“I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed! Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.”
An effective educator is one that constantly adapts to the changing needs of his/her students without sacrificing the quality of their instruction or compromising the integrity of their educational philosophies. Even though I have worked as an educator for 15 years, there are always new tricks to add to your instructional toolbox. Each school year you are inspired with new ideas and by new students. This past school year I was inspired by both the works of Tolkien and my students’ insatiable curiosity about the world of Middle-Earth. Tolkien provided a breath of fresh air to my classroom and served to breathe life into my enthusiastic, young students.
My students’ experiences with both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were extremely positive and gave me enough encouragement to want to pursue further reading with future groups of learners. Throughout the summer I have been focusing on what worked and what didn’t work with our reading project and how I would choose to modify it for subsequent journeys.
The first lesson I learned is that Tolkien takes time. Looking back, I realize now that we should have started reading much earlier in the school year. Even though it was possible for my students to read Lord of the Rings in four months, it made for a very hurried journey through Middle-Earth rather than a more enjoyable, scenic stroll. When we first started reading in late February, my students began their quest with many questions. Initially I took the time to discuss each paragraph and sometimes every word, but there were too many questions to possibly take the time to answer each one. The steno pads were helpful in allowing my students to feel they still had an outlet to voice their questions and reading reflections, but I missed the fascinating discussions that we could have been having. One of the reasons I love being a language arts teacher is the excitement that can take place when students discover a book for the first time. Even though class time is limited, it is important to allow organic explorations of literature to occur. I believe that introducing my next band of dwarves to The Hobbit within the first month of school will allow for a more leisurely pace and give my students the time to take their time through the book.
Another adjustment I would like to consider is making a more concentrated effort to link Tolkien’s works to the language arts standards my students are assessed on. This will require developing original materials, studying the texts more thoroughly, and aligning the curriculum with the readings for each class period. These are all challenges that will require more planning and preparation on my part, but for the benefit of my students, I am willing to take on these additional tasks.
I also believe such adjustments will not only benefit my students but also benefit the greater Tolkien community. Tolkien is often an author who is looked down upon by the powers that be in the literary community. Dismissed as a mere fantasy author, his works do not often appear on required reading lists by school districts. The creation of supplementary teaching materials to be used in conjunction with his books would encourage other teachers to consider Teaching Tolkien and allow Tolkien to be viewed as a legitimate author in his own right, whose works should be read by all students.
Changes may often be fraught with uncertainty and doubt, particularly in today’s educational system as teachers and students feel the pressure of performing on standardized tests, which have caused the very foundations of education to change. While there are likely several other changes I would make to the way I teach Tolkien, I am open to the spontaneous reactions that my new students, I will inherit in September, may have. The one change I am not willing to make is to sacrifice challenging books for my students in favor of simpler reading materials. All students deserve to be exposed to quality literature and Tolkien is an author that no child should miss.