The Trouble with Harry: A Reason for Teaching Media Literacy to Young Adults

Penrod, Diane

Someone saying negative things about the Harry Potter series practically elicits the same reaction as cursing motherhood, apple pie, and baseball--how dare anyone question something, anything, that motivates children to read? Reading is a wholesome activity. Reading is good. Reading is fundamental. Reading is the foundation for a literate, democratic society. Reading is the cornerstone of learning.

Reading is all that and more. The act of reading, as well as what we have access to read, is largely bound to cultural expectations and tastes. Intrinsic, dominant social values--generally class-based ideals--permeate the literature we consume as readers and as buyers. Moreover, these same values and ideals link to the place of the book and of literacy in a society. With the current dominance of television, film/video, and the Internet in our students’ lives, some suggest that the power of the mass media’s influence in North America bodes poorly for the printed word. Rather than lament the death of the book or the demise of young people’s reading skills in the Mass Media Age as many do, I want to argue here that educators need to examine our own and our students’ reading practices and preferences with the hope of discovering how literacy can straddle the real and the presumed divides between elite and mass cultural aesthetics that exist in society. In this context, then, Harry Potter’s real magic--both as a literary figure and as a media icon--is that the character bridges the loftier reaches of fiction and the lower realms of commercial enterprise. Because of his ability to span literature and consumerism, Harry is both delightful and disturbing in the messages he sends to youngsters. Consequently, the boy wizard becomes a pivotal element for showing students how contemporary reading and writing practices must include print and electronic forms.

A Tale of Two Harrys

To truly comprehend the complexity in media literacy, we have to take an interdisciplinary approach that embraces the fields of cognition, education, media theory, and literacy studies. This is because the act of reading makes certain demands upon the individual, especially in the Mass Media Age. As media theorist Joshua Meyrowitz writes in No Sense of Place, "A medium that is in short supply or that requires a very special encoding or decoding skill is more likely to be exploited by an elite class that has the time and the resources to gain access to it" (16). In this passage, Meyrowitz quintessentially describes the current state of reading. Given the heavy influence of electronic media in our society, book reading is a channel that is often given short shrift. Reading is a medium that depends upon finely developed encoding and decoding skills. As for reading being a codified skill made the most of by an elite class, the 1996 and 1998 NAEP reading and writing scores show an increasing gap between students in wealthier districts and those in poorer districts.

Likewise, Meyrowitz’s question of the access to reading material directly connects to the intersection of mass media and social class. Educators cannot overlook that book publishing is a multi-billion-dollar medium that generally depends upon short runs and big hits in the marketplace. This means book selections are resource driven, particularly in the young adult fiction market. If publishers can’t make a profit on a manuscript, then even the best ideas rarely go forward. While books are often elevated to a higher status than is television or movies, many teachers tend to forget that what we all read depends greatly upon publishing concerns. What teachers and students have access to in print is usually decided upon by large publishing houses that market books and by agents who frequently develop ancillary marketing deals for popular authors. All of this leads to the trouble with that popular boy magician, Harry Potter.

If teachers are astute, the trouble with Harry can be seen in any bookstore. The problem is not with the Harry Potter book series. Harry Potter the literary figure is a terrific motivator for children (and adults) to read, regardless of their socioeconomic class. The Potter story line mixes elements of high and low cultural tastes into an appealing blend that crosses class lines. Author J.K. Rowlings deftly blends the qualities of highbrow literary fiction--strong character development, emphasis on basic philosophical, psychological or social issues, and heroic figures--with the social stratification and action-drama sequences that reflect lower class entertainment. The collapsing of high and low cultural taste is not the trouble with Harry, though. The trouble is with Harry Potter the commercialized figure. This Harry Potter is an incredible temptation for children (and for well-intentioned adults) to purchase cheap plastic "Harry" eyeglasses, Halloween costumes, mouse pads, key chains, telephone calling cards, posters, and other sundry items placed around bookstore end caps and center aisle kiosks. Instructors should not forget the tons of Harryphernalia soon to follow once the upcoming movie is released. Harry Potter lunch boxes, thermos containers, and book bags loom on the horizon. A recent trip to the local drugstore showed me that even Reach™ toothpaste is game for Harry’s image. In short, more Harry, more Harryphernalia, more money. In these instances, Harry Potter the boy wizard of mass marketing becomes a much more ambiguous representative for the benefits of reading. Consequently, educators must ask the question, does the rise of this Harry Potter mean more children will be reading, more adolescents will be developing the love of language, and more students will be learning literacy skills?

