Teaching Opinion

Hidden Learning in the ‘Chamber of Secrets’

By Starr Sackstein — May 02, 2017 4 min read
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When I’m at a loss of things to write about because there’s just too much to say and I’m having a hard time focusing, my one true north is the Harry Potter series.

It may sound infantile for a grown up person to be so attached to children’s books, but I am. The simple fact is when a reader connects with a character or place so profoundly, it leaves an impact that never goes away.

Ironically, there have been books I’ve read as a child that made an impression at the time, but upon rereading as an adult, they didn’t hold up the same way.

Either the impact was situational and I had grown out of the situation, or after reading so many other authors, the themes seemed less original and therefore the attachment waned.

Harry Potter, though, tried and true.

At different times I connect with different characters and/or different books in the series resonate, but there is always something and there is a lot we and our students can learn about ourselves and society through the Chamber of Secrets, book two in the series.

From wizarding prejudices that mimic our real world hierarchies and racial complexities to learning truths about ourselves and others, Rowling explores societal challenges in a way that children and adults can relate to and possibly even start a deeper dialogue about. One great resource for doing this is the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred text which explores each novel through a particular theme, analyzing deeply the impact in each chapter.

Here are some quotes and characters that can provide room analysis and discussion on these more challenging issues:

  • “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Dumbledore is always reminding Harry of the agency he has in his own life and that what we choose helps define the person we are and who we become. Students often make poor choices and don’t consider the consequences or often feel like they have no control over what happens to them. We must remind students that it is, in fact, our free will, our choices that impact us most. Being deliberate and thoughtful is important, but reading situations is urgent too. Plus, Dumbledore really seems to have a handle on growth mindset here as he is helping Harry and all of us remember that what we are born with doesn’t limit us, but merely offers options. When we choose, we grow. Sometimes the hardest choices are the ones that are most disagreeable and challenging, but ultimately the most worthwhile.
  • “I WILL NOT TOLERATE MENTION OF YOUR ABNORMALITY UNDER THIS ROOF!” Uncle Vernon and the Dursleys surely have a problem with Harry’s magical gifts. And although we may not have actual magic in our classrooms, each student has gifts that may or may not be honored at home. We mustn’t think of anything that makes our students or ourselves different as an abnormality, and we mustn’t tolerate those who want to ignore or deny those talents/gifts. Rowling does a good job here showing the contrast of this difference in the Dursley home as a nice contrast to the pure bloods in the wizarding world feeling that muggles are less than they are. These heirarchies are dangerous in our society as they value generalities over the individuals and thereby devalues what makes us special.
  • “Dobby is free.” Dobby is another character that shows the hierarchy and prejudice in the wizarding world, as a creature who is treated as a slave and in his case, also abused. His owners don’t appreciate him and society deems his role appropriate. Slavery is a troubling part of our history and the impact of it long lasting in our culture and racial relations. Rowling does a good job of introducing young readers to this idea subtly and also shows that all creatures have dignity and deserve to have choices over their own lives. Talking about Dobby with students can be a great way to talk about how society treats different classes of people and how to give respect and care to all.
  • Ghosts. Both Sir Nicholas and Myrtle are characters that explore losing their lives and continuing on to work out the karma of not being ready to leave this world. Nick is looked down upon because he isn’t completely headless and Myrtle wasn’t wasn’t popular in life or now in her death. There is something to be explored here in terms of the “other” in all of us and how even these unbeings have feelings and exist in this world. There are many “others” who get pushed off to the side for many different reasons and addressing how these “other” characters socialize in the book may help students see the impact of their words and behaviors on others.
  • Argus Filch and Mrs. Norris. In Chamber of Secrets we learn that Mr. Filch may or may not actually be magical. He clearly comes from a magical family but aside from his connection to his cat which is definitely extraordinary, he has no magical abilities. In the wizarding world this is called a squib and is not a favorable thing to be. Much like muggles or non-magical beings, squibs are cast aside or kept as a secret from the outside world. Mr. Filch clearly has shame about his non-magical status and even goes as far as trying to take a correspondence course on it to possibly fit in better. To overcompensate for his non-magical abilities, he uses fear tactics and treats the children badly, much like a bully would when he or she is overcompensating for their own kind of shortage. Filch would be a great character to help show the depth of struggle that even bullies exhibit.

When we consider how and why we teach what we do, we should consider where we can connect with students. Literature has an enduring ability to do that. Using characters and universal themes is a great entry point to difficult conversations. Harry Potter has been a long reaching connector for me and my students for years and no matter how many times I read it, I always learn something different.

How do you address challenging issues with your students in a way they can relate to and learn from? Please share

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.