Monthly Archives: March 2013

Centaurs, Heads, and Cups, Oh My!

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Harry knows that the end is coming. Somehow or another, Harry will meet You-Know-Who again. You-Know-Who will try and get the Sorcerer’s Stone to come back.

And Harry doesn’t know if he will be able to stop Voldemort.

Centaur

Centaur

On the way, Harry has to go into the Forbidden Forest for detention. There, he sees something drinking unicorn blood. He also gets to see some centaur rivalry when Firenze carries Harry away because of danger in the forest. Bane rebukes Firenze for carrying a human on his back. Apparently it is against their pride or sacred laws to do so. Is Firenze an outcast? Or are the centaurs unwilling to bend their rules because of the situation? It seems like the centaurs have their own laws and values. The centaurs are star-gazers, seeking to gain truth from the heavens. Many centaurs told Hagrid “Mars is bright tonight…,” whatever that means. Do the centaurs sense that trouble is coming? Or are they like the fortune teller who makes random statements that don’t really make sense, acting like their meanings could change the world? Regardless, it is clear that centaurs are a real interesting bunch.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione travel down the trapdoor, where they find a series of tasks. Each task seems to match one of their specialties. Hermione gets a complex logic puzzle where she has to pick the right potion that will allow them to travel through fire and not get burned, meanwhile avoiding poison. Harry finds the key that others cannot while flying a broomstick. Finally, Ron has to play a complex game of chess.

Lord Voldemort on the back of Professor Quirre...

Lord Voldemort on the back of Professor Quirrell’s head

Eventually, Harry gets to meet Voldemort. Only Voldemort isn’t the one Harry sees after the fire. Is it Snape?

No…it’s Professor Quirrell, the last person Harry would expect to see. Apparently, Quirrell had Voldemort’s face sticking out of the back of his head. Quite the fashion statement.

Harry escapes by getting the stone from the Mirror of Erised. How on each did that mirror get so far down below the castle? Perhaps Dumbledore has a reason to his madness. Harry just has to touch Professor Quirrell’s face, and Quirrell’s face and hands burn up in front of Harry. Wow! Harry has magical powers that he didn’t even know about! Or is there something else about Harry that he doesn’t even know about?

Well, it turns out that since Harry’s mother died for him, the sacrifice left a mark of protection on him that even Voldemort can’t touch. By saving Harry the first time, Lilly Potter continues to save Harry when someone tries to hurt him.

Talk about the power of a mother’s love. What a precious, precious act.

But Harry still has a question for Professor Dumbledore, something that he has been wondering for a while now. Why did Voldemort want to kill Harry in the first place? What made Harry so special? Why want to kill an infant?

Dumbledore as portrayed by the late Richard Ha...

Dumbledore as portrayed by the late Richard Harris in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alas, Dumbledore does not tell Harry the truth he so desperately craves. Dumbledore tells Harry the thing all kids hate to hear: You’ll hear it when you’re older. Ugh! Harry wants to hear it now! Harry wants to know why his parents had to die to save him. Harry has to live with the Dursleys because of Voldemort. And Dumbledore can’t even tell Harry why Voldemort tried to kill him! The injustice of it all!

But, what can Harry do? Dumbledore will not tell Harry for whatever reason. He says it’s for the best that Harry doesn’t know now. Harry cannot press Dumbledore. Harry trusts the wise, old man. Dumbledore has been nothing but good to Harry (except for leaving Harry with the Dursleys). Harry has to believe Dumbledore; therefore, Harry doesn’t press the issue.

The book ends with the customary end of the year feast with the House Cup being awarded. Slytherin, of course, has the points to get the Cup. But Dumbledore has a few tricks up his sleeve. Dumbledore gives 50 points each to Ron and Hermione, and 60 points to Harry. This creates a tie between Gryffindor and Slytherin in house points. Why couldn’t Dumbledore have given Harry just 10 more points? It’s not like Harry didn’t deserve it.

But then, Dumbledore does something no one was expecting. You see, Neville tried to stand up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione so they wouldn’t go out after hours. Neville didn’t stand up to people. That was a very unique and brave thing Neville did, standing up to his friends. And Dumbledore rewarded him for that. Dumbledore gave Neville 10 points, making Gryffindor win the House Cup. For the first time in Neville’s life, people actually applauded him. Neville hadn’t done anything for Gryffindor before. And Dumbledore gave Neville the last 10 points so that Gryffindor could win. What a heartwarming moment that was. The happiness Neville felt could put a smile on anyone’s face.