The trouble with Harry, then, is there are actually two Harrys--one who promotes children's literacy skills and one who shills for any number of cheap consumer products. Frequently these two Harrys are conflated in the real world, and their conflicting purposes are sometimes overlooked by well-intentioned teachers. While many educators push to motivate their students to read and figure that if Harry motivates kids toward stronger literacy skills, then they are all for Harry. Yet, some forget that the hows and whys behind a person's reading sometimes are equally as important as the act of reading itself. How carefully and how critically a reader interprets the information presented to him or her in a given context is frequently as important as being able to read. Moreover, why someone chooses a particular selection to read or why someone finds a book appealing regularly reflects back to how a text is presented in the marketplace. These points are especially salient when acts of reading connect to media literacy. How and why we read information presented to us through the mass media can make the difference between naïve and critical decision-making.

Understanding Media Literacy in Educational Contexts

Teachers and administrators sometimes forget that reading is not necessarily a transferable act--the reading strategies used in language arts or English will not always cross disciplinary boundaries, for instance. Likewise, reading a book for pleasure is not quite the same process as reading for course work. Readers select information quite differently depending upon the situation in which they are reading. More importantly for this discussion, the act of reading print-based texts differs in varying degrees from reading other media texts. Literacy theorists Sherry Macaul, Jackie Giles, and Rita Rodenberg note the technological shift in literacy reflects a range of innovations "from the ways in which information is accessed and viewed to the processes and mediums by which messages are constructed and represented" (53). Therefore, in our media-affected culture, literacy is not a one-size for all situation; as we have directly seen with the rise of computer technology, literacy is protean. A child can be highly literate in one subject area, yet nearly illiterate in another. Clearly with respect to the degree of mass media influence and the volume of information bits streaming into their homes, most North American children and teenagers are woefully media illiterate. For all the viewing and message receiving these young adults do, a large number of them possess rudimentary levels of media literacy.

What Does it Mean to be Media Literate?

Being media literate means we have created knowledge structures--schema--to interpret or provide a perspective on the media messages that surround us. We cannot compare the cognitive processes involved in reading versus watching television or film, as they are not equivalent skills. More than the cognitive domain that dominates the traditional, academic "reading/writing" notions of literacy, though, media literacy spans emotional, aesthetic, and moral domains as well. Consequently, the schema media literate people generate function more like a multi-dimensional scale than the hierarchical scaffolding model generally associated with literacy studies. These media knowledge structures emerge when we actively engage in various media experiences and test those new media experiences against the skills and information we have gleaned elsewhere, such as from parents or family members, schools, religious institutions, or other authority figures. Prior media experiences can even provide the skills and information one needs to analyze current situations. So, regardless of how old we are, people continually generate new mental representations to accommodate changes in our media use. Therefore, our worldviews as well as children's and teenagers' worldviews are constructed and reconstructed through media use. That is why media literacy has become equally important as academic literacy in North American classrooms.

