The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated already existing issues within the national school systems, and teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming rate. If national policies, testing mandates, and the way we view and treat teachers do not change, then there will certainly be dire consequences.

For teachers nationally, a focus on alleviating that burnout has never been more important.

Marken and Agrawal

Teacher Feature: Obi-Wan Kenobi

I’ve been sitting on this post for a little while, but I’m happy that I’m excited that I am finally presenting it to the public. This is my initial analysis of Obi-Wan Kenobi as a teacher and Jedi master, as presented in the Original and the Prequel trilogies. As the quintessential Campbellian mentor figure, Kenobi is a perfect early pop-culture character to examine as a teacher, and certainly one of the first I was introduced to as a child of an avid Star Wars fan. In fact, he was one of the first characters I thought of when I began writing Teacher Features.

I will write a follow-up post after Disney’s Obi-Wan Kenobi finishes airing. I’m excited to see if my original conclusions still hold up with this new representation of Kenobi’s adventures. Is his exile still a time of self-reflection and atonement? How are his interactions with young Leia a pseudo-classroom? What does Leia learn from him about the Force and her inherent abilities? And WHAT will happen with Darth Vader?! I’m excited to find out!

Obi-Wan Kenobi’s exile is also one of self-reflection and a desire to atone for his blindness during the Clone Wars and Anakin Skywalker’s fall. As Anakin’s master, Obi-Wan shoulders the responsibility that he should have paid more attention to his Padawan’s needs and recognized that he was treading the path to the Dark Side. He, like his fellow Jedi Masters, believed in the simplistic belief that any attachment leads to fear and greed when instead he should have been teaching Anakin to let go of the fear to lose what he loves, not the attachment itself (Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars 9).

The Jedi Council’s blindness is apparent throughout the Prequel trilogy because they rely too fully on what Bortolin calls “the expert mind,” and they have lost “their beginner’s mind” (The Zen of R2D2 16–17). The expert mind believes it knows all and responds to challenges when confronted with different points of view. The Jedi Masters denied all evidence that the Sith were re-emerging, that they were being manipulated by the Chancellor of the Republic, and that they had forgotten their true ideals. The beginner’s mind, however, “takes compassion to listen to another person’s pain — to sit in silence with an open mind and refrain from trying to fix their problems” (The Zen of R2D2 16).

Obi-Wan Kenobi is guilty of having an “expert mind” time and time again throughout Anakin’s training. His first impulse is to correct Anakin or admonish him for jumping into conflicts head first. Instead, Obi-Wan should have listened to his student, guided him through these experiences, and allowed him to learn from his mistakes. Obi-Wan’s expert mind failed him throughout the Prequel Trilogy, and it is in his exile that he must learn to trust his beginner’s mind again and become one with the Living Force.

After Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side, Bail Organa, Yoda, and Obi-Wan decide the fate of the Skywalker children together. In deciding that the children must be separated, Obi-Wan volunteers to take Luke to Tatooine to be raised by the Lars family. In the novelization of RotS, he takes this mission as an opportunity to correct his mistakes. However, Yoda admonishes him and reminds him of a lesson that they had both forgotten. “Jedi training, the sole source of self-discipline is not. When right is the time for skills to be taught, to us the Living Force will bring them. Until then, wait we will, and watch, and learn.” Obi-Wan’s task, then, is not to replace Anakin with Luke and train him the way he should have been trained. Instead, his task is to trust in the Living Force and let Luke come to him to be trained when he is ready.

Finally, Yoda gives Obi-Wan a new task for him to undertake and new training for him to complete. Here, Qui-Gon Jinn’s training is about to come full circle as Obi-Wan sets off for Tatooine. When Obi-Wan dies in A New Hope, it is assumed that his consciousness has merged with the Living Force because he repeatedly manifests that consciousness with Luke as an ethereal voice and a “Force Ghost.” In The Dharma of Star Wars, Bortolin explains that by doing so he must learn the core of Buddhist practice, that compassion and love are the true paths to immortality. “… the power of immortality… cannot be achieved through greed or selfishness… True compassion, true love never produces suffering. … Real compassion and love are given to everyone unconditionally” (Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars 108). Obi-Wan demonstrates it by sacrificing himself to Darth Vader so that Luke can escape with Princess Leia from the Death Star (Lucas, Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope). Qui-Gon Jinn, as a master of the Living Force, ensures that the Jedi Order returns to its original roots through the ashes of the Clone Wars. He was unable to complete his training in life, but in death, he was able to show Yoda and Obi-Wan the true path to Enlightenment, to becoming one with the Force. Qui-Gon began the cycle of exile as the path to Enlightenment, and so Obi-Wan and Yoda each had their paths to complete their parts of the cycle.

Text Sources:

Bortolin, Matthew. The Dharma of Star Wars. A Revised Expanded Edition. Wisdom Publications, 2015.

—. The Zen of R2D2: Ancient Wisdom from a Galaxy Far, Far Away. Wisdom Publications, 2019.


Clay Deveau: Teacher With Magic

Hello, everyone! Welcome to Teaching With Magic’s newest post segment, TEACHERS With Magic! These posts will include survey answers from real classroom teachers who have used fantasy and science fiction in their classrooms. You can find the survey here if you’d like to participate!

Today’s teacher: Clay Deveau

Subject/Age Range:

Reading Interventionist- Kindergarten through 5th grade (now retired)

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

I used Fellowship of the Ring yearly mainly because of my love for Tolkien.

Online/In Person/Hybrid: In Person

How do you use these Fantasy texts in your classroom?

My primary use of The Fellowship of the Ring was through a map I created on a bulletin board in my room. I used it as a behavior management tool. Students would select their character, start at Bag End, and work their way toward the Falls of Rauros. Through positive peer interactions and meeting classroom expectations, they moved their character up after each session. For the gifted/talented students in 5th grade, I also led a book club reading through the Fellowship.

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

The most beneficial piece to it was what it sparked in my students. They were always curious about the characters and the story so I used it to leverage student interest and engagement in reading and literacy. Books and reading don’t have to be boring!

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?

A lot of times, the map itself was a motivator for good engagement in reading groups. But their interest in the story was the most beneficial part.

