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Making Magic in Muggle Schools

• Mary Laura Bragg

The first time I read the Harry Potter series, I was taken in by the magic and yearned to be a professor at Hogwarts.

As a history teacher, I figured I could do a much better job than Professor Blinns when it came to teaching History of Magic.  All he did was Lecture, Lecture, Lecture.

No discussion. No implementation. No fun.

I preferred Professor Remus Lupin’s style. Interact. Engage. Try out those spells!

Alas, he was a werewolf.

Harry keeps me coming back, and each time I begin the series anew, I learn new lessons. And now here I am in the midst of my fourth excursion into the books. Right now, I’m on the fifth one – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  (I started with book one last Sunday – and yes, I have pretty much ignored my family for a week.)

My daughter, Maggie, starts kindergarten next week.  And so I find myself evaluating the wizarding version of public education from a parent’s point of view.

Yes, Hogwarts is magical. Yes, the professors are werewolves and witches and one ghost (I wonder if he still is in the pension system).  But when you get down to it, things are very much the same in their system as they are in our muggle system.

There are great teachers (Minerva McGonagall) and there are pathetic ones (Gilderoy Lockhart, anyone?) And yes, the principal sometimes has his hands tied when he tries to remove those poor-performing teachers. (Maybe we need a Sorting Hat for the teaching profession.) There are helicopter parents, and bullies, and crushes, and homework, and athletics.

They have rigorous standardized tests (OWLs — Ordinary Wizarding Levels) to measure proficiency in core subjects.

Harry and crew most enjoy the classes where they actually get to put into practice what they’ve been learning. The best of those classes are taught by the best teachers.

And by that I don’t mean they are everyone’s favorite teachers.  I mean that they are tough, challenging, masters of their content, but fair, with a genuine desire for kids to reach their fullest potential.

But things change when Dolores Umbridge arrives.  Last night I read the part where she is teaching her first Defense of the Dark Arts lesson, and Hermione challenges her as to why learning theory is a better way to prepare to defend oneself against a dark art than actually practicing to do so.  And several others in the class get in on the discussion:

Professor Umbridge: “Now it is the view of the Ministry that a theoretical knowledge will be more than sufficient to get through through your examination, which, after all, is what school is about… As long as you have studied theory hard enough, there is no reason why you should not be able to perform the spells….”

Parvati Patil: “Without ever practicing them before?…Are you telling us that the first time we’ll get to do the spells will be during our exam?”

Harry Potter: “And what good’s theory going to be in the real world?”

Professor Umbridge: “This is school, Potter, not the real world.”

Wow.  I challenged my Algebra II teacher about the relevance of his course once, but he didn’t have a wand.  These kids are brave.

I don’t want school to be about theory.  I don’t want my daughter Maggie to learn how something should be done.  I want her to learn how to do it, and why she needs to.  And then I want her to show that she can.

And I expect her teachers to guide her along the way, ensuring that she is challenged but believing that she will master the standard even though she is a mudblood.

No matter whether it’s in the wizarding world or muggle world, kids do best when they are held to high standards backed by quality, rigorous assessments. In both worlds, great teachers have a major impact on kids. They engage them and make their education relevant.

For us, muggle school starts on Aug. 13th. Like Hermione, my daughter is an eager learner.  So if she gets Umbridge as a teacher, I’m going straight to Dumbledore.

About the author

Mary Laura Bragg

Mary Laura serves as the Interim Vice President of Advocacy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. A former classroom teacher, Mary Laura directed Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative, Just Read, Florida! As director, she was responsible for crafting and implementing the policies that helped place a command focus on reading instruction in Florida. She has served on advisory groups on adolescent literacy for both the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Governors Association. She is also a member of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Advisory Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy. Contact Mary Laura at