Great numbers of educators believe the myth that students are highly media literate because of their large amounts of media consumption. Media educators Ladislaus Semali and Ann Watts Pailliotet suggest otherwise; instead of children becoming increasingly more literate, these media-distorted boundaries "between school and home, fact and fiction, narrative and live reporting are confusing" (14). This is because youngsters, even the most media-savvy adolescents, are still building the multi-dimensional schema they need to develop the broad overall perspective people use to separate the superficial from the meaningful. Usually, children and teenagers operate with very limited knowledge structures about the media; they tend to focus on the recognition of surface information like song lyrics, television characters, actors' or characters' names, and so on. This surface information pattern closely models the basic sets of facts we find in reading textbooks or newspapers. That means children and others who can recite the entire Harry Potter ensemble or who can recall a book passage from memory may be strong readers or recallers of general information, and may be considered highly literate in the conventional sense. Yet their media literacy functions at a very low level, perhaps bordering on media aliteracy in that the surface knowledge is apparent but deeper levels of knowledge are missing. Educators must note that well-developed cognitive domains alone do not best serve a truly media literate person.

Many juveniles do not yet display an adequate degree of reflexivity about their role as interpreters of media information to demonstrate they understand the full range of emotional, visual, and moral value manipulation that occurs through the crafting and editing of messages (Potter 5-9). As such, it is conceivable that the Harry Potter many adolescent readers fell in love with in the literary series can, and most likely will, change dramatically as the young wizard's image moves to film and to a local fast-food restaurant near them in the future. However, inexpert student media users do not always see the changes one media representation has over another, particularly if the shifts involve a beloved character. They often miss the multiple layers of meaning that exist in media messages. This is because the youngsters' analytical, evaluative, synthesizing, abstracting, and inferencing abilities are not as finely honed as they need to be. Therefore, scores of young media consumers tend to be more susceptible in automatically accepting the prevailing ideas, morals, attitudes, and explanations presented by the media.

In all probability, the Harry Potter found in movies and commercials will correspond to recognized or desired personal characteristics familiar to children and teens, which in turn will establish an opening for advertisers and others to shape youngsters' attitudes about new film stars and products. This process, known as canalization, subtly influences people's attitudes by making them more receptive to a product through linking that product to our emotional needs (Potter 271). Hence it is highly plausible that through the media push caused by the film and its subsequent commercialization of all things Potter, the clever boy wizard will become a pitchman for any number of products directed at young consumers. Without more finely attuned media literacy practices, in all likelihood, scores of young adults will conflate the Harry Potter of literature with the Harry Potter of commercialism without developing the awareness needed to separate the types of media exposure the two Harrys offer them.

Harry Works His Magic Again: Transforming the Boy Wizard into a Study in Media Literacy

This leads us to how Harry Potter the literary character can teach educators ways to introduce media literacy to our students, regardless of their ages. Teachers know Harry Potter has the power to reach children and stimulate their conventional literacy skills. Students reading the Harry Potter book series engage in a wide range of sensory stimulation, as they layer their own images upon the sentences J.K. Rowlings produced. Writing and reading teachers clearly see how Rowlings's characters and stories can train young readers in the left-brain linguistic and analytical patterns they need to develop strong, sustained reading and writing abilities. Working through various scenes in the tomes, students develop creativity and analytic thinking as they interact with the storyline. Moreover, while reading these books, students who are active in the reading process internalize sequential speech or syntactic structures, all of which become important foundations for future learning. Then, too, through Rowlings's series young readers learn the conventions of the written texts, such as punctuation, capitalization, pagination, and paragraphing. These elements are not necessarily found in broadcast media, and items like punctuation and capitalization take on new forms in cybermedia.

From a cognitive perspective, one of the greatest concerns teachers should have with Harry Potter becoming a media icon connects to students developing stronger right-brain patterns, such as relying more upon holistic visual or verbal cues like color, motion, and sound effects instead of text-based cues to determine required information from a storyline (Healy 210-11). As a movie or commercial image, Harry Potter feeds upon the right hemisphere of the brain's need for novelty and for understanding the story's global context (Healy 124-25). Therefore, children and teenagers who become dependent solely upon the film or commercial versions of Harry Potter without the connection to Rowlings's books will most likely capture the narrative's gist, but they may miss the more interesting or important details connected to really understanding the tale. The danger in this is some students become untrained in the art of pursuing meaning and reflection in their reading and writing. In these instances, students will not grasp foreshadowing techniques like asking questions of what will happen next in the plot nor will they make mental connections to prior learned information. These are critical reading skills that do transfer to written communication, and educators need to discover ways to enhance these abilities in students whose primary leisure activity is television or film viewing.