Clay, thank you so much for showing us a glimpse of your fantastic classroom!


The Second Age, Part 3: We Did It, and So Can You!

The Final Piece of a 3 Part Segment on The Second Age of Middle Earth! Here’s how you can use our strategies in your own classroom.

Working on The Second Age of Middle Earth has been a fun adventure. James and I have been working over the past year to develop our Language and Literature curriculum for kids, and SPACE has been a wonderful testing ground to see what questions, content, and connections are accessible for new learners. While SPACE is specifically catered to adult learners, the pedagogical approaches are similar. James and I have to approach the lessons with certain questions in mind:

  1. How do we activate the students’ prior knowledge to bridge the gap between what they know and what they’re learning for the first time? (See Second Age: Post 2)
  2. How do we visually present the material in a way that is helpful for new learners, and
  3. How do we create questions that not only help them remember the content but also foster creative and flexible discussions about the material?

We used The Lord of the Rings as our master text for nearly all of our SPACE classes. Tolkien provides a wealth of historical and linguistic information throughout the story of LotR in addition to the appendices. Thanks to James’s work with the Digital Tolkien Project, we were able to decide which textual references throughout the six Books would be relevant to the newer content that we’d be teaching. For our Bridge to the Silmarillion course, First Age references were helpful, as were the characters’ reactions to learning about the First Age. Parallel translations gave us the opportunity to puzzle out words, grammar, and sentence structure in Tolkien’s languages, and they helped us to differentiate between the various forms of Elvish (this was done in our Invented Languages course).

Using a master text to create a foundation for new material is an important strategy for introducing new content to struggling or reluctant readers. This master text can be of any variety, as I’ve done with my Signum Academy Book Club during our Percy Jackson club sessions (ages 8-12). Percy Jackson may be a fictional text, but it’s grounded in mythology created by historical peoples. I often provided supplementary reading material from D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths to show the students which myths and mythic material Rick Riordan needed to understand before adapting that content to fit his story. One student even brought a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology and showed us how he was interacting with the mythic material and with Percy Jackson to help him build background knowledge for his fanfiction chapter on Luke’s backstory (this kid is a fanfiction genius, I swear).

This image is from Star Wars and History

Many teachers have, and do, use fictional material to support nonfiction material. A history teacher, for example, can use the Star Wars films and shows to make comparisons to real-world historical events, such as the rise of the Third Reich and World War II, the Vietnam War, or even warrior monastic groups such as Shaolin monks or the Knights Templar (for more cool historical connections, check out this link here). When I was in high school, one of my favorite classes was The Science of Science Fiction (shoutout to Ms. Parker). This course explored various facets of science such as eugenics, microbiology research, bioterrorism, and astronomy as they related to the science fiction stories that we read for class, including but not limited to Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Another fun approach that can be taken with fantasy material is to teach students how to approach material based on different sources. Because Tolkien provided so much historical material in his works, his stories are a fun groundwork for treating his texts as historical sources. In our classes, James and I presented LotR as a combination of primary and secondary source material, based on the passages’ context. What did we learn about historical events in the First or Second Ages based on the stories that Bilbo, Aragorn, Gandalf, and Elrond shared with the Hobbits? Do we take their stories at face value, or could there be pieces missing because these stories were passed down orally? Which of these characters was there during the First and Second Age, and who heard about the events secondhand and repeated them to the Hobbits? Do we take their stories at face value, or could there be pieces missing because of a person or group’s bias when writing these stories? Which of these characters were there during the First and Second Age, and who heard about the events secondhand and repeated them to the Hobbits? What might they have emphasized or left out given their intent?

Family Tree courtesy of James Tauber

This, then, gave us another interesting perspective to think about- how reliable is the actual source material? According to Tolkien, the content provided in LotR is a record of events as written by Bilbo Baggins, and eventually by Sam Gamgee. However, they would have heard and recorded the source material from various sources such as Elrond, texts from Elrond’s library or the libraries in Minas Tirith, or from conversations with Gandalf. Even the Appendices may not be entirely reliable, or their content may lend itself to some bias. One example that the Second Age class pondered over was the inclusion of Silmariën in the Appendices, especially in Appendix B, The Tale of Years. She herself never ruled Numenor, but her birth is recorded in The Tale of Years along with the dates in which the ruling Kings took up the scepter. So then, why include her at all? It is revealed in Appendix A that her descendant, Tar-Ancalimë, became the first ruling queen of Numenor, and from that point on the scepter was passed to the eldest child, rather than the eldest son. Had the succession law changed earlier, Silmariën would have been Queen. This legitimizes Elendil as the King of Gondor when Numenor fell (oops, spoilers).

Teaching The Second Age of Middle Earth has revealed many pedagogical advantages and strategies that I hope will be useful in your own classrooms. Fantasy stories are an excellent pathway to activating prior knowledge, making text to text and text to world connections, and teaching skills that will be helpful and relevant to future studies. Fantasy is exciting, motivating, and all around fun! We would love to hear your strategies for using fantasy and science fiction material in your classroom. You can share your ideas on Twitter: just tweet @EliseCedeno and @digitaltolkien, or respond by commenting on this post. How do you teach with magic? You can also answer that question by participating in my survey, Teachers With Magic! I look forward to hearing from you!


The Second Age: Part 2

Activating prior knowledge is a critical skill when teaching new material. Here’s how we used the story of The Lord of the Rings as a scaffold for introducing the Second Age material from the Alkallabeth and The Unfinished Tales of Middle Earth. (Image Credit: Ted Nasmith’s “The Return of Aldarion”

Last week, I discussed how James Tauber and I chose which content to teach, and which texts and references within Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would support the newer material. Today, we’re going to discuss the pedagogical methods we used during our classes and how are students were shown and discussed the new content.

The Second Age of Middle Earth can be tricky to teach on its own because it doesn’t have its own published work. References to the Second Age are embedded at the end of The Silmarillion and in the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings. References to the First Age and the Third Age often dominate the text. However, this made our challenge all the more interesting because it gave us the opportunity to seek out the relevant content in Lord of the Rings proper. On a side note, it also gave us the opportunity to seek out which stories and references Amazon could potentially use in The Rings of Power, especially since they don’t have the license for any content within The Silmarillion.

