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Interview: Amelia Harper, Author of Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings

by Robin McDonald

Most of the hype surrounding the release of The Lord of the Rings as a series of movies is over now, with producer Peter Jackson and his crew sweeping the 2004 Oscars, winning awards in almost every category. Of course, before Jackson, before Orlando Bloom, before Elijah Wood, there were the characters, the elves, and the wonderful wit and grace of author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973).

That being said, whether your homeschooled child is interested in The Lord of the Rings thanks to the movies, books, or a combination of both, homeschooling mother Amelia Harper and her own Fellowship of the Rings have come up with a wonderful production of their own, a Christian-based curriculum entitled Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings. The 750-page teacher's manual and corresponding 620-page student guide have both been put together with the same thought and care as Peter Jackson's wonderful trilogy, thanks to Harper and friends consisting of teachers, literary experts, and even The Lord of the Rings trilogy cinematic art director, John Howe.

Harper is the perfect homeschooling mother for this project. Her husband is the pastor of Old Carriage Road Baptist Church, an independent Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. She and her husband have five children: Jonathan, 21; Thomas, 18; Bradley, 15; Andrew, 7; and Keren, 4.

Harper states, "I really could not have done all this without a wonderfully supportive and (fairly) patient family. My husband especially has been really supportive despite the handicap of being one of the fantasy-challenged people who have no earthly clue what The Lord of the Rings is about. I am thinking that we ought to hold a telethon for these people!"

Now that Harper has released this project, she is working on a Christian fantasy novel. As she says, "I have not spent all these months studying Tolkien for naught!

"But it is vastly different, not to mention not NEARLY as good! Hard to follow the Master! But I am trying my own hand at subcreation of a fantasy universe and learning what a great challenge this is. My respect for Tolkien grows and grows."

Harper has an interesting story regarding the development of this curriculum, and more insight into how to use it in a variety of ways. I interviewed her to find out more about how this project was started and grew over time:

EHO: What is your background, and your interest in Lord of the Rings and Tolkien?

HARPER:
I have loved The Lord of the Rings since I was 15 and was introduced to it by a dear friend in high school. I was always an avid reader—Dickens and Austen are great literary heroes of mine—and I read almost non-stop during my school years. Many of my friends were into science fiction at the time. Though I found much of it intriguing, I could never quite get into it the way they could. The technical stuff often came between the story and me, and much of it had too much humanism to wade through.

When someone introduced me to Tolkien, my whole view of literature changed. Here was a modern author who had spun a wonderful tale, sort of like a grown up fairy tale, with a world that I dreamt of inhabiting and true hearted heroes I could admire. I wept for Frodo, laughed at Sam, cheered Aragorn, envied Eowyn, and fell in love with Faramir. They soon became my friends.

The story is so simple on the surface and yet so complex. Every time I read it, I find something new. I learn more of the fabulous back story. I find wonderful new insights and quotations that apply to us today. The older I grow, the more profound truths I discover in this book.

The book also has a wonderful power—a power to make you feel that you can accomplish the impossible as long as you have right, and good friends, on your side. I still feel that power even today when I read the story. For most of my life, I have read The Lord of the Rings almost every year as a mental vacation. I found comfort in its beauty and sweet release in the tears that I invariably shed. It always gives me a clearer vision of heaven in some strange way. The same stories of sacrifice and eventual renewal are in this book as well.

It was this book that made me want to become a writer. I saw in it the power that a pen could truly wield: the power to touch hearts, to change minds, and to influence a generation. I wanted to learn how to do that. I majored in English in college. Even after I left college, I read and wrote and tried to hone my skills, waiting for the day that I could put them to use. Over the years, as my kids got a little older, more writing doors opened up for me.

EHO:
How did you come up with the idea to write a homeschooling curriculum such as this? Did you have something put together for your children first, and then decide to add to it?

HARPER:
It was really the movies that motivated me. At first, I was not interested in them. I did not even watch the first one until it came out on video. I was afraid that Hollywood would ruin the wonderful images in my heart. But when I saw the first movie, I was enthralled. I felt as if I was looking through a window to a place that felt like home. The settings were nearly perfect, and it was so well cast that it did not jar with my own internal vision.