Secondary areas to consider as Harry Potter moves toward film, video, advertising, and television are the types of effects the change from literary figure to media icon will elicit in young or adolescent viewers. Media influence is a two-stage process, displaying immediate and long-term effects. Immediate effects occur during exposure to a message or directly thereafter. Some of these outcomes temporarily tend to reinforce or extend an individual's schema. For instance, after seeing the Harry Potter movie, young viewers may adopt attitudes or behaviors that correspond to the hero or heroine. Alternatively, children may have heightened emotions connected to what happens to Harry or his friends for a short period during or slightly after the film. In these situations, youngsters may want to dress like or act like Harry or one of the characters for a period of time.

Other outcomes, though, depend upon long term exposure to messages that people internalize as cultural or personal beliefs. For the sake of argument, let us say the recently released Harry Potter movie becomes a pop classic in the same way E.T. or Star Wars did a generation ago. Children and teens see the film dozens of times, each time internalizing more of the messages sent through the movie. These messages are layered with more messages from TV news stories about the Harry Potter phenomenon, Harry Potter products, the stars of the movie, and so on. [1]

Over time and repeated exposure, hypermnesia sets in. Hypermnesia occurs when individuals become more able to recollect data about a topic (Potter 281). Through shared hypermnesia, a group or a generation begins to bond through media socialization. Media socialization tends to happen when teens and others have repeated exposure to the same movies, cartoons, advertisements, news stories, talk shows, and so on. The recurring information crystallizes certain messages that are shared among the group. The trouble with Harry in this situation is young viewers begin to infer generalizations and beliefs about the world based on the strings of individual facts, events, and character portrayals narrowly transmitted through various media outlets. While these generalizations and beliefs may be mediated by many other outside sources, from parental attitudes and beliefs to cultural, religious, and regional influences, continued exposure to the same or similar media messages over an extended period of time does shape an individual's worldview. For youngsters, hypermnesia generated by the media can be strong enough to challenge these other mediating sources. Since most juveniles are still forming experiences to test their media knowledge, hypermnesia may have a greater effect on them compared to many adults.

Harry Potter the media image can also introduce students to a number of faulty reasoning traps, the greatest of which is the "halo effect." The halo effect is believing someone because we trust him or her or because we believe the person is an expert in a particular area. Because young readers of Harry Potter the literary figure have built a sense of trust in the character, this trust in the literary persona frequently transfers to the media image. Especially in advertising contexts, this ready-made trust between young reader and character can be exploited in ad copy to make suspect claims.

A second faulty reasoning method, the ecological fallacy, can also emerge. In this setting, a message would show a viewer that there is a causal relationship between two items merely because they occur simultaneously. For instance, the successful release of another Harry Potter book coincides with a blockbuster opening for the Harry Potter film. There may be a number of reasons for the book and the movie doing well that do not account for the simultaneous release, such as the time of year both are released or the amount of advertising dollars spent to create a pent-up desire for youngsters to purchase the new book or to see the movie. Sophisticated media users can detect the ecological fallacy; unsophisticated users generally do not. Many children and adolescents may not recognize all the underlying reasons as to why the book and film are huge successes and may want to see coincidences where there may not be any. Similarly, in these situations, inexperienced thinkers also may fall prey to post hoc fallacies. They may assume just because something preceded an event--such as the movie being released before the book--it is the cause of whatever transpired.