From left to right: Fiona Shaw as Aunt Petunia...

The Dursleys

But that moment quickly ended when Harry had to go back to the Dursleys for the summer. You can’t have everything in life.

However, there was a little twinkle of mischievousness at the end: The Dursleys don’t know Harry can’t practice magic outside of school.

This summer quickly turned from sad and pitiful to somewhat exciting.

© Amy Burney, Amy’s Fantastical Writings

Mirror Madness

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Mirror of Erised

Mirror of Erised

What is your heart’s greatest desire?

This is the dilemma posed by the Mirror of Erised. Harry sees his parents in the mirror that he’s never been able to talk with because they were killed by You-Know-Who when he was just a baby. Ron sees himself as Quidditch Captain and head boy, and holding the Quidditch Cup. Ron desires to stand out from his family, and even have a higher status than the rest of them. Ron has always been overshadowed by his brothers, and wants to feel special. I can imagine that Ron is quite jealous of his brothers, and somewhat spiteful. Ron just wanted to look into the mirror. He wasn’t concerned about seeing Harry’s parents. The two even had a small argument over the mirror, which can’t be good for a young friendship. If their fight continued, Harry and Ron might have harbored ill feelings toward each other. A mirror could have caused Harry and Ron to not like each other so much.

There were other consequences to the mirror besides Harry and Ron fighting. The problem is, this mirror can make you go mad. As Dumbledore said, it can make you go mad wanting it. The mirror can make you want nothing else, and to waste away, hoping for the ideal that you will never have.

In that way, the mirror can teach you about yourself, things that you may never have known before. You may never have realized what you truly want, beyond your monetary or commercial desires. But you can also give up your life wanting what you can never have, your dreams that will never come true.

It’s very sad in a way. To face the reality of something that you want so desperately, but cannot have it, is kind of depressing. The healthy way is to back away from the mirror and never look at it again.

But, as Harry found out, the mirror can be very intoxicating. The fantasy can consume you, causing you to lose your own sense of reality. Or you can be up every night wandering around the school after hours, only to be caught by Filch. I suppose either outcome would have been very bad.

At least Harry had the sense to listen to Professor Dumbledore. I sense that many others would have ignored the wise professor and sought the mirror out again and again. I know it would have been hard for me to turn away from that mirror. Hopefully I would eventually realize that I would have ended up in a psychiatric hospital if I continued to look into the mirror.

Clearly, nothing good would have come out if Harry kept on looking at that mirror. It’s strange that such an innocuous thing like a mirror could have caused huge consequences.

© Amy Burney, Amy’s Fantastical Writings

“Reforming” American Education

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If you have ever been around an education major or teacher trying to plan lessons, you will hear them talk about the “standards.” Every lesson they ever make has to match up with the standards. Teachers are graded, and sometimes paid in merit pay, depending on how well their students pass their standardized tests. These tests are matched with the standards. Basically, students are required to learn the content required by the standards at their grade level. Individual states used to have different standards until the Common Core came onto the education scene. The Common Core is national standards that states are enacting instead of their own standards to ensure that all students in America are learning (and testing) on the same standards. The hope is that all students in America, from the top corner of Alaska, to Key West, are learning the same content in their grade levels (the same curriculum).

President Bush signing the bipartisan No Child...

President Bush Signing No Child Left Behind

What started this standards movement? The publication A Nation at Risk in 1983 stressed the importance of standards in education because American students were getting a lesser quality of education than students in other developed, modernized countries. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was created by President Johnson during his War on Poverty to reduce the achievement gap between the rich and the poor, and was the first step in requiring students to take standardized tests.  The Clinton Administration changed the Act of 1965, requiring that schools who recieved funding for high poverty schools in Title 1 test students in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12 in math and reading.  President’s Bush’s No Child Left Behind (2001) legislation continued this movement. Standards were enacted to provide a measure of what students should be learning at each grade level. Standardized tests measured if students were learning the content required by the standards. These tests were taken every two years in 4th and 8th grade reading and math.  No Child Left Behind also required schools to test children in science in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12, in addition to the tests in math and reading during these same grades.  This testing does not include state or schoolwide academic achievement tests.

Students are evaluated in school based on their scores on standardized tests. Educators can use these scores to determine if students should be retained, whether students qualify for special services, etc. In other worse, a student’s academic future can be determined based off their scores on standardized tests. In this way, standardized tests become high stakes tests.

