When she was 13, Heather Lawver read a book that changed her life: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Inspired by reports that J. K. Rowling’s novel was getting kids to read, she wanted to do her part to promote literacy. Less than a year later, she launched The Daily Prophet, a Web-based “school newspaper” for the fictional Hogwarts. Today, the publication has a staff of 102 children from all over the world.Lawver, still in her teens, is its managing editor. She hires columnists who cover their own beats on a weekly basis-everything from the latest Quiddich matches to Muggle cuisine-and edits each story. She encourages her staff to closely compare their original submissions with the edited versions and consults with them on issues of style and grammar as needed.
Heather, by the way, is a home schooler who hasn’t set foot in a classroom since first grade.
My last two columns have centered on what parents and schools can do to help kids develop media literacy. This month, I will reverse directions and examine how participating in popular culture may help kids to master traditional literacy skills. We often act as if schools had a monopoly on teaching, yet smart kids have long known not to let schooling get in the way of their education.
Teachers sometimes complain that popular culture competes for the attention of their students, a claim that starts from the assumption that what kids learn from media is less valuable than what schools teach. Here, however, much of what is being mastered are things that schools try-and too often fail-to teach their students. (It has been said that if schools taught sex education the same way they taught writing, the human race would die out in a generation.)
I will focus on high school aged kids who are reading, writing, editing, and critiquing Harry Potter fan fiction online. But keep in mind that such informal teaching occurs across a range of other online communities. We could, for example, talk about the important role the Riot Grrl subculture played in the early 1990s in helping teenage girls to develop technical competency at a time when cyberspace was still seen as a predominantly male domain; we could talk about young anime fans who are teaching each other Japanese language and culture in order to do underground subtitling of their favorite shows.
University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor James Gee calls such informal learning cultures “affinity spaces,” asking why kids learn more, participate more actively, and engage more deeply with popular culture than they do with the contents of their textbooks. As one 16-year-old Harry Potter fan told me, “It’s one thing to be discussing the theme of a short story you’ve never heard of before and couldn’t care less about. It’s another to be discussing the theme of your friend’s 50,000-word opus about Harry and Hermione that they’ve spent three months writing.”
I have studied and participated in fan communities, off and on, for more than two decades. Yet much of what I found when I recently turned my attention to Harry Potter fandom took my breath away. Ten years ago, published fan fiction came mostly from women in their twenties, thirties, and beyond. Today, these older writers have been joined by a generation of new contributors-kids who found fan fiction surfing the Internet and decided to see what they could produce.
Consider, for example, the girl known online as Flourish. She started reading X-Files fan fiction when she was 10, wrote her first Harry Potter stories at 12, and published her first online novel at 14. She quickly became a mentor for other emerging fan writers, including many who were twice her age or more. Most people assumed she was probably a college student. Interacting online allowed her to keep her age to herself until she had become so central to the fandom that nobody much cared that she was in middle school.