Certainly the "bandwagon" fallacy also can come to the fore in this context. If news reports, advertisements, and word-of-mouth reflects that everyone--or seemingly everyone--is watching, reading or buying Harry Potter, then inexperienced media consumers become easy targets for these powerful messages. Children and teens are particularly susceptible to bandwagon fallacies because their range of experiences with media messages and real life interactions are limited. The bandwagon effect is particularly successful with those who have a lack of self-esteem and want to be like others. To many young minds, if everyone is seeing the movie, purchasing the book, or buying Harryphernalia, the possibility of being left out of this consuming frenzy may play upon his or her self-worth. Without solid media literacy skills to dismantle bandwagon messaging techniques, adolescents remain especially susceptible to feeling like the odd one out if they do not purchase the latest item or see the hottest movie or buy the latest fashion.

Lastly, the distinct variations between the two Harrys may create intentional fallacies, which is the idea that what the message maker's intended meaning is what the viewers take it to be. Many times the media will construct intentional fallacies to shape our ideas about a product or a program. Usually, though, there is some degree of separation between the message's encoded meaning and how the audience decodes it. For instance, with the Harry Potter book series, the author intends the message to be a child's fantasy and the publisher intends for the book to be a huge seller. However, the readers may have a variety of different and unexpected uses for the book. For instance, readers may share or exchange copies of their books with others, thus reducing the numbers of copies sold. Or, adults might hold Harry Potter costume parties, where parents and their friends dress up like the characters of the book. Some parents might read the book aloud and tape their readings for younger children who cannot yet read. These uses subvert the original intentions of the book.

Children, too, can be shown how they might challenge media-generated intentional fallacies with their own multiple uses of the Harry Potter movie. With the film, the producers intend viewers to visit a theater, rent, or purchase the movie. They do not expect the audience to share or dub the VCR tapes or DVD discs for friends. Nor are the film's creators interested in how children and teenagers appropriate new meanings for the scenes, such as using the movie's language, characters or situations as a secret code to describe school, family or neighborhood relationships.

However, there is much more for us to consider with the two Harrys than the types of logical traps they can set for students. The shift from Harry Potter the literary character to Harry Potter the media icon should also have educators questioning how the change will further desensitize young readers' relationships with the printed word. J.K. Rowlings' books instill a sense of wonderment and surprise in young adults, as many teachers and parents can attest. Like the numerous media studies that repeatedly show watching even a single television program--especially if violence and aggression are featured--lowers children's sensitivity toward these actions, highly entertaining television shows, videos or movies filled with spectacular special effects also reduce viewers' impressions toward low impact programming. Reading and writing are very low impact programming forms. Both depend upon great skill in encoding and decoding messages in a particular context and the entertainment level is rooted much more deeply in one's special interests. Therefore, it is entirely plausible that for many youngsters a Harry Potter movie filled with incredible computer generated graphics or fantastic special effects will be far more entertaining and impressive than reading the series or writing about what they have read or seen. Rather than believe children and teenagers will turn to the movie version of Harry Potter because the story is easier to consume, though, educators need to realize that the amazing technological effects connected to the portrayal of a boy wizard will desensitize these viewers to the acts of reading and writing. This is a far more subtle use of the media desensitizing viewers than perhaps many are accustomed to, and one that directly affects how youngsters connect to the printed word.

More Than What the Hogwarts Academy Expected: Using the Magic of Harry Potter to Teach Media Literacy in Grades 6-12

The standard approach to instilling media literacy in children or teenage consumers is to inoculate them. Inoculation simply refers to the repeated exposure of audience's attitudes to various messages and claims with the purpose of making media claims less effective. However, inoculation is generally an unsophisticated approach to developing media literacy. Media outlets spend millions on psychographic and demographic information to subvert most inoculation techniques, and advertisers and programmers use inoculation to sway consumers and viewers toward specific products. So the activities educators would most likely line up to combat media messages more than likely pale in comparison to what skilled corporate manipulators do on a daily basis.

