There is nothing that can substitute for reflection time and as I am reflecting this week on what lessons my students and I learned from reading Tolkien, the thought that comes foremost to my mind is how his works transformed all of us. Any teacher who knows his/her students will tell you that no two students are alike. Each one has individual strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles that become apparent in a classroom environment. My 13 little dwarves are as unique as each of Tolkien’s dwarves and I enjoyed seeing how Tolkien’s creations became catalysts for change within them.
For our Teaching Tolkien readers, who viewed my students’ reflective speeches, the changes may not be as apparent. In retrospect, perhaps it would have been more effective to have recorded my students from both a pre and post-Tolkien perspective to fully illustrate the transformative power of literature. This may be a modification I make for future journeys. Each child improved in terms of academic performance, reading ability, and their enthusiasm for the learning process. These are benefits that all teachers wish their students to gain under his/her tutelage. However, I am more concerned with the long-term effects of literature on their emotional and social development.
There is something powerfully influential about books that you read as a child. When you enjoy a book as a child, the words tend to weave themselves into your very being, which allows those stories to become a part of who you will become. By exposing my students to great writers such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Brontes, and Tolkien, just to name a few; they have the opportunity to experience great literature at a formative age. My particular population of ELL (English Language Learner) students also enjoys the added benefit of experiencing these writers without the preconceived notions that accompany children who grow up in a literature-worshipping society, which reveres its great writers with fear and adulation, often placing their great books on a pedestal rather than in the hands of inquisitive, young readers. The English classroom can be a scary place for those who don’t understand how language conveys meaning and thought. Through positive experiences, I have conditioned my students to have fun playing with the rhythm of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter or Tolkien’s medieval and invented languages.
While I can think of many examples of how Tolkien influenced my students, certain tangible ones spring to mind. Kili and Bofur had both allowed their bad attitudes about reading to prejudice their interest in reading anything by “some stuffy old man who liked to smoke pipes and make up his own languages”. Gloin and Balin, two rather introverted girls who often felt they had nothing to contribute to class discussions, found themselves part of a team effort where everyone contributes. Ori, who often fears embracing his individuality lest he be ridiculed, found himself with more unrestrained opportunities for self-expression than he knew what to do with. Fili and Oin, both of whom were long ago given up on by their other teachers as “uninterested in learning” or “incapable of being taught”, found themselves freed of the oppressive confines of low expectations, a problem that unfortunately plagues many second-language learners. Nori, Bombur, and Bifur all struggled to comprehend the difficult language of Tolkien due to their limited exposure to reading English, yet they found themselves wanting to understand it despite their obvious limitations. Finally, Dwalin, Thorin, and Bilbo, all students who aim to please, used Tolkien as an opportunity to hone their leadership skills, much as Tolkien’s members of the fellowship must live up to their innate abilities.
My students were not the only ones transformed by Tolkien’s works. I found a kinship with a writer who did not allow the limitations of language, reality, or history impede his ability to express the human condition. Never having taught Tolkien before, he provided this seasoned teacher with invigorating, new blood to infuse into her instructional methods. He gave me an outlet to express the plight of my immigrant students and the sad state of affairs occurring in today’s educational system. Teaching Tolkien also provided a way for both my students and I to communicate and interact with the world around us. Realizing that every single one of us is part of a greater whole is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn. While I cannot fully speak for my students, I believe that lesson is an invaluable tool in life and one that I am quite content to be transformed by.