Of course, there were changes from the story. I realize that many of them needed to be made to stand the conversion to screen, but I was still a little annoyed at any changes. I confess that, more than once, I was caught yelling at the screen and offering to mail Peter Jackson a copy of the book. But I suppose he did the best he could. My version would have been three times longer!

I also saw the wide spread appeal the movie had. Kids everywhere were talking about the movie—and then picking up the book. I was delighted to see my old friends get such wonderful attention.

I was teaching a co-op class of homeschoolers at the time, including my son. We were studying British literature, and I kept seeing these remarkable parallels between the old stories we were slogging through and the wonderful story of The Lord of the Rings. I was beginning to think that I was a tiny bit obsessed.

But I went to the library and did research into the life and letters of J.R.R Tolkien. I found out that I was NOT crazy. He really WAS heavily influenced by the ancient tales.

I began thinking, why are we presenting these old stories to students as if they were trophies under glass? Treating them like historical oddities of literature? What if the students could see how the ancient tales inspired this newer story that so excites them? Maybe that would make them view literature in a whole new way.

I looked for a curriculum that did this and found none. Some colleges teach Tolkien, and from what I could tell from the class descriptions, many of them used a similar approach. They read some of the ancient works and traced their influence in the book. But there was nothing concrete and nothing in a format engaging enough for a teenager. I wanted something that would be fun and would excite kids about literature.

So, I decided to do this myself. I really felt as if God had given me the idea and the energy to perform this. He also opened so many doors for me. I have learned an incredible amount through this process, not only about Tolkien, but also about publishing, because I decided that I would start my own homeschool publication house as well, and this would be my flagship product.

I wanted to use this to create the dream curriculum that I, as a homeschool parent, always wanted to have. I wanted something soundly educational that would require almost no effort on the part of ME, the busy parent. By the time our kids reach the secondary level, they really should be able to do a lot of the work on their own. Most of us have little ones coming up behind, and we need to be giving them the bulk of our attention during the homeschooling day.

But many literature programs that I had seen had the parents hopping more than ever! They were always busy looking for the next book to read or the next unit study to do. Many of these unit studies also did little or nothing to introduce literary terms. The more traditional programs often required the parent to know far more about literature than the typical parent remembered. Even with my English degree, I still felt as if I had to invest more time with those programs than I really had to devote.

So, I designed this to be the kind of thing that a student can do almost entirely on his own. I included plenty of worksheets and exercises to make the program concrete and not as subjective as many programs are. I have additional notes for every chapter that explain background material, introduce literary terms, and give comments from Tolkien as to where he got his ideas for the work, and what he thought of certain characters. Fifteen unit studies act as mini-lectures on topics such as Beowulf, the ancient epics, the Arthurian Romances (the stories of King Arthur), linguistics, poetry analysis, and many more. The program also includes over 100 suggested writing assignments, covers over 600 vocabulary words, and teaches 130 literary terms. The teacher's edition includes reproducible tests, vocabulary quizzes, and answer keys. This makes it much easier to assess the student's knowledge and to produce a grade.

EHO:
I know you collaborated with others for some of the materials. How did you like working with others in this fashion, and where did you find all the talent?

HARPER:
I knew some of the people I worked with from long ago, for I am blessed with talented friends. Then others came through word of mouth. I would say, "I wish I could talk to someone who is an expert on Beowulf," and a friend would say, "Hey, you ought to talk to my friend Lisa! She majored in all that in grad school!" It was amazing the way that doors opened for me. And most helped with this out of sheer excitement for the project! Tolkien has that effect on people.

I wrote almost all of this, the whole 700 plus pages, myself, but others edited and corrected and coordinated and offered valuable advice. Some experts read behind my work in certain areas to make sure that the material was educationally sound. Most of this was done by email, passing things back and forth. I loved the process and the input, but just wish we could have all been together at one point! All these people are so talented and so much fun! But then, perhaps we would have goofed off and had TOO much fun. Tolkien has that effect on people, too!