Instead of inoculating students to create media literacy, teachers might achieve more by using media commercialization as a significant learning experience for their classes. This is where the two Harry Potters emerge as central figures. Students can use their prior experience with the Harry Potter of literary fame to shape their current media knowledge structures. With the flood of Harryphernalia in bookstores and shopping malls, teachers can ask students to become critical thinkers about their own media consumption using the following writing exercise. [2] Using excerpts of the film, commercials featuring the Harry Potter characters, or news stories related to the movie, have students analyze their potential for consumerism. The teacher writes ten ideas on the board related to media influence--for instance, opinion creation, opinion change, reinforcement, emotional reactions, imitation, nutrition, instant gratification, materialism, and blame. Students then determine what characteristics would need to be present in the film, commercial, or news story to influence them to see the movie, buy the product, or pay attention to the television story. This is akin to developing foreshadowing techniques in conventional literacy. To facilitate the next phase in the assignment, teachers fill the board with the class's responses.

Stepping back to examine what students generated is an important stage in encouraging students to develop reflexivity. Teachers should ask students to rank which attributes would influence them the most. Once this activity is finished, students write a short profile explaining how they might lower the probability of these attributes influencing children and teenagers to overconsume. To extend the reflection, teachers can have students probe their own reactions to Harry Potter that put them at risk for indiscriminate spending on Harryphernalia. In journals or in class discussion, students can question more deeply into those effects that play upon youngsters' self-esteem and how those influences shape a person's reasons for succumbing to media messages.

Beyond having students study their own habits as media consumers, teachers can motivate their classes to think about the indirect media effects on others using Harry Potter. In this instance, students generate examples where their friends formed an opinion based on media messages about Harry Potter without ever being exposed to the original event (book or film, for instance). Then after sharing these student-produced situations related to others, the instructor asks the class what their opinion is on Harry Potter found in the book, the movie, and the commercial. Using the chalkboard, the teacher puts forward all the student opinions. Once the class has finished airing its opinions, the teacher should ask whether the class's opinions are based on overheard media messages or from them being directly exposed to the book, the film, or the commercials. Students are then asked to write about what conditions changed their opinions about Harry Potter. Afterward, students should classify whether these conditions are connected to direct or indirect exposure to the media event. [3] The point of this exercise is to show how discussing whether people are most affected by direct or indirect exposure to the media, which helps students discover the complexity of the media effects process.

Using media commercialization as a significant learning experience for reading, writing, and thinking suggests teachers need to show students how to adapt to new learning frameworks. Far too frequently, inexperienced users misinterpret media schemas as real world schemas, and the consequences generally run from the embarrassing to the dangerous. With children and teenagers, a lack of awareness connected to their misinterpreting media schema for real world schema can create anything from social faux pas to poor decision-making.

Again, most students' familiarity with the Harry Potter book series allows instructors to work with their classes to enhance the students' sensitivity to media schemas. [4] As a class, teachers should have students select a chapter of one Harry Potter book to read as a group. Students take turns reading the passages, and while one student is reading, the others should take notes about the schemas. For character schemas, students would list the central figures and briefly describe them. To explain the narrative schema present in the chapter, students need to jot down the important events that occur. Likewise, to determine setting schema, students write two or three things that take place in the setting and two or three items that would never occur in the setting. Students identify thematic schema in the chapter by briefly summarizing what was the chapter's moral or intended moral. Finally, to discover the chapter's rhetorical schema, students list the author's purpose for writing this chapter. Was Rowling trying to entertain, to inform, to persuade, to fantasize, or to achieve a number of purposes?

Students repeat this schema identification activity again, this time while watching a ten to fifteen minute portion of the Harry Potter movie. Lastly, the teacher should show about ten to fifteen minutes of television advertisements for Harryphernalia, and students once more categorize the schema.

Upon completing the three exercises, the class discusses its findings. Students should be asked what, if any, schematic elements stayed the same across the examples. What schematic elements differed? Students need to consider whether a change in media generated a change in the schematic elements. Students also should talk about whether the media schemas and genres affect how people receive messages (adapted from Potter 89).

