Posted in Fantasy, Reading

Slaying the Dragons: Why Fantasy is Vital to the 2020 Reader

Open any social media platform and you will certainly be bombarded with a mixture of dangerous rhetoric and dismal reality. As an instructional coach, I’ve been straddling the conversational line, privy to the experiences of students, teachers, administrators as well as parents, community stakeholders, and people who just shout as loud as they can so that they can be a part of the conversation too. With all of the negativity and the noise, we all are trying to take care of ourselves to make it to another day and still have something to give our families, our students, our community. Full disclosure: I am the worst at self care. However, I realized today that it’s been over FOUR MONTHS since we began incorporating stay-at-home habits and changing our entire way of life. I wondered, “How on earth am I okay? What self-care habits have I been employing accidentally that have gotten me to this point without losing my sanity?”

At first, I couldn’t really think of anything that had changed. I’m still working crazy hours, still randomly shoving shame-snacks away in my pantry like a gremlin…then it occurred to me to check my Goodreads account. Normally, I read approximately 30-40 books a year. However, it’s July and I’m currently sitting at 44…having read over 20 since March. This is craziness! When taking a closer look at my readerly choices, I found that most of what I’ve been reading falls into the category of fantasy.

I grew up a huge fan of fantasy, and have continued that love into my adulthood. However, it’s something that I rarely make time for as I have professional development books to read or YA realistic fiction to read and vet for teachers. Yet, in a time of crisis, I unknowingly returned to the world of fantasy. Wait…that’s not accurate. I’ve devoured fantasy. I’ve read four of the Harry Potter books aloud to my daughter. I’ve read two entire series by Sarah J. Maas, some days consuming multiple books. But why?

I reached out to a Facebook group I belong to full of people that love and discuss all things fantasy, and through their responses have put together a few points that I believe fully reinforce why both our students and ourselves need fantasy now more than ever.

Sense of Belonging and Community

Fantasy stories have a shelf life that far outlasts the publication of the last book in a series. Many fantasy stories such as C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring series, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and many others have drawn together readers who are bonded in their common love for the texts. These groups, or “fandoms,” as it were, continue to give these stories life and momentum through the collection of shared reader experiences. Podcasts such as Binge Mode, Cast of Kings, and others dig deep into these stories and have a fan base that can compare in size to any professional sport. As a proud Harry Potter fan, I love the common language that we share. When I see a stranger wearing a Gryffindor shirt, I have 100 percent certainty that, when I exclaim excitedly, “I’m a Ravenclaw!” that I will not be looked at with fear or annoyance but will have instantly made a new friend.

My students always knew that I was a speaker of many “common languages” of fantasy.

Consider gatherings such as Comic Con, or even online forums such as fan fiction sites or the aforementioned Binge Mode Facebook group. These are places where we can go, share our love of these stories, and instantly find belonging. In a world and culture in which we are experiencing isolation in multiple areas, multiplied by the various effects of being at home 24/7, belonging and community are necessary to our survival.

The Need to Escape

As a little girl, things weren’t always lovely for me. I struggled a lot through understanding divorce, faith, perfectionism, anxiety, and guilt. I struggled to fit in, to find my footing in the popular social circles of elementary, then middle, then high school, never quite mastering the concept of “fitting in.” As early as 7-8 years old, I was drawn to fantasy stories. I remember laying face-down on a tire swing, reading The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis over and over, until the pages were yellowed and torn. In middle school, I was entranced by Harry Potter, captured in essence as he transitioned from the boy living in a cupboard under the stairs, penniless and loveless, into a boy with friends, talent, purpose, and love. When escaping into these stories, I was able to simultaneously take a break from my own experiences, yet deal with them through the safety and distance of a fantasy story. J.R.R. Tolkien delivered a talk at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland many years ago, titled “On Fairy Stories.” In explaining the need for escapism, he states: “We should look at green again, and be startled anew…by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves” (p. 19). By escaping to a new world of fantasy, we begin to understand how to deal with our own issues.

Caring for Social Emotional Needs

Why does this resonate now? In my original Facebook thread, Kelly Ganzberger said it best when asserting that fantasy allows us to escape the “daily dystopian nightmare of 2020.” When your experiences and your worldview only extends to what you see in your home, school, community, and social media feeds, often the world can feel very small. Children and adults alike who experience mental health disorders like anxiety and depression can feel at times like the metaphorical (and physical) walls are closing in, that no one understands or knows their struggles. As a child who put crippling pressure on myself, fantasy stories offered me a reprieve from the bubbling panic in my chest while subtly showing me a light at the end of a tunnel. Dora Valencia, another member of the Binge Mode Facebook group, stated that she “needed to escape to a world that didn’t seem to end even if the books did. The moment my fears and anxieties were taking the most out of me, I had a place to go.”