Standardized Test

Standardized Test

So what we have is an education system where teachers have to teach standards, so their students measure up to other children around the world. Students take standardized tests each year to see if they learned the required material. If a teacher’s performance is not sufficient, their pay can be docked, or they can be put on probation (where they have a certain amount of time to increase their students’ test scores). Teachers have to be “highly qualified” to teach their subject area. Schools are assessed annually on their student’s achievement, and must bring their students’ academic achievement up to a “proficient” level. Every year, schools make yearly progress with their students’ scores. If schools that receive Title 1 funding fail to do so three years in a row, they are provided with technical assistance and students can go to other public schools. High-stakes testing thus has consequences not only for students, but also for schools.

In this way, education has radically changed over the past thirty years. Teacher preparation programs are much more rigorous to ensure teacher candidates are prepared to teach the standards at a sufficient, or exemplary, level. Students are sometimes judged more on test scores than anything else. If teachers and schools are not able to bring their students’ scores up to a proficient level, there are severe consequences.

So, what does this actually mean in real life? What do teachers do to ensure that their students get high test scores?

Science fair exhibit (butterflies), probably t...

School Science Fair

An area of great debate is “teaching to the test.” This involves taking out material and activities from thecurriculum that does not teach to the standards. This may include field trips, group projects, special school events (parties for example), and hands-on projects in math and science. Do you remember school science projects like the baking soda volcano? Or making a cell in biology? That might not happen today based on the standards movement. It takes too much time, and there’s too much material for a teacher to cover in a given year. Although it is fun, and students learn a lot from it, it’s quicker, easier, and cheaper to print off a worksheet from the internet and copy it thirty times from the teacher’s lounge to make a class set. A teacher then has to give a twenty minute lecture on how to do a problem, and then give the worksheet out to students to see if they understand the concept. There are many worksheets on the internet that will do the same job of teaching students that science lesson in twenty minutes instead of a science project involving multiple school days.

Sample Addition Worksheet

Sample Addition Worksheet

The problem is, students don’t really understand the material. They’re just memorizing the answers from the worksheet, or the formula to get the answer if the teacher is lucky. They don’t understand why 3+9=12. They just know that it equals 12. Students are not getting the hands-on exposure they need through manipulatives to understand the concepts behind the simple addition problem, or division problem, or balancing the chemical equation. Students cannot reason through the problem. They just plug the numbers into a formula to get the right answer. Students don’t use higher-level thinking skills in the curriculum. They can’t think through a problem to come up with the right answer. Also, these kinds of activities don’t engage students. Students aren’t interested in school when they just do worksheets all the time. This can lead to higher dropout rates, student apathy, and decreased educational gains.

I was an elementary education major before I dramatically changed my degree. I did one major research paper on standards and standardized testing, and I also worked with many classrooms that were affected by standardized testing. The effects were astounding, shocking, and disillusioning. I saw classrooms where all the students did for about six hours each school day was complete worksheets. There was nothing creative in the classroom, except for maybe a coloring activity during the last half hour of class on Friday. Students were not interested in school. Some even hated it. The teachers just seemed to look at their students like a test score, not really caring about their students.

English: 2008 No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon...

No Child Left Behind School Logo

The teachers seemed to dislike the lowest achieving students in the class, including those in special education, because these students were bringing down the classes’ overall test scores. The education department pushed creativity in the classroom, and yet there were no examples of this in reality. When I tried to bring creativity into the classroom, I was either put down, or I received disinterest. The push was to print off a worksheet for the lesson. The experience changed my perspective of education for the worse.  It made me realize that my ideal image of education was not the reality. I remembered my favorite teachers in elementary school that tried to make school interesting for their students. I didn’t see any of that when I was an education major. As I said, it was disillusioning.

The realities of education that I saw today are partly because of the standards movement. America enacted standards because our education system is slipping compared to other modernized countries. But is this really the way that we want our education system to be? Do we really want students to just complete worksheets and memorize answers or formulas for the test? Do we want our child’s educational future to be determined by a test score? Many times, that is what education comes down to today. While the reason for enacting standards is noble, the reality of it can be frightening.

© Amy Burney, Amy’s Fantastical Writings

Taking On A Troll

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Hermione Granger

Hermione Granger

Has your opinion of someone ever changed once you got to know them?  How drastic was that change?

Harry’s perceptions of someone change greatly in the next part of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s StoneWhen Harry first met Hermione Granger, she seemed like the annoying bookworm who always had to play by the rules.  She says how many books Harry is mentioned in, even though he’s never heard of him, and criticizes Ron’s spell.  Hermione seemed to be the teacher’s pet, being the only student able to make any difference to her match in the first day of McGonagall’s class.  And of course Hermione kept shooting her hand up into the air to answer Snape’s questions, straining to get his attention.  Was she just trying to act like a know-it-all?

