I’m Jean Valjean (aka, who am I?)

It will be done with a little magic.

This is it. My very first blog post. Of course, my fingers are frozen on the keyboard, deciding where to begin. Sometimes, muscle memory is the only thing keeping me going. Where to begin… I’d imagine with the beginning… my own version of “Concerning Hobbits,” I suppose.

I was always a reader as a child. One of my earliest memories is of me, snuggled in my mother’s arms as she taught me phonics. I often stayed up late reading my favorite books, my eyes itching with the need for sleep. I could not stop… “just one more page, just one more page,” I would say to myself. My poor mother often had to shout at me in order to startle me out of my reverie and help her with the dishes. Books were my escape from a dull, sometimes unhappy, reality (Not to say I had a horrible, Dickensian childhood… quite the opposite in fact. It just didn’t have dragons, knights, or unicorns. How horrible).

Four years ago, I began my journey at Teachers College of Columbia University. I was student teaching at the Bank Street School for Children, and I was diligently taking my courses. Sometimes, however, in my “diligence”, my keyboard would wander. One day, I found myself on the Mythgard Institute page, now known as Signum University. Mythgard, if you are not aware, is a magical place. There, students can take online courses on fantasy literature, including but not limited to, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Harry Potter, and other fantastic myths and legends. I was immediately hooked. What could be better than getting a Masters degree in Fantasy Literature? What could POSSIBLY be more wonderful that discussing “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Harry Potter” in an academic setting? One that would not scoff at the idea that Tolkien was worth studying and criticizing? It blew my mind, I tell you!

However, I was already elbow deep in another degree, and of course there was the curse of the poor broke grad student… funds. I put off Mythgard for a bit, but it was always in the back of my mind. As I thought about Mythgard, I began to wonder… why was it so wonderful to me that I could study these works in an academic setting? I began to reflect on the attitudes on some of my family members and teachers as I was growing up. Fantasy literature was encouraged for my independent reading skills, but never (or hardly ever) in an academic setting. I was often told to “put it away” or “save it for later” after I completed my homework. The sentiment usually included a simpering smile that said, “Aw, how cute, she’s reading Harry Potter. Again.”

The closest I ever came to studying fantasy was in my sophomore year of college, where I took elective courses in Science Fiction and Gothic Fiction with the Great Dr. Bernardo. The difference with those courses were that they were grounded in some sort of academic understanding that they were “canon,” or based in some form of (albeit stretched) “fact.” I also distinctly remember an excellent course called “The Spiritual Quest in Literature.” We reflected on the spiritual quest as an archetype, both in the physical and the metaphorical sense. Some of the books we read included “Barabbas,” Herman Hesse’s “Demian” and “Narcissus and Goldmund,” and “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.” My professor asked us to bring in some books to recommend  for the next semester, and I immediately suggested Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” If ever there was a spiritual quest, it was Bilbo Baggins’. My suggestion was immediately shut down, and deemed “too spiritual questy.” Needless to say, I was crushed. It was plain to see that my professor and my classmates did not take it seriously.

It was that attitude that led me to consider the need for a shift in how academia considers fantasy literature, both for young children and for adults. There is a remarkable amount of research in how fantasy literature and fairy tales contributed to elementary age children’s growth and reading skills, but there is very little attributed to teenagers and young adults. During my coursework at Teachers College, I bravely wrote a paper positing that fantasy literature can positively benefit adolescent readers. To me, it is impossible to improve a child’s reading skills without motivation and investment. Who decided that the teenage years were no longer appropriate to explore the realms of fantasy in school? Salinger and Fitzgerald certainly have their place in the literary canon, but who is to say that they are more academic than Tolkien or Lewis? My first attempt at blog writing failed (the platform doesn’t even exist anymore), and I became so overwhelmed with coursework, and eventually teaching, that the dream faded away for a little while… but it has now returned with a vengeance.

I am now starting my third year of teaching since graduating from Teachers College. The past two years were quite bumpy, but now I have comfortably settled in a new position in Brooklyn (I omit the name for privacy reasons) as a Middle school reading teacher. My students are 6-8th graders who are at or below reading level for their grade for various reasons, including difficulties with fluency, decoding, comprehension, and transferring that comprehension to their writing. Unlike many schools, I do not pull students out of their regular classes- rather, I am their class, and it is treated just as seriously as ELA, math, and art. I take nothing away, but instead give them a space to practice and reinforce their reading skills. It is here that I hope to dig even deeper into the science of reading, and test out my theory that fantasy literature can aid, and possibly improve, adolescent reading comprehension. I will explore my findings in this blog, as well as the various musings that I come up with during my reading and my coursework. Yes, dear reader… I’m pursuing a Signum degree. The camaraderie that I have already encountered in my first class with my professor and my classmates is invaluable. It made me realize just how much I had missed academic discourse, but more importantly I was in a space where discussing my passion wasn’t taboo.

I hope this blog becomes a space for me to record my thoughts on pedagogy, reading, and my favorite books. Some days it may be a book review. Other days it will be a lengthy tirade on schools and their inability to service students who need them most. Some days it may be an attempt to explore the research in regards to adolescent literacy or the use of fantasy novels in the classroom. Perhaps one day I will improve my blog writing voice and sound more academic and less like a Facebook post. In all days, it will be done with a little magic.