Our first class of Second Age begins with an overview of all of the Second Age references within the six Books of LotR. The primary content was drawn from Gandalf and Elrond’s recollections from “A Shadow of the Past” and “The Council of Elrond.” These passages gave our students the opportunity to glean the relevant seeds that would be discussed throughout the next several weeks and introduced the important thematic elements that would be prevalent throughout the stories of the Second Age. We were able to build a scaffold for students who were wholly new to the Second Age material by breaking down these passages from LotR.

Ted Nasmith’s “The Forging of the One”

Then all listened while Elrond in his clear voice spoke of Sauron and the Rings of Power, and their forging in the Second Age of the world long ago. A part of his tale was known to some there, but the full tale to none, and many eyes were turned to Elrond in fear and wonder as he told of the Elven-smiths of Eregion and their friendship with Moria, and their eagerness for knowledge, by which Sauron ensnared them. For in that time he was not yet evil to behold, and they received his aid and grew mighty in craft, whereas he learned all their secrets, and betrayed them, and forged secretly in the Mountain of Fire the One Ring to be their master. But Celebrimbor was aware of him, and hid the Three which he had made; and there was war, and the land was laid waste, and the gate of Moria was shut.

“The Council of Elrond,” Book II, The Fellowship of the Rings

Once we worked out which texts we wanted to use to discuss the Second Age, we put them in order from most familiar to least familiar and then roughly in chronological order. We didn’t split any readings other than Akallabêth because it was worth delaying the second half of that until the end of the class. We also split the course into two halves- the first few lessons would discuss the Second Age as it related to the Elves of Eregion and the forging of the Rings of Power, and the second half would focus on Numenor and the line of Kings.

And so we moved from the LOTR main text to LOTR Appendices to the Silmarillion extracts to the Unfinished Tales extracts, especially “A Description of the Island of Numenor” and “The Line of Elros: Kings of Numenor.” The Galadriel material (which is most fragmentary) is done last. As a final checklist, we discussed the references to the Second Age in Tolkien’s “Letter to Milton Waldman” (aka Letter 131 in Letters) In this letter, he outlines all (and I do mean all) of the important themes of Silmarillion, the Second Age, and LotR. While this letter determines what Tolkien thinks is important about the Second Age, it gives our students an opportunity to discuss if they agree with Tolkien’s perception, or if they’ve found other insights and themes in the text that the letter does not mention. Discussing this letter at the end of the course was also critical in making sure that the students could separate their own opinions and observations from the author.

This image is a family tree of Earendil and Elwing, beginning with Barahir and Thingol, with Beren and Luthien as parents to Dior, who sired Elwing. Tuor and Idril were Earendil's parents, and Earendil married Elwing. Finally, Earendil and Elwing sired Elrond, who chose to become Halfelven, and Elros, who founded the line of Kings of Numenor. To the right of the tree is the following text:
"There were three unions of the Eldar and the Edain: Luthien and Beren, Idril and Tuor, Arwen and Aragorn. By the last the long-sundered branches of the Half-elven were reunited and their line was restored."
Color coding helps us differentiate between the different Races.

The Tale of Years (Appendix B of LotR) acts as a backbone on which we can revisit and orient ourselves if there are concurrent stories. With each new reading, we revisit the timeline to anchor the events. If family relationships are important, we revisit the relevant family trees. If places are important, we revisit the maps (Some from LotR, some from Amazon’s artists, and others from James Tauber).

Throughout our discussions, James and I are always sure to check in with our students and make sure that we are meeting them where they are in the Tolkien legendarium. Many of our students are only familiar with The Lord of the Rings, and others have extensive knowledge of the legendarium. All viewpoints, interpretations, and experiences are welcome in our classes, and it’s important to us that everyone gets to experience the magic of Tolkien’s history. While James often leads the lecture, my task is to moderate our chatbox, answer side questions, and draft our discussion questions. That way, the entryway for students with different experiences with Tolkien can engage with the material without feeling left behind or too far ahead.


The Second Age of Middle Earth: Preparing for “The Rings of Power” and other entryways into Tolkien’s Legendarium

“Rings of Power” is on its way! Read about our pedagogical approaches in our SPACE courses and how we introduce the Second Age of Middle Earth to new readers.

Last May, James Tauber and I gave a presentation about our process of planning courses for my students, either for Signum Academy Clubs or for my (now retired) Outschool courses. As a result, many participants at the Prancing Pony Podcast Moot were interested in taking classes with us! Thankfully, it wasn’t long before Signum University launched its new SPACE program (no pun intended, I promise. At least not on my part). We decided that SPACE would be a great opportunity not only to continue teaching our content to adult audiences but to also use SPACE as a testing ground for our various ideas for developing a Tolkien-based Literature and Linguistics curriculum. Since then, we’ve launched several SPACE courses using our Cyclical Feedback Method and our complementary skills in Language (James) and Literature (me).

The goal for all of our SPACE courses (including Bridge to the Silmarillion, Tolkien’s Invented Languages, and now our exploration of The Second Age of Middle Earth) was to engage directly with Tolkien’s languages and legendarium through one common source– that is, through The Lord of the Rings. For the most part, it’s safe to assume that our students had read LotR and were interested in engaging with Tolkien’s larger legendarium, but weren’t sure where or how to begin.

One of the first steps was identifying references to language (for our Invented Languages class) or to the First and Second Age (for our Bridge and Second Age classes) in the main text of Lord of the Rings. This was achieved by a full-text search of the annotated digital texts of the Digital Tolkien Project. For example, we were able to extract any paragraphs that contained an Elvish word or any paragraphs that contained a name found in the Silmarillion. All paragraphs had to be reviewed for relevance and context, but this approach was still considerably faster than re-reading through large amounts of text or doing individual searches in an e-book.

These searches enabled us to link (or bridge—there’s a reason for that word in the name of our Silmarillion class) less familiar texts with more familiar texts. As we’ll discuss more in the next part, we start our classes by going over extracts from the familiar text (Lord of the Rings) to raise questions and whet the appetites of our students to learn more. This then provides motivation and context to journey into the unfamiliar.

