Keeping Magic Alive in the Classroom

Magazine Issue
Spring 2017
A woman dressed as a magicianRead Time: 15 minutes

Seven Strategies that Helped Me Transform My Classroom

I looked at the clock. Fourteen minutes left. I looked out at t he class. Most of the students were on their feet, yelling, screaming, cursing, and throwing things. Trying to speak over them seemed pointless. Their message came through loud and clear: “You don’t know us. We don’t know you. Don’t try to tell us what to do. We are not going to listen.”

I will never forget that hopeless, desperate feeling as I looked at the clock and tried to think of something—or any-thing—to fix it. At Phoenix Academy, an alternative in-district high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, days crept slowly by, and I needed to change things.

I turned to other teachers in the school, administrators, and teacher friends from my past school to try and figure out how to turn my classroom around. I reached out to my professors from the BYU English education department and sought out their advice and help. They offered words of encouragement and sage advice. Most important for me at that time, they reminded me that I could do it. I received many helpful ideas and suggestions from many different sources. They shared strategies that had worked for them. These same strategies that were magical for them, however, did not always yield the same results for me.

In a desperate moment, and out of a desperate attempt at change, I made the decision to use Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the senior class. On paper, this decision seemed against every piece of advice I had received on teaching low-income minority students. There were no characters that directly reflected them or their background—nothing seemingly relatable (at least on the surface) to my students in the Harry Potter books. Most of them had no prior knowledge related to the series. The book is primarily about white, predominantly middle-class wizards. It was using a Harry Potter book that transformed my classroom. It was almost like magic.

I would like to share the seven strategies—because seven is the most magically powerful number—that using a Harry Potter book in my classroom taught me.

Strategy #1: Try everything at least twice.

I often found that the first time I tried a strategy or activity, it usually didn’t go very well. That can be very discouraging, and I found myself reluctant to try it again. After trying it, however, you often have a lot of ideas about how you could use it differently, and the students are more familiar with the activity, which also makes it more successful. It is good to try things at least once, but I found that trying strategies or activities multiple times often yields better results than the first try.

The same oftentimes holds true with texts. The first time I taught from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, not everything went as planned. There were a lot of aspects of my unit that I needed to rethink, and the second time went a lot smoother. I was able to help students be more successful. By then I was more aware of the “problem areas” in the text, so I could facilitate learning better by frontloading information, introducing themes and topics at the best times, and hurrying through the slower parts.

Strategy #2: Have and give a good “why.”

I remember professors making it very clear that every activity or reading should have a clear purpose, objective, and rationale. I didn’t realize how truly important that was until I had students push back on everything we did, every day, no matter what. They would question me about everything. They didn’t trust me and wanted very clear reasons for everything they were supposed to do. They also made it very clear when they thought things were stupid or boring—and with plenty of other adjectives. The best defense I had to this was to explain very clearly, with the Common Core standards to back me up, exactly what we were doing, why they needed it, what they needed it for, and how it was relevant to them.

When I chose to teach using a Harry Potter book, students were not very happy about it, so I worked to prove to them that I had a good “why.” It took some of them a little longer to get onboard, but as I kept reinforcing the why, more and more students bought into what we were doing. I started to realize that the clearer I was on the purpose, objective, and rationale, the easier it was to get them invested.

Strategy #3: Remember, text selection doesn’t need to only be about them.

When you are making decisions about which texts to bring into the classroom, you usually think about your students and their interests, their gaps, their past experiences, etc. Those are certainly important things to consider. Sometimes, though, you should think about yourself too. You should consider what your strengths are, what you will be better at teaching them, and what you are passionate about. If you are passionate about something, chances are you will be better at making that passion contagious.

With only a few classroom sets of books to choose from and no set curriculum, I started off the year choosing texts that I felt I could manage. Choosing to teach from a Harry Potter book was a bold and sort of crazy move in my present situation. And it was exactly what I needed. I needed to share with them something that I loved, and I needed to use a text that I felt comfortable with and that I could trust.

Strategy #4: Rely on your biggest resources—you and your students.