G.K. Chesterton once said that “fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” How many of our students walk around battling “dragons” every day? How many of us do the same? When Aslan defeats the White Witch, when Harry Potter emerges from the Battle of Hogwarts victorious, it gives us all hope that we too can do the same.

Building Global Citizenship and an Activist Mindset

One look at someone’s Twitter post comments or seeing your great-great-aunt’s latest post on Facebook is living proof that many former students grew into adults who do not know how to engage in civil discourse, how to empathize with others, and how to understand multiple perspectives and beliefs. Tolkien refers to this as “morbid delusion,” saying that if this sort of behavior were to happen in a fantasy story, there’s no way that the story would end without the behavior being cured (“On Fairy Stories,” p. 18).

If you’re an English teacher, you’ve probably heard of (and taught) “The Hero’s Journey.” The hero, usually a naive, inexperienced youth, embarks on some type of quest. They encounter obstacles, and eventually gain something from their quest, most of the time that something being different than what they originally sought. Sound familiar? Not only do most fantasy stories follow this outline, but our lives often embody this parallel, over and over again.

Kellen Korinek said it best in her Facebook contribution: “Fantasy stories teach us lessons about the real world. They show us that Harry Potter, or Frodo, or Percy Jackson’s real powers aren’t that they can do magic and fight monsters, but that they have friends and families that help them be better and get better.I teach my students that the Hero’s Journey can be applied to real life as well as fiction. Some problem causes us to leave our ordinary world and be faced with challenges and villains (physical or mental) and learning how to deal with them makes us a better person. Then, once we’re back, the ordinary world is better or different and so are we.”

I mean, mic drop.

We can use the distance of fantasy to have safe yet difficult conversations about the things our students live with each day. We can address social injustice, bigotry, bias, prejudice, etc. through the lens of fantasy, and gain the proper language, structures and confidence to carry over those conversations into our lives. When we see Harry or Frodo or Luke Skywalker—though weak, inexperienced, unqualified and terrified—do the right thing, not because they are ready or equipped to win, but because it is the right thing…maybe we can go into our own homes, circles, and communities and do the same.

One of my FAVORITE HP quotes (found on

It is July 2020, and sometimes, I just need to turn off CNN and fill my head with fairies and wizards just to breathe. Students are coming back to school either virtually or in person, carrying with them the weight of a global pandemic among with several other inequities and injustices that they’ve worn long before now. It’s essential that we do our very best to give them, and ourselves, what they need. I believe at my core that fantasy stories should be counted as essential in classrooms and in our own lives, both now and in years to come. Fantasy isn’t an aversion to reality; rather, fantasy helps us live the fullest and richest reality possible.

What is your “reader origin story”? How do you feel about the genre of fantasy? Let me know in the comments!

If you’d like more information on how to better implement fantasy texts in the coming school year, please find me on Twitter and send me a message; I’d love to help you brainstorm some ideas!

Posted in Policy, TEA, Texas

A Texas Educator’s Take on the July 7th TEA School Safety Plan

I feel that I must begin this post with the ever-existing disclaimer that my opinions are my own, not that of my employer. Okay, we’re good? Great. Let’s dive in.

Around 3:30pm yesterday (July 7), the Texas Education Agency (referred to in the rest of this post as TEA) released a statement in which they outlined what they refer to as “Comprehensive Guidelines for a Safe Return to On-Campus Instruction for the 2020-2021 School Year.” I first saw this statement on Twitter and Facebook, where a few screenshots had been included with the post. The longer, official document can be found here, and I encourage you to read it as well before continuing with this post.

Upon seeing the first few bullet points and then starting to read the comments, I immediately realized that I would need to sit down in a quiet setting and read the document critically before posting any thoughts or criticism. In this current climate and setting, it’s so easy to immediately react and comment before rationally thinking it through, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t get ahead of myself. Now that I’ve read it a few times and had time to sit with the information, there’s just a few points that I want to go over and think through with you all.

First and foremost, as a former high school ELAR teacher, language and rhetoric will always stand out to me in close reading any text. Certain phrases and words jumped out at me. I invite you to do the same, just with this small clip of text. Read through and think about the word choice and phrasing: what do you notice? What do you wonder?

(Image is a screenshot of the actual TEA document, which can be found here.)