The most amazing part to me came as I was getting near the end of the project and all looked hopeless. I was tired, discouraged, and thought that I would never get done, even though I had worked steadily at the project for 20 months. I wanted to finish by May 2004, but it did not look like that would happen. And dear, sweet potential customers were breathing down my neck writing me and saying "Could you please tell me when I can get my mitts on this? My kid wants it NOW!" It was thrilling, but I was SO tired. For months, I operated on an average of 4-5 hours of sleep per night.

During one of my darkest moments, as I was working again at two in the morning, I got this amazing email from two homeschool moms who lived about an hour from me. They said, "We want to use this now! How can we help? Can we proofread? Edit? Anything? Tell us how to help!"

It was an answer to prayer. One of them, Rachel, had a Master's degree in English Education and considerable training as an editor. She actually taught writing and classical literature classes! The other, a dear lady named Tammie, had great organizational skills and an eye for detail and was of enormous help in organizing the vocabulary and spotting inconsistencies in the text.

That is just one of the ways that I feel God worked in this project—by sending me not only great helpers, but great encouragers. I had a website set up with information about the upcoming curriculum, and many times I got such sweet notes from homeschooling parents and schoolteachers saying, "This looks great! Keep up the good work! There is a real need for this!" When things looked too tough to handle, I would pull up a file of those wonderful words of encouragement and be truly blessed. People will never know how far a word of encouragement can go.

Even now, after the curriculum has been produced, I get the sweetest notes from people all over the world telling me how this curriculum has blessed them. I tear up at every one, but they are nice tears. "Not all tears are an evil." Gandalf once said that.

EHO:
What would you say was the most fun task you did while writing this curriculum? The most challenging or frustrating?

HARPER:
The most fun was the research. I love that! I loved immersing myself in Tolkien's life and letters! I loved reading The Lord of the Rings three more times in one year, this time with a marker in my hand. I loved analyzing the poor little characters to death. I loved asking them about their inner motivations. Frodo and company now turn and run when they see me coming.

I also loved delving into the epics and Beowulf and the stories of King Arthur and studying ancient literature from a point of view that I never had before. I gained a new appreciation for these wonderful works.

But most of all, I loved writing this, trying to find creative ways to bring this story alive. While writing about this wonderful work, I felt like I was a part of its great tradition. I hope that those who read this will feel this way, too.

This project also opened up a lot of exciting opportunities for me. I did an article about Tolkien for The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, as a way to get exposure for the curriculum. They liked it so much that they offered me more work and then made me their Media Editor!

Then, when, the Tolkien article came out in the magazine, complete with some lovely pictures from the last film, I got an amazing phone call. A woman called me and said, "I saw your article and saw the picture of Arwen. I am Arwen's grandmother!" Of course, I immediately thought, "Galadriel! Galadriel is calling me!" but it turned out to be Dorethea Johnson, Liv Tyler's maternal grandmother, which was nearly as nice. She chatted for about 30 minutes and told me about how Liv got the part of Arwen and what she was like as a little girl. It was so cool! Mrs. Johnson is an interesting woman herself. She is the President of the Washington School of Protocol and trains a lot of ambassadors, military people, business people, and celebrities in etiquette and protocol.

I also got to talk online several times to John Howe, one of the conceptual artists for the film. His artwork graces the cover of my book and six other pictures of his are inside the curriculum. He is a really great guy and gave me some valuable advice about publishing.

The hardest part was the MOUNTAINS of vocabulary. The curriculum has tons of vocabulary exercises and quizzes and a glossary of over 600 words, in addition to a 130-word, literary-terms dictionary. That was sheer, time-consuming, tedious work. But I felt that it was a really important component of the program.

It was also hard to learn all that I had to know about publishing in that short of a time. It was daunting at times. For instance, I had to buy permission from Houghton Mifflin to quote five works. This was a 13-month process! I had no idea! And really, I learned later that they hardly EVER grant this kind of permission for Tolkien's works.