Later, Hermione tries to stop Harry and Ron from dueling Draco at midnight, talking about losing all of Gryffindor’s points for her knowing about switching spells.  Yes, we know, Hermione was the smartest girl in Gryffindor.  But didn’t she realize that Harry had a personal vendetta with Draco Malfoy?  All Harry wanted to do was get back at him.  Why was that too much to ask.  But no…Hermione Granger couldn’t bear to see him break the rules.

Until she stuck up for them after they saved her from a mountain troll in the girl’s bathroom.

She even lied to a professor to keep them from getting in trouble.

How very un-Hermione Granger-ish.

But Harry learned something about Hermione Granger that day.  Harry learned that, while Hermione Granger is extremely smart and prefers not to break the rules, she is willing to stand up for what she believes in.  She is willing to bend the rules (or break, if you want to be technical) for the greater good.

That’s something that Harry can go with.

And so, when Harry and Ron get back to the Gryffindor Common Room, after a brief period of hesitation and embarrassment, the three actually exchange a civil word of “Thanks.”  And from that point on, Hermione Granger becomes a friend of Harry and Ron.  And it’s probably a good thing too.  A reader can see at this point that this story will not be happy, jolly, and conflict-free.  There’s going to be some problems coming up for Harry and Ron, some things they don’t understand.  They need Hermione to help them with the “book smarts,” whether they realize it or not.  Because there’s no way that Harry and Ron will be able to figure out anything on their own.  They’re going to need her help.

And so, Harry and Ron’s opinion of Hermione changes for the better in this part of a story.  Taking on a full-grown mountain troll tends to do that, apparently.  I don’t know.  I ‘ve never experienced it myself.

© Amy Burney, Amy’s Fantastical Writings

Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hoggy Warty Hogwarts

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English: Hogwarts Express at Islands of Adventure.

Hogwarts Express at Islands of Adventure.

Like most children, Harry is aquainted with his new school, except this school doesn’t teach normal subjects. This school teaches magic. Like other boarding schools, Harry has to travel to Hogwarts, except Harry goes to Hogwarts on the Hogwarts Express. On the way, he meets other students at his age that are starting out. Harry meets Ron Weasley, a boy who is from a well-known wizarding family and knows the ins and outs of the wizarding world. Harry also meets Hermione Granger, busy body who just seems interested in her books and making sure that everyone follows the rules.

Last but not least, Harry has to meet the “trouble maker” of his grade. Draco Malfoy fits that bill. Draco Malfoy is a boy with a cruel sneer that clearly has an agenda. Ron said Draco’s family were Dark wizards that followed You-Know-Who. His family came back to the good side after You-Know-Who vanished, saying they were bewitched, but Ron said his father didn’t believe them.

Harry decides to stick it out with Ron and become friends with him. Ron seems to be the nicest person there, not to mention the easiest to talk to. Plus, Harry didn’t know anything about the “Dark wizard business” yet, except that Voldemort killed his parents. From the little Harry knew of dark wizards and Voldemort, he knew that he didn’t want to get involved with them. Even early on, Harry decides to pick out who he is going to hang out with, just like children pick out who their friends will be when they first start school.

English: Alternate coat of arms of Hogwarts sc...

Hogwarts Coat of Arms

When he gets to Hogwarts, Harry is confronted with a nontraditional first “assignment” in this school—put on a hat and see where the hat sorts you. Odd as it may seem, that’s exactly what the hat does. It sings a lovely little song and tells you which house you’re in.   Many of his fellow newbies seem to be sorted quickly.

They put the hat on their head and the Sorting Hat screamed out which house they belonged to. Of course, Harry’s sorting was not that simple. The Hat wanted to put him in Slytherin, the house that all the bad wizards were from! Harry, of course, demands to be placed anywhere other than Slytherin. With regret and hesitation, the Sorting Hat places Harry in Gryffindor. I would suppose a child would see this kind of first assignment only in a school that teaches magic.

Next, Harry meets the teachers of the new school. There’s Professor Flitwick, the tiny Charms professor that squeaks and stands on a stack of books to teach. Professor Sprout taught herbology, the study of magical plants and fungi. For a little science, students learned astronomy, the study of the stars and their movements. Of course, Harry couldn’t get by without an exceptionally boring professor. Every child has one. In Harry’s case, the boring professor was Professor Binns, the ghostly history of magic teacher that seemed to drone on and on in every lesson.