In our next post, we’ll discuss more of the Second Age and how we presented the content, inspired discussion, and made connections with our students.

Interested in our courses? The Second Age of Middle Earth is scheduled to run again in September! Go to SPACE and learn how to sign up!


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!


We’re Back!

Hello, friends and followers!

It’s been a crazy couple of months here at Teaching With Magic. No sooner did I finish my final Masters Thesis at Signum University when my son decided to come into the world a good three weeks early! Since then it’s been a whirlwind of diapers, nursery rhymes, and finding our footing in what we can only call our “new normal”.

As a result of this new normal, some projects have had to be placed on the back burner, but the good news is that some other successful projects have come to light in recent months. Regretfully, due to time constraints and limited child care, I’ve had to say goodbye to Outschool for the present. Hopefully, I’ll be able to host classes there in the future. If not, I’ll find a way to bring Magic to kiddos anyway!

I’m happy to say that I am continuing my work with Signum Academy Clubs (boy did I miss those kids while I was on maternity leave!), as well as taken on some Coordinating duties with the program. I’m very excited to continue expanding the program and getting more kids involved with their incredible clubs.

Speaking of incredible classes, I’ve also had a lot of fun teaching with Signum’s newest venture, SPACE (Signum Portals for Adult Continuing Education). In addition to my Book Clubs, I’ve also been co-teaching some classes with James Tauber of the Digital Tolkien Project. As we discussed in our presentation at last year’s Prancing Pony Podcast Moot, we work together to teach Tolkien’s content to children, and together we discuss the various aspects that make Tolkien exciting and have broken them down into various modules and classes. As I’ve been on maternity leave, there’s been little opportunity to teach our content to my younger audiences. However, we are “testing out” our ideas (and responding to requests for our content!) on our adult learners in our SPACE Modules (each module is 2x a week, 1 hour, and runs for 4 weeks). So far, we have run our “Tolkien’s Invented Languages” module twice, and successfully completed our “Bridge to the Silmarillion” course last month. This summer we will be launching our “Tolkien’s Writing Systems” and (hopefully) “Second Age of Middle Earth,” which we hope will get fans excited for the Amazon series “The Rings of Power”. I will also be separately running my Book Club Modules for Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”

I’m beyond excited for these next stages in my work, and I’m excited to see where Teaching With Magic is going to take me next. I will, of course, be continuing with my Teacher Features, and I will be writing some more on some additional topics that I’ve been holding on to, such as podcasting and academia, adapting fantasy content for baby books (might as well use what I’ve got), book recommendations, and so much more.

Thanks for bearing with me as I got to know my little bean, and I look forward to hearing your comments and suggestions for future content. What would you like to see at Teaching With Magic?


Series Theory: An Examination of the Modern Fantasy Epic

I am delighted to announce that yesterday I have completed the necessary requirements for my Master of Arts in Language and Literature at Signum University!

It’s been a hectic couple of months here at Teaching with Magic, between tutoring, teaching, and writing this thesis! Soon, my son will be making his grand debut, but I am hopeful that by planning a few ideas ahead of time I can still write and contribute some thoughts about fantasy literature, pedagogy, and literacy as he grows.

In the meantime, the video above is my Thesis Theater, which is Signum University’s equivalent of a thesis or dissertation defense. I explored what makes a Modern Fantasy Epic Series structure, why fantasy series are often published as trilogies or septologies, and I described the three elements that make a Modern Fantasy Epic successful.

If you would like to read a copy of my thesis, you can contact me directly, or you can contact the Library staff at Signum University at librarian@signumu.org!


“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.

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!


Teacher Feature: Luke Skywalker

Hello, new readers and followers! Thank you for your support! One of the ways that I engage in pedagogical practice is to take notes on how other teachers use various strategies to engage their students. In the Primary World, that involves observing real teachers in real time. In my Secondary blog World, however, I like to examine teachers and mentors in the fantasy and science fiction world. While they may be fictional characters, we can still learn from observing their teaching methods and how they operate in the (fictional) classroom.

A while ago, I wrote a Teacher Feature on Master Yoda. This post is a continuation on that vein by examining The Last Jedi‘s incarnation of Luke Skywalker. I’ll admit, when I first watched TLJ, I was sorely disappointed in the Luke I was witnessing. His anger, frustration, and stubbornness was the complete opposite of the Luke that I had loved when I was growing up. I had been wooed by his optimism and his desire to do good in the face of darkness. However, after a couple of additional viewings and thinking about his character through different, additional lenses, I began to see why his journey took him to such a dark place.

My last post on Yoda examined his contributions through a Zen Buddhist lens. I continued that analysis with Luke Skywalker by examining his journey to understanding what it truly means to be a Jedi Master- that failure is not only an option, it is a necessity.

I must also add an important note that I did not address in my Yoda post. Bortolin discusses a Zen concept that he calls “the expert mind,” and the “beginner’s mind” (The Zen of R2D2 16–17). The expert mind believes it knows all and responds to challenges when confronted with different points of view. The beginner’s mind, however, “takes compassion to listen to another person’s pain — to sit in silence with an open mind and refrain from trying to fix their problems” (The Zen of R2D2 16).  This is a critical concept in Star Wars, particularly when examining the Master/Padawan relationship. Many of the Jedi Masters in the Star Wars universe are blinded by their “expert mind,” which creates tension in their relationships with the present, reality, and with their Padawan.

Luke’s experience as a trained Jedi is one of compassion, which is a fundamental trait both in Jediism and Zen Buddhism. Luke is able to have compassion for his father and help him turn his back on the Emperor and the Dark Side. Luke understood where Anakin Skywalker had lost his way and was able to guide him back by recognizing just how easy it is to follow the path to the Dark Side (Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars 108). He even rebukes Obi-Wan when he asserts that it is impossible to save Darth Vader. “There is still good in him,” he reminds his master, to which he can only respond that Vader is more machine than man, “twisted and evil” (Marquand, 47:01).  Obi-Wan has difficulty letting go of his past and trusting his Padawan to have his own experiences. Confronting Vader means killing him to Obi-Wan, but to Luke it means compassion, to “relieve [his] suffering, including [his] delusion, insecurity, and hatred” (Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars 104). Luke’s success in defeating the Empire and returning his father to the side of light leads him to the heavy task of training the next generation of Jedi and continuing on his own cycle on the path to Enlightenment.  

