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:
- 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)
- How do we visually present the material in a way that is helpful for new learners, and
- 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).
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?
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!