These activities illustrate how teachers can work with students to reduce their levels of mindless exposure to any media material, whether print or electronic. Students discover ways to hone their media reading skills, and they learn that their passive reading of the media leads to media effects clouding their thinking far more pervasively than usual. Instead of making claims in their argument--e.g., that parents or some other authority should control media messages directed toward children, a common byproduct of inoculation--youngsters who become active readers of the media determine how to negotiate the information presented to them. This is an especially important ability for those young people who form parasocial relationships with media characters based on the character's attractiveness or sociability. Passive media readers rarely consider how storylines and contexts shape a character's likability or personality; therefore, these viewers are regularly affected by hypermnesia. Active media readers, however, question storylines and contexts as well as external media messages sent by advertisers and news reports about these characters. Consequently, these children and teenagers develop the analytical skills that allow them to separate the entertainment qualities from whatever informational content exists. As they increase their analytical skills through repeated media literacy exercises, students expand their abilities to recognize how a change in medium can make a difference in how a message is constructed and received. In other words, students discover how to be "situationally sensitive" (Simons, Morreale, and Gronbeck 76) toward mass media messages.

Teachers who draw upon cross-media comparisons in their assignments do well in showing students how the same information is presented differently through various genres. Using the activities presented earlier in this paper, instructors help students understand the ways in which a message affects viewers. To extend this idea into students' writing, teachers can have the class keep a journal related to all the Harry Potter news stories, radio jingles, Internet ads, and television commercials they see for two weeks. Students write down what elements of the messages appeal to them--colors, sounds, melodies, graphics, and so on. At the end of the two week period, have students write Harry Potter messages for different media--a newspaper article, a radio or television ad, a billboard, a short scene from the next movie, or a news report for a local station on the Harry Potter phenomenon. The process teaches students that writing effective media messages is sometimes difficult. Since successful media messages depend upon a number of artistic qualities to appeal to viewers, students learn about the aesthetic dimension of the media (adapted from Potter 381). The class quickly discovers that those elements that work best in one medium often will not transfer. Consequently, students must learn how to work with various linguistic, aural, and visual aspects to create expert sounding media messages.

Developing media literacy frameworks for young adults requires educators to move beyond the usual inoculation or academic literacy approaches. Instructors must think of literacy with a much wider goal in mind, as reading and writing have become far more complex in the Information Age. Just as instructors present critical thinking skills in reading and writing, they must also now include critical viewing to the literacy mix. Since youngsters have constructed basic media literacy frameworks by the time they enter school, teachers need to help them move toward advanced abilities so children learn not to take media information at face value. This suggests that literacy is, indeed, rooted in both social and technological practices, as educational theorist B.C. Bruce notes (303). Students' early learning experiences are grounded in commingled forms and representations of sound, animation, moving images, and electronically generated meanings (Macaul et al. 55). These practices affect how students react to the printed word in academic settings. Therefore, teachers must come to terms with an expanded view of literacy that encompasses these influences upon reading and writing.

Mass media and media commercialization do not have to destroy traditional notions of literacy. Students who understand that informational flow patterns shift with a change in medium may better understand a society that is becoming increasingly media-saturated. Even though teachers are incorporating media literacy activities in their classes, academic literacy skills should not suffer, as students still are able to use reading and writing to test new ideas and propose new knowledge structures even though the characters or images they use for inquiry are different. The result of merging print and electronic literacy abilities may be that students move toward developing an integrated notion of reading and writing across multiple media genres as well as becoming more media savvy.