In The Last Jedi, Luke reveals that he has chosen to exile himself to Ahch-To to hide away from the world and reflect upon his failure to train Ben Solo in the ways of the Jedi. His once fresh, young, beginner’s mind has now been replaced with an expert’s mind, one that forgets how he came to be a Jedi in the first place. While training his nephew, Luke sees the darkness growing in Ben Solo, and rather than trusting himself to guide Ben through the darkness, he draws his lightsaber instead. In a brief moment of fear, he resolves to kill his nephew rather than let the darkness grow. Though compassion returns to him immediately after, it is too late and Ben attacks his master. Luke’s actions created Kylo Ren. This moment haunts Luke for years until he comes to terms with the past and meets the present head-on (Bortolin, “‘The Last Jedi’ Cranks Up Star Wars’ Buddhist Themes”). As a result, Luke, ashamed of his hubris, chooses to hide in Ahch-To and destroy any remnant left of the Jedi Order rather than face the consequences of his actions head-on. He chose, instead, to identify with the Jedi Council members in his father’s time who failed, in their “expert minds,” to see the Sith rising in power (Bortolin, The Zen of R2D2 55). In this hubris, however, he forgot the original lesson that he had taught himself, which was to choose compassion above all. He also forgot a core tenet that Yoda constantly reminded him not to forget; Luke forgot to focus on the present, on what is happening in front of him, instead of “looking to the horizon” at his past and future failures and fearing them (Johnson 01:23:05-01:23:14).

Though it was not Luke’s intention to set upon a spiritual journey to Enlightenment, his turn in the exile cycle continues as he is reminded of his true purpose as a Jedi, to “be mindful of the Living Force” and of the present (Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars 1), and to meet conflict with compassion instead of anger. His final confrontation with Kylo Ren is out of compassion and a desire to save his friends rather than an opportunity to kill an enemy, which is why he is able to harness the Force energy needed to create a projection of himself (The Zen of R2D2 59). 

Each trilogy in the Star Wars saga reflects the cyclical nature of the Living and Cosmic Force at work. Qui-Gon began the cycle by training himself to become one with the Living Force, and he trained Yoda and, presumably, Obi-Wan Kenobi to walk the same path. Yoda then guides Luke Skywalker to do the same during their conversation on Ahch-To. Luke, in a fit of self-despair, threatens to burn down the Force tree that contains (or so he believes) the sacred Jedi texts, but Yoda beats him to the punch by sending a bolt of lightning instead. To Luke, the texts were a symbol of the Jedi’s failure and that they had to die with him. Yoda, however, understood that the books, though sacred, did not matter in the present moment (Johnson 01:22:56). Luke was not supposed to teach Rey about the texts or the Jedi Order. He was supposed to teach her how to feel the presence of the Force within herself, and to grow where Luke failed. “We are what they grow beyond. That is the burden of all masters,” Yoda said (Johnson 01:24:00-01:24:10). He recognizes that with every failure there is a lesson to be learned and an opportunity to return to the “beginner’s mind,” to return to compassion. Yoda also recognizes that this cycle continues with each Jedi master who becomes one with the Living and Cosmic Force, that the path to Enlightenment is through failure, reflection, meditation, and finally, through compassion and acceptance that events will always occur as they are meant to happen, and that they will continue to allow the Force to work its will upon them.

Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Luke each continue the path of Enlightenment through the Living Force, even after death, by becoming what Zen Buddhists call boddhisatva. “A boddhisatva is a person who is dedicated to bringing every person … and sentient being in the universe to enlightenment” (Bortolin, The Zen of R2D2 51). Their task as Jedi masters that are one with the Living Force is to forgo the peace that one achieves in death and continue to live in the Force consciousness. They chose compassion for their Padawans and they chose to continue living as a “Force ghost” in order to help them achieve Enlightenment, in order to choose compassion over murder or choose to save their friends over killing their enemies (The Zen of R2D2 51). Obi-Wan guides Luke to Yoda, who trains him in the ways of the Jedi. Yoda guides Luke to face his fears head-on, and Luke guides Rey to face the Emperor and to love herself despite her name and family ties. 

Bortolin claims that by forgoing death and choosing to continue their guidance instead, Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Qui-Gon each choose to forgo enlightenment as well, which is part of the definition of boddhisatva (51). However, by choosing such a compassionate and selfless act they become one with the Living Force and have thus achieved Enlightenment. All of the Jedi masters became one with the Living Force and were enlightened when they chose to put their Padawans’ lives above their own and guide them in the ways of the Force during life and after death. Enlightenment is not a stop in the cycle. Rather, it is a continuous, cyclical path, as is the way of the Force as well.  

Text Sources:

Bortolin, Matthew. The Dharma of Star Wars. A Revised Expanded Edition, Wisdom Publications, 2015.

—. “‘The Last Jedi’ Cranks Up Star Wars’ Buddhist Themes.” Lion’s Roar, 20 Dec. 2017. http://www.lionsroar.com, https://www.lionsroar.com/the-last-jedi-cranks-up-the-buddhist-themes/.

—. The Zen of R2D2: Ancient Wisdom from a Galaxy Far, Far Away. Wisdom Publications, 2019.


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!


Teacher Feature: Master Yoda

Today’s Teacher Feature veers away from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, onward to a Galaxy Far, Far Away… Lucas’ exploration of the wise, old mentor archetype (as described by Campbell’s Hero’s Journey Cycle) has brought us a few role models and figures that Star Wars enthusiasts have respected, debated, and compared for the past forty years. This teacher feature examines Yoda as a teacher who is meant to embody the tenets of Zen Buddhism (Lucas himself has explained that he had Zen Buddhism and other Eastern religions in mind when he created concepts of the Force and Jedi teachings). Through this lens, we can examine Yoda’s strengths, and failures, and reflective process as a teacher. While we teachers certainly hope that events don’t go to the extreme that the Star Wars universe takes (I don’t believe ANY of us need an imperial takeover right now…), we can still learn from Master Yoda and his quiet patience.

