Professor McGonagall announces in Transfiguration that exams will start in one week, and “I trust that you are studying hard.” Harry and everyone else are shocked—how could anyone think of exams at a time like this? (You can bet that if Hermione hadn’t been Petrified, she would have had Ron and Harry’s color-coded study schedule prepared and enforced weeks earlier.) McGonagall explains, “Professor Dumbledore’s instructions were to keep the school running as normally as possible. And that, I need hardly point out, means finding out how much you have learned this year.”
Harry has learned a LOT this year, and he’s just about to learn a lot more, but not the kind of stuff he needs for his exams. “Harry looked down at the pair of white rabbits he was supposed to be turning into slippers. What had he learned so for this year? He couldn’t seem to think of anything that would be useful in an exam.”
Three days before the exams are to begin, Professor McGonagall announces that the Mandrakes are ready to be harvested. Everyone is thrilled, except Draco of course, and Ginny. She is nervous and scared. She has something to tell Ron, but she can’t get it out. When Percy interrupts, Ginny jumps “as though her chair had just been electrified” and scampers away.
In hindsight, we know that Ginny’s knowledge is the most important knowledge at Hogwarts at that moment, maybe even more important than Hermione’s knowledge gripped tightly in a scrap of paper torn from a library book.
We teachers get so wrapped up in our work that we tend to forget that what we are teaching may not be the most important knowledge for our students. They are not in danger from a Basilisk, but many of them live in uncomfortable and unsafe conditions. It could be that their knowledge about how to survive and find some comfort in their lives outside school is much more important than what we are teaching. It could be that their stress prohibits meaningful school learning. The teacher I admire most who has done a lot to help students in poverty is Jeff Duncan-Andrade of Oakland, CA. Read about his work on his website Roses in Concrete, his article in the Harvard Education Review here, and videos of his speeches to educators on Youtube.
Harry is about to enter the Chamber of Secrets and face Tom Riddle to save Ginny. Now that’s a practical exam.