Teaching a classroom packed with muttering sixth graders the basics of English grammar and literary structure can be a chore for the most experienced of teachers.
But as Neil Chaffin begins to read from the first few pages of “The Hobbit,” he said he finds that having a fantastic story, written by a literary genius in J.R.R. Tolkien, is the easiest way of easing students into learning.
Chaffin, a teacher at Classen S.A.S. Middle School in Oklahoma City, said he has been reading “The Hobbit” to his students every year since the school reopened as a magnet school in 1994.
Chaffin said the book, a story about Bilbo Baggins' great adventure traveling through Middle Earth with 13 Dwarves to battle a dragon named Smaug, provides the perfect level of literary aspects to get his young students interested.
“I'm not a big sci-fi and fantasy reader and I never was but I hit upon this book when we opened here because it was imaginative and something that demonstrated the aspects that I was teaching for literary objectives and language,” Chaffin said. “It's all in there. Tolkien has been my best English teacher, essentially.”
Chaffin, 58, said he has probably read the book a little more than 30 times; though listening to him rattle off long passages from memory would suggest he's read it a few hundred more.
“There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun wherever you go,” Chaffin recalls Gandalf the wizard saying to Bilbo.
With the popularity of the blockbuster “Lord of The Rings” movie trilogy and now with the release of “The Hobbit,” Chaffin said it's made teaching the book even more popular in his class.
“It's the most believable, make-believe world there's ever been,” Chaffin said. “It's so detailed that there have been books written about the books written about Tolkien's books. Its jumping off places for philosophy, religion and history are profound.”
The amount of time Chaffin has spent teaching the books has given him a reputation throughout the school as a bit of a crazed Tolkien fan.
Students bring him presents toward the end of the year of hand-drawn sketches of their favorite scenes, sculptures made of the west gates to Moria and actual movie posters to hang up around the room.
Chaffin said he's considering going to see the movie in theaters, though he usually likes to wait for movies to come out on DVD.
In some ways, Chaffin is almost like the hobbit characters in the book. He's a self-professed homebody who loves to tinker on clocks in the peace and quiet of his home.
But in his classroom, he leads the adventure, one page at a time.
“I've had students call me and tell me that it was the best English class they've ever had, and that it really did inspire them to read more,” he said. “That makes me feel really nice because I know Tolkien's works of fiction are beyond anything else. To be able to pass that along is neat for me.”
(‘The Hobbit') was imaginative and something that demonstrated the aspects that I was teaching for literary objectives and language. It's all in there. Tolkien has been my best English teacher, essentially.”