In The Zen of R2D2: Ancient Wisdom from a Galaxy Far, Far Away, Matthew Bortolin tells the story of the Bodhidharma, a Zen monk who was upset with early Chinese Buddhist monks because they had forgotten the centrality of meditation to the Buddha’s most sacred teachings, namely that meditation was the true path to Enlightenment. Instead of meditating, the monks would squabble over scriptures and documents. To them, Buddhism had become a performance of rituals and an excuse to smugly debate over which argument or passage proved their definitions and interpretations to be correct. Bodhidharma then meditated in a silent cave for nine years in order to reconnect with the Buddha’s early teachings and respond to the monk’s squabbling (8). “It was as though he was telling them You talk and debate and intellectualize — but the true meaning of Buddhism is not found in your words or ideas. It is found in the silence one experiences when the thinking and the talking have stopped” (Bortolin, The Zen of R2D2 8). 

It is here that the similarities begin between Bodhidharma’s experiences with the Chinese Buddhist monks and the Jedi Masters’ path to Enlightenment. During the Prequel trilogy, Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the Jedi Council are all so focused on fighting the war and finding the Sith that they cannot see that the answers are directly in front of them. They, like the monks, were asking the wrong questions about the Force and Anakin Skywalker’s training. Their concept of love and attachment was very dualistic and simplistic, and therefore an ideal that Anakin Skywalker, rebellious as he was, could never hope to meet as he fell in love with Padmé. Yoda had an opportunity to help Anakin calm his fears and quiet his mind in Revenge of the Sith (hereafter RotS), but his advice was too cold and harsh for Anakin to stomach (Lucas, Star Wars, Episode III: RotS 34:24-34:41). Yoda lacked an understanding of how mindfulness and attachment truly work. He believed as many of the Jedi did, that any attachment (romantic, filial, or friendly) must be banished in order to be one with the Force.  However, letting go of attachment simply means accepting events as they are and letting go of the fear of loss (Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars 51). It is that harsh lesson that leads Yoda to his exile. 

Yoda’s exile is twofold: it is an exile of self-punishment and one out of a desire to reconnect with the Force and the core of the Jedi teachings. “Into exile, I must go,” he says amidst the massacre of his fellow Jedi. “Failed, I have” (Lucas, 01:56:42-01:56:52). On the outset, it appears that Yoda’s purpose in going into exile is purely out of a desire to self-flagellate and punish himself for his mistakes, just as Luke Skywalker does on Ahch-To. However, in season six of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Qui-Gon Jinn’s Living Force embodiment (colloquially known as a “Force Ghost”) guides him to Dagobah and teaches him about the differences between the Living and the Cosmic Force. 

Master Yoda and the Jedi Council in Dave Filoni’s “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”

Living beings generate the Living Force, which in turn powers the wellspring that is the Cosmic Force. … All energy from the Living Force, from all things that have ever lived, feeds into the Cosmic Force, binding everything and communicating to us through the midichlorians… You will learn to preserve your Life Force, and so manifest a consciousness which will allow you to commune with the living after death. (Keller and Filoni, 16:16-16:56, 20:38-20:47)

Yoda’s connection to Dagobah, once simply thought of as an isolated planet, turns out to be his “cave,” to use a Bodhidharma analogy. It is there that Yoda first learns to be a part of the Living and the Cosmic Force, and it is there that he must reconnect with the Force. His exile then is not merely a punishment, but an opportunity for him to forget everything he thinks he knows about the Force and reconnect with the roots of the Jedi teachings. It is here that reflects on the Living Force, and learns to remain focused on the present rather than becoming preoccupied with the events around him (Bortolin, The Zen of R2D2 9). Dagobah is a planet that is so rich with life and Force energy that Yoda’s journey is far more productive and purposeful than one might originally presume. It is not merely a place for him to hide, but a place for him to understand where he went wrong in his hubris and what he needs to do for the future.

“[Yoda] could have concluded that his isolation was deserved … but the outcome of the Clone Wars was the result of the karma of far more than a single individual. Alone on Dagobah Yoda … knew his actions in the present mattered most. He … prepared for the day that he would teach Luke Skywalker to bring an end to the tyranny of the Sith” (Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars 71–72).

It is because of this meditative journey that Yoda is able to pass on what he has learned about the Cosmic and Living Force to Obi-Wan Kenobi and to Luke Skywalker. 

Text Sources:

Bortolin, Matthew. The Dharma of Star Wars. A Revised Expanded Edition, Wisdom Publications, 2015.

—. The Zen of R2D2: Ancient Wisdom from a Galaxy Far, Far Away. Wisdom Publications, 2019.


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!


Badger Business: Badgers in Children’s Literature in the 20th Century

Last week I had the absolute pleasure of presenting at New England Moot on a topic that I have found near and dear to my heart- badgers! Badgers, in addition to being absolutely adorable, are also the unsung heroes of anthropomorphic literature. Throughout 20th and 21st century children’s literature, they have consistently been featured with similar qualities of loyalty and bravery. Firstly, I examine these qualities and other consistent themes throughout these texts, and then I provide examples of our favorite badgers from literature.

The Qualities of a Badger- Hufflepuff Style

J.K. Rowling put it best when she characterized the noblest of houses with qualities that have consistently shown in badger characters throughout the years. These qualities have shown in (almost) every badger character in children’s literature.

For example:

A Hufflepuff, according to the Sorting Hat, is “just and loyal…/

Those patient Hufflepuffs are true and unafraid of toil;” (Rowling PS 111).  

“For Hufflepuff, hard workers were/ Most worthy of admission;” (Rowling GOF 163).

“Several outstanding brains have emerged from Hufflepuff house over the centuries; these fine minds simply happened to be allied to outstanding qualities of patience, a strong work ethic and constancy, all traditional hallmarks of Hufflepuff House” (Rowling Pottermore).