Then there was the strict teacher, Professor McGonagal, obsessed with rules and proper procedures. Although it was cool when she turned a desk into a pig. I suppose she was more fun than most stickly teachers.

Every school has to have a teacher that all the kids like to make fun of behind their back. In Hogwarts, Professor Quirrell wore a turbin that many people said had garlic in it to ward off vampires. Professor Quirrell seemed to talk about nonsensical things like the weather. The professor taught Defense Against the Dark Arts, but he didn’t seem to be able to ward off even a worm. How he kept his job was beyond anyone’s explanation.

Professor Snape

Professor Snape

And then….there was the teacher that children dread in school. He wasn’t the strict disciplinarian or the boring droner. He was the teacher that seemed to hate Harry with all of his might. Professor Snape seemed to have a problem with Harry even when he first saw him during the feast after the sorting. Professor Snape, or Snape as students called him, looked into Harry’s eyes, and Harry felt a sharp pain hit his scar. Harry didn’t know how Snape did that, but when Snape read Harry’s name on the course list, Snape mocked Harry, calling him a “celebrity.” He then interrogated Harry on things that the class hadn’t even covered yet! Snape took points away from Harry on things that Harry didn’t even have control over.

So Harry had an interesting first week at Hogwarts. He became acquainted with his new school, met a friend, and found some teachers that were odd, strict, bizarre, or just mean.

Does that sound familiar for anyone starting off at a new school?

© Amy Burney, Amy’s Fantastical Writings

A Kid in a Candy Shop

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Places in Harry Potter

Places in Harry Potter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Harry’s first big adventure in the wizarding world is somewhat like a child

entering a candy shop. Everywhere he looks, he sees a new exciting thing he had never seen before. Sure, he had heard of broomsticks before, but imagine a shop where you could actually buy a broomstick? Or a bookstore where Harry could find a book on how to curse his cousin, curse his friends, and give others jelly legs?

Some of the books in the bookstore didn’t even have words at all! Why would you buy a book without words? And who had ever heard of that, anyway?

Harry walks a little further down the street with Hagrid and sees a store where you can buy an owl. Huh? That’s even stranger than buying a book without words!

And there’s a shop where you can buy dragon liver. Or salamander eyes.

And there’s a bank run by goblins!

Harry could hardly contain his excitement. He wished he had one thousand eyes, because he couldn’t possibly see everything there was to see, even if he kept turning in circles.

It was like there was a whole new world he was seeing that people didn’t know about.

And he was part of it.

Harry, the boy that once lived in a cupboard under the stairs. The boy that was chased around by his cousin Dudley.

He was part of something special. He was…what was that word again? He was a wizard.

But that candy shop quickly turned weird when Harry walked into Ollivanders. Hagrid told him to look for a wand. Harry didn’t even know how to fly a broomstick, or buy a broomstick? How was Harry going to find a wand?

Harry wished there was a sign up that said, “How to Buy a Wand in Five Easy Steps.” Really, he wished there was a sign like that for what this new world held for him. What would happen?

English: Inside Ollivanders at Islands of Adve...

English: Inside Ollivanders at Islands of Adventure. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mr. Ollivander touched his scar. Harry didn’t like

that, but Mr. Ollivander just sort of did it without asking. He measured his arm, and then went off to find a box. Of course, the tape measure moved on its own. After what Harry had been through, nothing really surprised him.

Mr. Ollivander handed him a wand. Harry then had to complete the humiliating task of waving wands, when he really didn’t know the purpose of it and didn’t know how to do it right. He must have been doing it wrong because Mr. Ollivander kept on bring him more wands to try.

And then something happened. Harry felt warmth in his hand. He actually felt confident, more than he had felt in a long time. Harry raised his arm and brought it back down, making it fly through the air as sparks came out of it.

Mr. Ollivander just had to do his Mr. Ollivander thing and act all mysterious. He was creepy.

But it didn’t really matter. Harry had a wand now, something that symbolized his entry into this new fantastical world of magic. He didn’t really have a place in it yet, but he knew that he never wanted to go back. He liked this candy shop. For good or for worse, Harry was staying in it.

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What kind of wand do you think would have been your “perfect match” in Mr. Ollivander’s shop? I think mine would have been somewhat swishy, made of cherry wood, with a unicorn hair.

© Amy Burney, Amy’s Fantastical Writings