The main words that stand out to me are the words “should,” “are encouraged to,” etc. If I continue to examine the document, there are other examples such as “may,” “might,” even “consider.” One specific example applies to student-teacher groupings, suggesting that “in classroom spaces that allow it, consider placing student desks a minimum of six feet apart when possible.” In this one sentence, there are three different examples of conditional language. Take a look:

“in classroom spaces that allow it” – based on this language, only classrooms that are large enough to move desks around and keep the 6 foot separation need worry about this. Immediately I think about the classrooms I have been in across the state; I’ve yet to see a classroom that would allow for this kind of separation at their current capacity.

“consider placing student desks a minimum of six feet apart” – So, once we have established whether or not a classroom can allow for social distancing, we get another conditional statement. A school leader will consider, or simply think about, spacing out student desks.

“when possible” – Again, in case we haven’t already gotten the picture, the author of this text reiterates that this only applies if it is possible; what that actually means is left ambiguous.

Upon reflection, there’s much more being unsaid here than being said. What does it mean for a classroom to allow spacing? Because this is a consideration, can we assume that a class of 30 could, in August, contain 30+ bodies, as many classrooms do? What are the conditions that would make spacing desks possible, and the inverse, impossible?

This is just one of several examples of conditional language throughout the document. What I’m guessing the TEA is trying to do is provide choice and control to school districts, so that districts can make the decisions they deem best for their students. However, upon listening and reading many district statements, districts have been fiercely struggling with planning for the fall, and have been craving feedback and guidance from the TEA to help them with the non-negotiable pieces. By leaving much of this document vague and conditional, all that districts have been given are a list of brainstorming ideas with a few non-negotiables that don’t have much impact on the day-to-day classroom interactions. Based on this document, a district could choose to ignore any statement that does not contain the word “must” and create a learning environment that looks much the same as it did prior to March 2020.

The other glaring issue that I see in this document occurs explicitly in the first section and reoccurs thematically throughout the text. In examining the public health considerations, the TEA cites the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and their research that identifies children as at far less risk of serious COVID-19 symptoms than others who are infected, in addition to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ comment on the harmful effects of students not being in school. I’d like it stated that I see both of these sources as credible, and trust that the information they are distributing is peer reviewed and research-based. Just for the sake of context, I fully see the perspective of many parents and students who want, no, NEED, schools to reopen. For many students, the risk of staying at home is far larger than the risk of potential COVID-19 exposure. My own daughter has struggled socially and emotionally through the end of school and beginning of summer, emotions and anxiety flying high. My concern and criticism of this section is that it is missing vital voices. Whose voice is not being heard here?

When schools reopen, who are the people that will be doing the work, interacting with students, putting themselves at risk? Teachers. Bus Drivers. Cafeteria workers. Counselors. School Administrators. Paraprofessionals. Janitorial and maintenance staffs. The list continues. As a high school teacher, I saw anywhere from 70-200 students rotating through my classroom on a given day. Consider what this looks like, even if all of the “musts” and the “shoulds” are followed; what consideration is being given toward the risk that district employees will be taking just in doing their jobs? We are asking educators to not only put themselves at risk, but put their families at risk as well. This document is glaringly silent when it comes to the teacher voice, and any acknowledgement or empathy from leadership at this risk they are being asked to take. No, “being asked” isn’t the right language…”required” is more fitting.

Teachers already face criticism from society on a daily basis. I’ve heard teachers compared to childcare, heard parents speaking in board meetings that they should receive a teacher salary because “teachers are just sitting around on their computers all day” during stay-at-home. The reality is that most of the teachers I’ve spoken to worked tirelessly from waking up in the morning until 9-10pm every night, learning new virtual skills, making sure each and every student was not only learning but emotionally okay, etc. Teachers are exhausted, anxious, and fearful coming into the 2020-2021 school year. It’s painful to see educators waiting all summer for guidance, then receive an 8 page document that lacks this consideration for their own health and well-being.

Which brings me to the last thing I’d like to just mention and let sit with you; this document is 8 pages long. We have had 5 months since the beginning of this process. I simply expect more. I expect better. The announcement was made last week that 2020-2021 STAAR assessments would indeed take place this year (read more about that here), so it seems that some forethought has occurred; forethought that, in my opinion, is heavily misplaced. What does it say to all of our stakeholders that the testing manual for STAAR is over 100 pages, yet this official “comprehensive” document for school safety is eight?

I digress. I am just one person, an educational employee living in Texas that hopes for specific and strategic guidance, understanding, empathy, and collective efficacy for all of us during this time. I’m not bitter, I’m not ragey, I just…I just want better.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear some of the other responses to this document and its contents.