The Badger’s Sett

I was particularly intrigued by the use of the badger’s habitat throughout these stories. A badger’s home is a cozy one, with few decorations, but it is comfortable and cozy, very reminiscent of a hobbit hole. I found the following descriptions of the Hufflepuff Common Room and the Badger’s home in T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone.

“A sloping, earthy passage inside the barrel travels upwards a little way until a cosy, round, low-ceilinged room is revealed, reminiscent of a badger’s sett. The room is decorated in the cheerful, bee-like colours of yellow and black, emphasised by the use of highly polished, honey-coloured wood for the tables and the round doors which lead to the boys’ and girls’ dormitories (furnished with comfortable wooden bedsteads, all covered in patchwork quilts)” (Rowling Pottermore).

“Badgers are not like foxes. They have a special midden where they put out their used bones and rubbish, proper earth closets, and bedrooms whose bedding they turn out frequently to keep it clean… [The Wart] admired the Great Hall most, for this was the central room of the whole fortification… and all the various suites and bolt holes radiated outwards from it… there were ancient paintings of departed badgers, famous in their day for scholarship or godliness… there were stately chairs with the badger arms stamped in gold upon their Spanish leather seats… the leather was coming off – and a portrait of the Founder over the fireplace” (White 328).

I particularly enjoy White’s description of the badger’s sett. It brings to mind an image of an Oxford don’s lounge, a place where Tolkien and Lewis might have held a staff meeting or an Inklings meeting.

Brock- Linguistic Connections

For my linguist friends, some interesting linguistic connections!

Anglo Saxon: Broc m. (ns) -Sum fyðerféte nýten is, ðæt we nemnaþ taxonem, ðæt ys broc on Englisc (Medicina de Quadrupedis of Sextus Placidus).

Irish and Gaelic: Broc m. (gs and npl)  

Other Celtic cognates for badger include brock (Gaelg (Manx)), broch (Cymraeg (Welsh)), brogh (Kernewek (Cornish)), broc’h (Brezhoneg (Breton)) (Ager). 

Examples in Literature include Tommy Brock in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr. Tod, and Lord Brocktree in Brian Jacques’ Lord Brocktree. A hedgehog refers to the Wart (transformed into a badger by Merlyn) as “Mëaster Brock” (White 322-327).  

Tommy Brock in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr. Tod

Tommy Brock is an unsavory character in Beatrix Potter’s story, and is known for kidnapping Benjamin Bunny’s children to be roasted and eaten in Mr. Tod’s oven. 

“Tommy Brock was a short bristly fat waddling person with a grin; he grinned all over his face. He was not nice in his habits. He ate wasp nests and frogs and worms; and he waddled about by moonlight, digging things up. His clothes were very dirty; and as he slept in the day-time, he always went to bed in his boots. And the bed which he went to bed in was generally Mr. Tod’s” (Potter 9-10). 

While Tommy Brock is a villainous lout, he is an exception to the rule. He was also one of the first anthropomorphic badgers to appear in children’s literature. Then, not two years later, Kenneth Grahame publishes The Wind in the Willows, which launches the consistent use of the loyal badger friend.

Mr. Badger in The Wind in the Willows.

The Badger is a quiet friend to his fellow animals. He takes them in when they need help, but he is firm and cross when Toad takes things too far. He is loyal to Toad’s family by repeatedly reminding him of his duties to Toad hall, and asking him to reflect on “what [his] father might think” of all his antics. The chapter in which he rescues Mole and Ratty from the cold winters night is very revealing of his character.

“The Badger did not mind that sort of thing at all, nor did he take any notice of elbows on the table, or everyone speaking  at once. As the animals told their story, he did not seem surprised or shocked at anything. He never said “I told you so,” or “Just what I always said,”or remarked that they oughtto have done so-and so, or ought not to have done something else” (Grahame 66).  

The Badger in The Sword in the Stone

The badger in The Sword in the Stone is Arthur’s final teacher in his experiential educational journey. Merlyn describes him by saying “… I think he is the most learned creature that I know” (White 320).  

“Well, I can only teach you two things, to dig, and to love your home. These are the true end of philosophy” (White 327 ).

He teaches Arthur his final lesson on how to be king by sharing a parable about how Man came to be the greatest of God’s creations, and how each animal had approached God for their various traits. 

The badger writes and shares this story as a dissertation for his D.Litt., of which the badger is very proud. 

Badgers in the Redwall Series

Brian Jacques is very consistent throughout his Redwall series. While the stories in the series change, the characteristics and qualities of each species remain similar. Badgers in the Redwall series are a brave, stalwart species hat led their kind fairly and honorably in their kingdom of Salamandastron. They were a warrior based society, meant to be either brave and fearless, but some would retire as wise sages.

During battle scenes, badgers would often display eucatastrophic bravery and engage in the Bloodwrath- a red eyed berserk frenzy (perhaps influenced by the Viking Berserkers). This Bloodwrath would cause their eyes to go red and effectively smash anyone in their path. Rostankowski provides an effective analysis of the badgers in the stories.

“The greatest warrior heroes of the series are mice, with badgers a close second. Badgers are always stalwart, brave, and great warriors, or leaders in other ways. They tend to have the fearlessness of the medieval French hero of the Song of Roland, and occasionally also his pride and foolhardiness. Badgers are most likely to fight to the death with their vassals, the hares. In certain circumstances badgers attain a greater level of wisdom, and conclude their lives as sages” (Rostankowski 87).

“While many species speak in dialects reminiscent of the various parts of the United Kingdom, only mice and badgers speak consistently without dialect” (88). I found this to be an interesting linguistic aspect, particularly after discovering the connections in the United Kingdom with Anglo-Saxon and Celtic.

Trufflehunter- Prince Caspian

Finally, we can’t forget about our dear friend Trufflehunter, one of my favorite characters from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. Trufflehunter is the voice of reason in a Narnia corrupted by fear, prejudice, and anger. He reminds everyone that compassion is necessary, and makes for a better Narnia. He alone recalls the basic tenets that Narnia was founded upon, and reminds everyone how the balance is meant to be maintained.