I have worked with some very challenging students (the kind who throw desks at you or curse at you every time you say their name or who talk about selling drugs in the middle of class), and I used to hope that by making a phone call or by getting an administrator involved, the student would magically start to get their work done in class and adjust their behavior. Actions like that can help, certainly, but I actually needed to work on building a relationship with that student so that I could solve those problems. Outside resources have a place, but I learned the hard way that everything I needed was right in front of me.

Most students did not really care about what I thought—or about any other adult in the building, for that matter. They did, however, care about their image among their peers. So I implemented the “house” system as it is used in the Harry Potter books. If a student was talking out of turn, the team, or house, lost points. If a student was on task and doing great work, they earned points for their house. Students started getting on each other’s cases about doing their work. Their investment and buy-in, and a healthy dose of peer pressure, helped change our classroom culture.

Strategy #5: Invite personality into your teaching.

Teaching in any new environment can be challenging, but it was especially hard for me to be my normal, laughing, fun-loving self when I was getting cursed at and couldn’t do anything right by my students. Quite frankly, my misery was drowning out my personality. They needed to be able to trust me; however, to do that, they needed to know me.

By sharing the Harry Potter book with my students, I was able to show them something that I genuinely loved. We were able to find a middle ground and build a collective interest—and trust. Teaching from the Harry Potter book was a small way of sharing my personality with my students, and they jumped on that opportunity to connect with me on a human level.

Strategy #6: Filter the feedback you receive.

From the start of the house point system, I received quite a lot of critical feedback from other teachers and administrators on this idea. Don’t get me wrong; nobody told me outright that I couldn’t do it. But I don’t think anybody thought it was a good idea. I tried not to let that get me down, and I did it anyway, even though I had my own doubts and reservations. It didn’t work overnight, but it became my most effective management strategy.

When I proposed teaching from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, few seemed to think it would work, and I was certainly encouraged to take another direction—basically any other direction. It ended up being the most beneficial instructional decision that I have possibly ever made, and it drastically changed my relationships with my students and the trajectory of our year together.

Strategy #7: “And I’d tell him to follow his instincts, which are good and nearly always right.”

One of the biggest struggles I have had as a teacher has been learning to trust myself. I was confident in the preparation I had received—I had great, experienced professors who had taught me the skills I needed. They had taught me principles and theories that mattered and were relevant for all students, and they had taught me to adapt and adjust plans. I needed to be patient with myself and trust myself. I knew how my students were doing in my class better than anyone else, I knew the classroom culture I wanted, and I knew what I wanted to see them learning and doing. Teaching and using the Harry Potter book in my classroom helped me work toward that goal, and I did that based on a feeling—on an instinct.

It was more than an instinct actually. I would classify it more as inspiration. I had been begging the Lord for some guidance and help. I needed help, and I was desperate. I was think-ing through different ideas, but nothing was sticking. Then the light bulb of inspiration happened, and I knew that using the Harry Potter book in my classroom was my solution. Or, rather, the Lord knew that it was my answer, and He shared that with me. And it worked. I learned that when I am seeking the Lord’s help in my teaching and trying to do my best, I can trust my instincts, for the Holy Ghost will direct and guide those flashes of inspiration. And they will work.

These seven strategies might seem very basic for veteran teachers. They might even seem basic to other beginning teachers. If that is the case, then I at least hope they can serve as affirming reminders to other teachers that they are making good decisions, that they are doing their best, that the decisions they have made do matter in the lives of their students—and that good teaching sometimes feels a little bit like magic.

 

Written by Tara Pearce

 

For her undergraduate degree, Tara attended BYU, where she studied English teaching. She took a little break from study-ing to serve in the Italy Milan Mission and then returned for her internship year to teach middle school in Provo. After that year Tara joined the 2015 Teach for America corps in the Greater Boston Area. She was placed at an alternative high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a city with some of the highest poverty rates and lowest test scores in the state. Tara is working on a master’s degree at Boston University in curriculum and teaching. She has loved exploring New England and has gotten better at not driving down oneway streets the wrong way.