Courage in the Classroom

“Courage is found in unlikely places” was the thought-provoking quote from Fellowship that my students chose to focus on today.  I began the class by asking all of them to write those words in their steno pad and take a few minutes to reflect silently on what that might mean to them.  Prior to responding, there were two words I anticipated might get in the way of their comprehension, courage and unlikely.  Though most of them knew the meanings of these words, I do have a few recent arrivals whose vocabulary is limited.  We discussed some possible synonyms for courage, such as bravery and fearlessness.  We defined unlikely as unexpected or not probable.  Once they understood, my impulsive, young charges were eager to blurt out their answers, but I encouraged them to really take some time to reflect on the meaning of those words.

To most adults, whether they have read Lord of the Rings or not, the meaning of this quote, both in and out of context, would be easy to explain.  Surprisingly enough, some of my students had a rather difficult time explaining its relevance.  I found some of their responses to be both unlikely and unexpected:

Gloin– “I think that when something is found in an unlikely place, they could be talking about the ring.  It was found in an unlikely place in The Hobbit.”

Fili– “It means that sometimes you can be brave in unlikely places.”

Bofur– “You can be brave.  It means that anyone can have courage.”

Thorin– “Courage means braveness, so it means you can find courage anywhere.”

Oin– “I think it means people get worried and sometimes you just want to be a hero.”

Ori– “I think ‘courage is found in unlikely places’ probably means that people don’t always show courage when they need to or are expected to.  Sometimes they show courage when they don’t need to or aren’t expected to.  It could also mean that sometimes you don’t have courage, but when you see something powerful like the ring, you can get it.”

Balin– “I think ‘courage is found in unlikely places’ means there’s some unlikely places that have courage.  That’s what I think.”

Nori– “I think ‘courage is found in unlikely places’ means courage is found in scary places or a monster’s house.”

Bifur– “I think it means that powerful water that makes you brave is at your home.”

I found the last three responses to be the most elusive to trace the thought process of the child.  Balin, I suspect, was trying to be clever by simpling reversing the order of the sentence instead of coming up with an original answer, but unfortunately I would have to say that is not atypical for the average 5th grader.  Nori and Bifur’s responses both completely baffled me, as I found them to be rather mystical in nature and just plain odd.  I could not understand where “monster’s house” and “powerful water” had come from.  There was really nothing in the text that would refer to either of those responses.  However, it did occur to me that Nori and Bifur are both Korean.  From my experiences working with Korean students and learning about their culture, the spiritual influences of Shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism have greatly shaped Korean life and thought.  I have found my Asian students, in general, to be much more in touch culturally with spirituality and religion than their native English-speaking peers.  Taking this into account, that may shed some light on what Bifur was thinking when he wrote “powerful water”.

I also took some time today to reflect on this quote.  I selected it to focus on because I love the idea that even a simple creature, like a hobbit, can be brave in the face of adversity and go on to achieve feats of heroic proportions.  As a teacher, this is what I truly wish to convey to my students.  Though it seems miniscule compared to carrying a ring to Mordor, my class of immigrant children demonstrate courage every day of their lives.  They courageously strive to catch up academically to their peers in an educational system that makes few allowances for being new to the language.  They courageously traverse into adult responsibilities on a daily basis as they are often needed to serve as translators for their family members in doctors’ offices, stores, and schools.  They demonstrate courage to take initiative and responsibility for their learning when it is often uncool to spend time outside of school reading.  I was surprised last night when I received an email from Kili, who was unable to attend class yesterday, asking how far our class had read in the book.  She said she had found a website that had the text of Tolkien’s books on-line and wanted to catch up and maybe read ahead, if that was alright with me.

It also takes courage for my students to engage in creativity in the classroom when school curricula often confines the students to regurgitating information rather than creatively responding to what they have learned.  I always encourage my students to explore whatever creative impulses they wish to delve into and have been delighted at the inventive responses they have had to Tolkien’s books.  Ori was still fixated on our class discussion from earlier this week that explored the idea of female dwarf companions making the journey in The HobbitOri has taken it upon himself to create a comic strip called Girl Dwarves that he is working on in his steno pad.  Yesterday he penned episode 1, which introduced the characters.  He has paired up the following dwarf couples:  Thorin and Thorina, Bombur and Barbara, Fili and Filina, Kili and Kilina, Bifur and Bifalina, Bofur and Bolfire, Ori and Orina, and Nori and Nomina.  I don’t think he’s quite finished yet, as some characters are missing, but I believe this little matchmaker-in-training has taken the ball and run with it, for sure.

Be it found in unlikely places such as The Shire or a classroom, courage is truly a quality that can be exhibited by all of us, if we only look for opportunities to step-up and show what we’re made of.  A text-to-text connection that I made for this quote is taken from Lady Macbeth’s speech in act I, scene VII of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “But screw your courage to the sticking place, and we’ll not fail.”  I believe if my students continue to step-up to the challenge of reading Lord of the Rings, they will not fail, as their courage will be rewarded for years to come by the many academic merits to be gained from Tolkien.

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4 Comments on “Courage in the Classroom”

  1. John Cowan
    March 15, 2013 at 3:34 pm #

    It may be useful to distinguish between courage/bravery and fearlessness, as this distinction will be important later in the book. Fearlessness is quite simply not feeling fear. Courage, though, is going on with the job, even when you do feel fear.

    I like the “Dwarf Girls” idea! Tolkien tells us in the Appendices that dwarf-women are almost indistinguishable from the men, at least to non-dwarves, and that they are only about 1/3 of the Dwarves instead of 1/2. In addition, not all of the dwarf-women marry, which means that a good deal less than half of the men do. I wrote a little speculative essay about the idea that some of the Dwarves in The Hobbit are really women, and which ones those might be. Here’s the URL without the prefix, which I hope won’t be suppressed by your blogging software: To spell that out in case it doesn’t work, it’s slash pipermail slash lois-bujold slash 2013-January slash 114612 dot html.

    • hmrodgers
      March 15, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

      Good point! I was thinking dwarf-women would be rather masculine-looking, as well. From the look of his comic, I think my student is trying to make them a little more feminine, complete with girly-dresses, make-up, and curls. When he’s done, I’ll be sure to post some pictures. Will have to check out your essay. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Troelsfo
    April 4, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

    Though I cannot know what Nori was thinking, I understood the comment about courage in scary places (such as a monster’s house) to be quite perceptive: as I read it, Nori is making a point about courage being found when one is really scared, which is easily an unlikely place. In that sense it is about the individual finding courage in an unlikely place rather than courage being found in an unlikely person.

    • hmrodgers
      April 4, 2013 at 3:36 pm #

      Thank you so much for the insight about Nori’s comment. I had not quite interpreted it that way, but I think you are correct.

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