School has been in session for a month now and I must regretfully inform our readers that I have had zero opportunities for Teaching Tolkien. Unfortunately, this school year has proved to be more data-driven, thus far, than last year. I have spent the last month administering reading assessments to every language minority student in my school. While I would much rather have spent my time delving into books, the time spent testing did provide me with an opportunity to objectively observe my students. As I’ve assessed those students, formerly under my Tolkien tutelage, I have observed that reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings had a lasting effect and overall improvement on my students’ reading abilities.
The reading assessments I have recently administered have required my students to read brief passages of text aloud while I take a running record, which indicates their reading rate, number of corrected and uncorrected miscues, and accuracy. Though they struggled through the language of Lord of the Rings at times, Tolkien had a direct impact on their ability to decode. As I’ve listened to my students read these random selections, I have noticed how much more fluently they read and their improved abilities to problem-solve unknown words. Every single one of my former dwarves was able to successfully pass their prospective assessments, and in some cases even surpass those levels. Many of my former students are no longer eligible for ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) services, as their WIDA (World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment) scores also met the criteria for exiting the program. Are these results coincidental? I don’t think so. I believe Tolkien is greatly responsible for those results.
Being too close to a situation often takes away one’s ability to see the big picture. Even though we spent four months traversing through Fangorn Forest, it was still difficult to see the forest for the trees, or Ents, in this case. While I hoped that exposure to Tolkien’s challenging language would challenge my students’ decoding and comprehension skills, I was so caught up in the task of getting them through the book in four short months that I did not assess their measured growth.
While I am not a fan of the current educational trends that support the over-assessment of students, which has been a by-product of teaching in the age of accountability; looking back, I feel it would have been helpful to have specific pre and post-assessments to measure my students’ progress. The purpose of Teaching Tolkien is to serve as an educational resource. Educators today are faced with a plethora of standards, which they must adhere to. Many of these standards leave little room for creativity or compromise, causing teachers to fear stepping outside of their pre-determined scope of sequence. If Frodo and the rest of the fellowship had given into their fears, they would have allowed Middle-Earth to be lost forever to the dark shadow of Mordor. While the battle for literacy may not be equated with the battle for Middle-Earth, it cannot be denied that books, particularly those in the fantasy genre, are under attack.
From my experience, exposing students to great literature is not for the faint of heart. By stepping out in faith that such exposure will benefit your students, despite the trend to lower the standards so that all students will meet them; you are daring to be different. Sometimes being different has its price. You may face scorn, disbelief, criticism, and isolation; however, those drawbacks do not supersede the many benefits than can be gained by giving students the best books. I would encourage teachers not to be fearful, but to courageously continue advocating for the use of great literature at all levels of education.