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Heather Sullivan-Flynn: Imagination and the art of teaching

Heather Sullivan-Flynn teaches at Amherst Regional Middle School.

KEVIN GUTTING Heather Sullivan-Flynn teaches at Amherst Regional Middle School. Purchase photo reprints »

Everyone knows Harry Potter. Whether you are a devoted reader of the books, someone who saw the films, or even someone who thinks that because they are popular they aren’t worth reading, we all know who this boy wizard is. He is part of our pop culture consciousness. Recently, I heard someone say that Harry Potter gave a generation a childhood. In a high-tech environment, a rebooted world of magic and imagination came from the pages of a book. Today, when social media, online communication and virtual space are always on hand, a great story can still pull a reader into another world. I think Harry Potter helped preserve imagination.

The summer of 1998 was the debut of J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in the United States. It also marked a transition for me; I was preparing for my first year of teaching. I spent that summer with books as a full-time children’s bookseller in Harvard Square in Cambridge. I’d worked for years as a book seller and an assistant book buyer and always gravitated toward children’s and young adult literature. At the time I wasn’t truly aware that this immersion into young adult literature would be as important as my undergraduate degree in English in building my foundation as an English teacher. I just knew I loved books.

At the end of that summer, I armed myself with my employee discount and shopped for my first classroom library. I would be teaching seventh-graders on Boston’s North Shore, and I loved choosing stories that would provide fodder for their independent reading and imaginations.

“This one just came in; it’s great,” shared a co-worker. “It’s British and it’s about a boy wizard.” I picked up a copy of the first book (and the British edition of its sequel, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”) and took them with me. Within days I’d devoured and loved both books and headed off into teaching.

My first year of teaching had its ups and downs, successes and learning experiences. I loved acting out Shakespeare’s rich words with students and thinking of creative writing assignments that would allow them to explore a theme and practice and improve their writing. But I also had to learn to work with a team of adults with different personalities. I had to learn to rescue my class from outbursts and disruption, and to speak to a concerned parent when she was unhappy I was teaching Edgar Allan Poe. When something wasn’t working, I would try to troubleshoot to find a solution. This was true for my Classics period of the day. My school had been granted money to buy classic print and audio books to use during a twice-weekly Classics period for students; I would play the audio book where we’d left off and my students would follow along in their paperback copies. It was a noble idea in all ways except for the text selection. While students enjoyed “Treasure Island,” the flat narration of “Call It Courage” and “The Tombs of Atuan” left them inattentive. I tried something else.

“We’re not going to listen to audiobooks anymore,” I told my Classics students that winter. “I’m going to read you this book instead. Do any of you know it?” I held up the first Harry Potter book to shaking heads and intrigued expressions. I don’t think I am overstating when I describe what happened next as magic.

They were captivated by the story, as millions of others have been. As I read to them about Harry’s first experiences shopping in Diagon Alley, taking classes at Hogwarts and playing Quidditch on a broomstick, they fell in love with this imaginative world of magic and courage. It was a privilege to unlock this world for that small group of students — to witness firsthand what would soon become an international phenomenon. All of us looked forward to that Classics period, and we read about Harry until June. Throughout that winter and spring, I would sometimes find unfamiliar kids outside my classroom door who had heard I had an early copy of the second Harry Potter, and asked if I would I share. I’d hand it over, exchanging a knowing smile. I didn’t know it until later, but this shared love of a story was a great equalizer for me and fundamentally influenced me as a teacher. Sharing this energy, positivity and enthusiasm for literature is the core, the fire, of my teaching. And I discovered it while reading Harry Potter to my Classics group. Before we knew it was a classic, I’d read them what has truly become a modern classic.

It was about a year later that the Harry Potter phenomenon really hit this country. It was truly wonderful to see my students fall in love with a book, and it consistently led them to pick up and read another. Harry Potter led kids to rediscover their love of reading for fun. It was (and is) a beautiful thing.

Recently, I became worried that today’s technological generation of young children would lose hold of the magic of vividly forming the world and images in a book with their imaginations. But I became less worried about it this summer, when my young son curled up on the couch with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” He loved this world he formed in his mind; this mixture of J. K. Rowling’s words and his own imagination. Harry will live on — and continue to spark the imaginations of generations of new readers.

Heather Sullivan-Flynn teaches English at Amherst Regional Middle School.

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