So, I wrote for over 13 months on sheer faith that they would approve and I would be able to publish in this format. I cajoled and bribed the permission managers with chocolate chip cookies and generally bugged them to death. But they were very kind and eventually presented me with a contract on Christmas Eve, 2003, just five months before the proposed publication date.

EHO:
Do you have any suggestions for homeschooling parents who are using this curriculum with their students?

HARPER:
This is designed to be very easy to use. For most students, I would suggest that the parent remove the tests and quizzes from the Teacher's Edition. It is in a three ring binder for this purpose. Then the students can easily check their own daily work, such as the worksheets, on their own. The parent only needs to give the tests and quizzes and check the answers to these.

They also need to assign writing assignments based on their own situation. There are over 100 suggested writing assignments ranging from well-developed paragraphs to essay to more creative writing assignments and projects.

No one is expected to do all of these, but at least there are a lot of choices. I think that students are more eager to write if they are getting to write about things that interest them. This curriculum allows them to explore their own ideas about friendship, about war, about courage—issues that teens are faced with every day.

EHO:
Do you have suggestions for how to teach multiple ages with this material, or do you have a suggested age range?

HARPER:
The suggested age range is for 7-12 graders. It is really too difficult for most children below that level, unless they are exceptional and highly motivated.

The Lord of the Rings is not a children's book, but it is perfect for many teens, especially older teens. Most people I know who love this book were introduced to it as teenagers. In fact, it has influenced many teens since it was written. Did you know that experts estimate that 50% of people who now decide to study Old English do so because they read The Lord of the Rings in their teens? I know of many others, like me, who were influenced to write because of it. I hope that this curriculum will direct kids in exploring other academic interests that they might want to one day pursue for themselves.

The curriculum is also designed to be flexible. For most assignments, the procedure is this: the student reads a chapter in The Lord of the Rings; he fills out a fill-in-the-blank summary of the chapter; he does some vocabulary exercises; he reads the additional notes provided; and he answers the comprehension questions.

For older students in high school, you will likely have the student do all of this. For younger students, you may wish to skip certain comprehension questions: some are marked as challengers for this purpose. Also, some of the vocabulary words are marked in the teacher's edition. These are ones that will not be included in the quizzes and so parents of younger students may omit these.

I would also suggest that parents assign fewer writing assignments for younger students and more for older, but that is up to the individual parent.

The unit studies are also flexible. These are the heart of the curriculum and are really important. However, a parent of a younger student or a struggling student may want to omit some, such as the extensive Beowulf study. When they come to the unit tests, they will notice that each test includes sections that ask questions about the unit studies. For older students, the whole test is given. But parents can choose to omit the unit study questions or to give them separately as a quiz grade. They are on separate pages for this purpose.

I also have different lesson plans for older and younger students that break all this down. Plus, I have lesson plans for a one-semester option and weekly plans for use in a co-op class. All these are currently available on the website (www.homescholarbooks.com), but some of them will also soon be printed and included with the curriculum. If someone orders the curriculum now, they can request the printed lesson plans and we will send them. But the online plans allow them to cut and paste into a word processing program and adapt for their own use.

EHO:
What about ways to use the curriculum? Do you have a preferred method that would work best, or do you think teachers can pick and choose the topics to cover?

HARPER:
I think most of this was answered in the question above. I really think that it is best to go through the material as it is presented. I have carefully tied in each of the unit studies with material that they have read in the book at that point. But parents can choose to tie in individual studies with other things the kids are learning and use the quizzes for those unit studies. I just think that this could be more confusing.

I also need to mention that this curriculum is tied to certain versions of the book. There are a LOT of versions of Lord of the Rings out there, but there are only about five that will work with this. The reason is that I give the page references for everything: vocabulary words, quotations, and fill-in-the-blank exercises, so that students can look up the material if they need to. The versions that are available are sold through my website, but are also readily available at other large bookstores and online bookstores. The ISBNs for these are available on the website.

If people have more questions about the curriculum, they can go to my website (www.homescholarbooks.com). It is rather extensive and has sample lessons and a table of contents, as well as ordering information.

EHO:
Thanks for your time!

HARPER:
Thank you for giving me this wonderful opportunity!

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