Pleasure and Literacy

Before concluding, let me suggest that Harry Potter stories do bring many people who are young and old a great sense of pleasure. But, as media scholars Lawrence Grossberg, Ellen Wartella, and D. Charles Whitney suggest, "[p]leasure is a deceptively simple notion [...] it is in fact a very complex phenomenon, and we actually know very little about the mechanisms of the production of pleasure" (253). So much of what defines pleasure is emotionally generated. Yet we should not forget that pleasure is also economically and culturally situated. Whether one reads to escape the mundane, to reinforce one's self through identification with a character, to live vicariously through another's experiences, to feel catharsis, or for any number of other reasons, all bear some connection to a media product--the book. If pleasure relates to traditional literacy, then why not have pleasure link up with media literacy to interrogate what we see on television, through an advertisement, or in a film?

Harry Potter can teach reading and writing instructors how to bring media literacy into their classrooms through the introduction of pleasure. Educators recognize the young magician's power to charm children and teenagers into developing a love of words. Schoolteachers and others, however, must also realize the boy wizard can cast many unwanted spells upon young audiences as a media pitchman. Ultimately, the trouble with Harry is that until teachers and students recognize that he sends a number of messages beyond his literary self--and we all must learn how to address these messages to function in various situations--in most writing classes literacy will remain segregated between a privileged print and a mass electronic form.


[1] A parallel example of hypermnesia would be how late-twentysomethings bond around the values and images linked to The Brady Bunch. For a short period in the late 1980s - early 1990s, there was Brady material across all media. My college students during that time could not only recite the entire Brady Bunch theme song, but could reel off lengthy passages from episodes and arcane facts about the program. Similarly, I see my current group of college students display hypermnesia over The Simpsons television program. Based on these two phenonmena, a similar occurrence with Harry Potter should be expected.

[2] The classroom exercises are designed for grades 6-12. All activities can be adjusted to meet the demands of class size, student demographics, and teacher or departmental expectations for grade level performance. My purpose is not to create a one-size-fits-all approach to introducing media literacy. Rather, I hope to generate a context in which teachers adapt the ideas here for their own classroom activities. Since there is little advertising done in advance of the Harry Potter movie, I suggest interested teachers look in local pharmacies, grocery stores, and bookstores to note the wide array of items carrying the Harry Potter image that are available for purchase. A recent issue of Vanity Fair magazine ( devoted its main story to the upcoming Harry Potter phenomenon.

[3] These conditions can be explained as parental comments, friends' comments, newscasters' comments, or other attitudes displayed by institutions such as church, school, government, sports, and so on.

[4] W. James Potter defines various media schema as character schema (stereotypical images that viewers instantly recognize), narrative schema (storytelling formulas that cue viewers to the genre), setting schema (places that influence viewer expectations), thematic schema (character behaviors that interact with the first three schemas to provide viewers with a moral to the story), and rhetorical schema (the primary contribution of the story--whether to inform, entertain, persuade, create a fantasy, and so on) (74).

Works Cited

Bruce, B.C. "Literacy Technologies: What Stance Should We Take?" Journal of Literacy Research (29) 1997: 289-309.

Healy, Jane M. Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think--and What We Can Do About It. New York: Touchstone, 1990.

Grossberg, Lawrence, Ellen Wartella, and D. Charles Whitney. Mediamaking: Mass Media in a Popular Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998.

Macaul, Sherry L., Jackie K. Giles, and Rita K. Rodenberg. "Intermediality in the Classroom: Learners Constructing Meaning Through Deep Viewing." Intermediality: The Teacher's Handbook of Critical Media Literacy. Ed. Ladislaus Semali and Ann Watts Pailliotet. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999.

Meyrowitz, Joshua. No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Potter, W. James. Media Literacy. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001.

Semali, Ladislaus M, and Ann Watts Pailliotet. Intermediality: The Teacher's Handbook of Critical Media Literacy. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999.

Simons, Herbert, Joanne Morreale, and Bruce Gronbeck. Persuasion in Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001.

U.S. Department of Education. NAEP 1996: Trends in Writing. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. National Center for Educational Statistics. Washington, DC: 1999.

—. NAEP 1998: Trends in Writing. Washington, DC: 2000.

This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.
Publication date: 
No votes yet