Book Review

An English Teacher Reads David Denby’s Lit Up

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Back in 2008, Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, wrote a book entitled The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. As the token millennial on the staff of Dissent Magazine at the time, I was assigned to review the book, which I did, scathingly: Bauerlein was a curmudgeon, I argued, obsessed with an epidemic of youthful “bibliophobia” that simply didn’t exist.

Fast forward eight years, and my complaints about my own students are similar to Bauerlein’s: That they are too screen-obsessed—to the extent that they’ll start fights in class over the content of their peers’ Facebook feeds—and won’t touch a book that isn’t required reading, and even then, only with significant prodding. (“Books smell funny,” one of my students remarked earlier this year.) So, when I read about New Yorker staff writer David Denby’s new book, Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives, I was intrigued.

“How do you establish reading pleasure in busy, screen-loving teenagers?” Denby asks in the introduction to his book. And, “Is it still possible to raise teenagers who can’t live without reading something good?” To find out, Denby followed three 10th grade English teachers in disparate schools over the course of the 2013-14 school year in their efforts—ranging from creative to practical to (at times) desperate—to engage their students in the pleasure of reading. One teacher taught in an affluent and well-resourced public school in Mamaroneck, another in a magnet school in the well-heeled Upper West Side of Manhattan (though the school pulls high-scoring applicants from across the city), and the third taught in a struggling public school in New Haven, Conn., where over three quarters of the population qualified for free lunch—an indicator of a family living below the poverty line. The book chronicles these teachers’ approaches to teaching literature, their students reactions and discussions, and in between, Denby’s own reflections on the mix of modern and canonical “great books” that the students are reading.

Like the teachers in Denby’s book, I also teach 10th grade English, in a school much like Hillhouse, the high-needs New Haven school that Denby visits. And in fact, there is a lot of overlap between strategies used by the teachers in my school, and all three of those profiled in Lit Up—including encouraging students to read aloud in class in small groups, framing literature units around essential questions of identity (which become the basis for class discussions), and giving “book talks” to the students. Certain techniques, it seems, are universal. Moreover, the students at all of our respective schools expressed similar ranges of reactions to reading: initial reticence or uninterest, excitement when they were able to make connections to their own lives, and a strong propensity towards grim, disaster-based reading selections that seems to make Denby cringe.

Lit Up makes for entertaining, enjoyable reading, and many of the class discussion scenes Denby describes, in which students connect emotionally and intellectually with literature, are charming. However, in the very task set out by the author—to investigate what teachers can do to make students more interested in reading—the book seems to lose sight of its objective.

The vast majority of the book follows Mr. Leon’s classes at Beacon, the Manhattan magnet school, as Denby evidently favors this teacher’s approach above all others. Indeed, Leon does appear to be a popular teacher who engages students with challenging questions and well-chosen texts, but this engagement has less to do with any particular pedagogical strategies than with the fact that—at least in Denby’s portrayal—he is intensely charismatic, a classroom rock star of sorts. (But as a quick side note: Though Leon’s students seem to respond well to his cold-calling them by name on the first day as a means of showing that he “knows” them already, I suspect there are many teens who would find this approach as off-putting as Denby finds it brilliant.)

Questionable Lessons

In between marveling at Denby’s apparent hagiography of one teacher, one wonders at his implicit suggestion: Is the solution to students’ lack of interest in reading simply to tell teachers, “Be more charismatic,” or “Be more confident?” What was practical and replicable about this particular classroom situation?

Not much, as Denby himself concedes: Even in the opening chapter of the book, he acknowledges that many of his friends, upon hearing about his research, questioned whether what was done at Beacon—a school with an involved parent base in a well-off zip code of New York City—would be “scalable” in a national way. This question is insufficiently explored, in part due to the book’s disproportionate focus on Beacon, at the expense of any other educational environment. Exactly one chapter out of 15 follows the 10th grade class at Hillhouse, the high-needs, low-scoring New Haven public school, and two were devoted to the class at Mamaroneck, a school at the opposite end of the spectrum.

For a book that endeavors to approach a problem that is nationwide, though arguably particularly acute in under-resourced public, the comparatively limited analysis of the strategies being used by Miss Zelenski at Hillhouse, which did seem to engage her struggling readers, or even those used by Miss Groninger at Mamaroneck, which allowed students a significant and possibly useful degree of free choice in their book selections, seemed a conspicuous omission. Why were these classes not examined more? For a teacher at a school like Hillhouse, Denby’s disinclination to focus on the most needy students was maddening at times.

The one takeaway I did get from Denby’s focus on Mr. Leon’s class is perhaps not so much what Leon himself does, so much as what he is allowed by his administration. An experienced veteran in a school where kids are, by and large, passing all of their tests with flying colors, Leon appears to have been given almost complete freedom in selecting his course books, structuring his class, and leading discussions. Granted, this flexibility is a privilege presumably borne out of his administration’s well-placed confidence in him, and it’s hard not to admire both Leon’s skill and his rapport with the kids. However, I also found myself envious of a teacher who isn’t hamstrung by the requirements of “learning specialists” contracted through his school’s regional administrative network, which usually include formulaic lesson components and regular standardized tests—all the more so in high-needs schools. This type of top down education reform has constricted great teaching by impinging on teachers’ creativity, and dulling students’ natural curiosity in the process—as such, the greatest hindrances to students’ love of reading are the very systems we’ve put in place nationwide with the goal of making them literate.

The fault, as one of the characters in a play not taught by any of these teachers states, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

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