“I am a beast, I am, and a Badger what’s more. We don’t change. We hold on. I say great good will come of it. This is the true King of Narnia. And we beasts remember, even if Dwarfs forget, that Narnia was never right except when a Son of Adam was King. … It’s not Man’s country (who should know that better than me?) but it’s a country for a man to be king of. We badgers have long enough memories to know that” (Lewis 347). 

Final Thoughts

The badger is a lesser known creature in the field of British anthropomorphic children’s literature, but it makes a consistent appearance throughout. From Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows to Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, and even in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the badger remains a learned creature, accustomed to its various comforts, but also a loyal friend and fierce fighter, if they need be. 


Happy Mooting!

Shawn Marchese said it best in his debrief of Tolkien 2019: “here’s a word we use in our community a lot: fellowship. We often use it slightly tongue-in-cheek (like precious), but it really does characterize the Tolkien community in a very important way… All of us… are Tolkien fans, first and foremost, and that makes us fellows. … everyone is welcomed, and that the hierarchies that separate the “experts” from the “fans” in other fandoms and disciplines just don’t separate us all that much in the Tolkien community.” This was certainly true at New England Moot.

Kay ben-Avraham will be publishing her new book in podcast format quite soon… her voice truly is that of Faerie, and will enchant you immediately.

I always enjoy meeting fellow Tolkien and fantasy fans, and I certainly enjoy learning new things from these brilliant minds. Held in Jones Library in Amherst, our small group of scholars gathered together to talk about all things speculative in Children’s Literature. The presentations given were excellent, and were given by some of my favorite scholars, bloggers, writers, and all around fantasy fans. All were particularly intriguing, and I invite you all to check out their excellent work.

Ashley Thomas, aka The Nerdy Blogger, and how animation can spark a child’s love of reading.

I audibly, and without shame, squealed with delight when Ashley Thomas of The Nerdy Blogger presented on “Gargoyles,” “Jonny Quest,” and the path to readership for students through those shows. Gargoyles was a strong connection to my passion for books, and a significant part of my teenage years. I revisit the show every so often to this day. Kate Neville wrote a fantastic paper connecting Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” to the benefit that fairy stories have for children, not just for adults. She cleverly supported her thoughts using interviews from fantastic writers such as Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, and others. I was so happy to see some dear friends and preceptors from previous classes, such as Kay ben-Avraham, Sparrow Alden, and James Tauber, and of course the Tolkien Professor himself. We howled with laughter as he took us through Tolkien’s lesser well known, and rather bizarre, children’s book Mr. Bliss. To say that the story got away from him would be an understatement. We also had a Tolkien Studies first- a quilt adventure analyzing Tolkien based scenes through different quilting techniques!

Soon enough, it was my turn to present… this was my first Moot presentation, and, other than education based presentations, I had not ever presented scholarly research in English Literature. To say I was nervous… well, you can imagine. But it turned out I did not need to be. I will certainly write a full post on the topic of my presentation itself, but for now I simply want to share the elation that I felt at being able to share my thoughts and research with my peers… and (at the risk of sounding immodest) to do it well. I received so many questions and statements of interest in my topic that I finally felt validated in the work I was doing. After being kicked down in job after job, it was wonderful to have a good, validating moment to keep in my pocket for later to remind me that I am doing good work, and I can keep working on what I love.

If you’re debating whether or not to attend a Signum Moot, a Tolkien based conference, or even an informal club meeting, I assure you that it is worth it. One of the greatest strengths I’ve had in the past few years working with Signum is the community that has supported me and encouraged me throughout self doubt, imposter syndrome, and writers block. It’s a valuable community that reassures you that yes, you do belong, and you are part of a fellowship. You may be an experienced Wizard or you may be a hobbit just entering the Wild, but you are a part of that community and no one is going to leave you to the wolves (or the wargs, in this analogy).

Stay tuned for a Teaching with Magic Double Feature this week! Another post will be up by Friday!

If you’re interested in learning more about some of the talks I heard this weekend, be sure to click on the links provided and ask questions in the comments!


Book Review: Stephanie Affinito’s “Literacy Coaching”

I’m always reading- whether it has to do with reading strategies, wizards, neuroscience (occasionally) , or unicorns, I am ALWAYS reading. To that end, I’d like to post some book reviews to share not only what I’m reading, but also why it is important to the work I’m doing as a literacy teacher and overall educator.

Each of my book reviews will serve a specific purpose. I will not be reviewing the books based on how much I like the book- while that’s important, it’s not nearly objective enough. I want to show my readers exactly how each of the books that I review will be helpful to teachers and parents on teaching their students and helping their children grow as readers. These books can include the fantasy fiction that I love, new books that I’ve never tried before, or they may be education based books that offer strategies for the classroom or curriculum development.

In today’s teaching climate, more and more schools are requiring digital technologies in the classroom and using these technologies to bridge existing gaps in learning. Dr. Stephanie Affinito’s Literacy Coaching: Transforming Teaching and Learning is an excellent resource for teachers and literacy coaches who want to learn two things:

  1. How to guide children and other teachers through their specific literacy goals,
  2. How to bring digital literacy into the classroom and use technology to effectively communicate with students, teachers, and parents.

To Dr. Affinito, technology is simply a pathway into unlocking student and teacher potential. Being a literacy coach means a lot of data tracking- whether the data is based on the students’ various reading skills (fluency, accuracy, prosody, and comprehension- to name a few), but coaches often have to keep data on their teachers’ needs as well. What does the fourth grade science teacher need for their ICT classroom? What skills and strategies would be most beneficial to present on for a professional development meeting? Which websites are worth applying in the classroom? Affinito answers these questions and more in her book. She provides links and resources for teachers and coaches to use in the classroom, in planning, and in professional development.

These tables provide comparisons to traditional tools that readers and teachers use to their digital counterparts.

In my own view, technology is not always the answer. Sometimes students need to physically write things down or learn a traditional method in order to determine for themselves what their “right method” is. However, that does not mean that we should limit the possibilities for our students and for ourselves. This book is an effective branch for literacy coaches and teachers to learn the different ways that students can be taught with technology, and how we as adult learners can use technology to bridge our own learning gaps and collaborate with each other.

For more information about Dr. Affinito and her work on literacy coaching and teaching strategies, visit her website here.


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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