Thursday, January 28, 2016

Lit Up: One Reporter, Three Schools, Twenty-four Books that Can Change Lives

Does teaching literature to 10th graders make a difference in their lives? How do we instill an appetite for serious reading in an age of smart phones, graphic novels, social texting, and computer gaming?  Does economic class, home life, school district, environment, or teacher effectiveness, make a difference? Can literature impact the lives of young people?

In Lit Up David Denby set out to explore these questions by visiting three classrooms in three schools. He chose Tenth Grade because fifteen-year-old's minds are still plastic, they are grappling with identity and their future, and are still 'reachable'. An age, perhaps, when it it not too late for them to learn to read literature for the sheer pleasure of it and perhaps begin to see literature as art.

Denby visited Sean Leon at Beacon High in Manhattan whose reading list was heavy on existential classics; James Hillhouse High in inner-city New Haven, a public school with many troubles; and a Marmaroneck, wealthy New York City suburb school. Each class differed in books and teaching practices. We follow the classes through the reading lists as Denby reports on how the works are taught and student's responses as individuals and as a class. Denby interjects his own opinions and thoughts about what he observes. I don't always agree with Denby, or the teachers, but was drawn into formulating my own ideas in response.

Sean Leon's class emphasized good writing and independent thinking. His reading list was grim, rooted in "the fears and disasters of the last century," as Denby notes. Leon pushed his students to totally engage with life and evaluate societal expectations, their addiction to social media, and the fast food diet of Internet fodder. Denby describes Leon as "a radical in spirit, a conservative in values."

Jessica Zelenski taught at the worst performing school in the state. Social Justice was the theme that year. Her book choices also precluded 'feel good' books. She instituted "Read Around"; students were to chose one of four books: A Long Way Gone: Memories of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nagisi, Night by Elie Wiesel, and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. The students at first rejected the selections. Zelenski explained what the books were about and read from each before asking a volunteer to continue reading. Most students decided to read Beah's book. Zelenski bought extra copies with her own money. The kids soon requested silent reading period to work on their books. These kids understood troubled families, poverty, trust and safety issues, and had a deep sense of justice. Yale University had a college promise program but Hillhouse had no office to help kids navigate college entrance. Zelenski knew that studying literature might not get them into college, but it could help them live. When the students demanded reading time it was a huge leap. Not only were they enjoying reading, they enjoyed reading together. At the end of the school year students were able to meet Beah who was in town. They knew his journey, they knew he had come through and flourished, and now they actually met

The best part of the book are the students. I enjoyed meeting them, hearing their words, watching them grow. There is nothing more amazing than watching a young person's understanding blossom and burst open like flowers in spring.

Reading this book I felt my inadequacies as a writer and as a reader. These 10th grade students were prodded to levels of critical thinking I had only experienced in honors and 400-level classes. I spend hours writing a book review or blog post. Have I become self-satisfied and lazy? It's been nearly 40 years since I graduated university. Have I settled for 'good enough?'

This was an interesting and thought-provoking book.

The Reading Lists

The 10th grade reading list at Beacon, taught by Sean Leon, included A Rose for Emily by Faulkner and Hawthorne's The Minister Back Veil, poems by Sylvia Plath, Brave New World by Huxley, Siddhartha by Hesse, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky, No Exit by Sartre, and Beckett's Waiting for Godot. (As a teen I read Brave New World, Siddhartha, and Man's Search for Meaning and saw Waiting for Godot performed. Slaughterhouse-Five I encountered in a college course on Black Humor. I didn't read Plath until I was post-college.)

At Beacon, Mary Whittemore's 11th graders read Middlesex by Eugenides, excerpts from Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Morrison's The Song of Solomon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Kesey, The Things They Carried by O'Brien, Ceremony by Silko, and Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. ( I read Kesey in the Black Humor college class, Gatsby on my own as a teen, And Eugenides and O'Brien as an adult.)

At Beacon, Daniel Guralnick's 11th graders read Rip Van Winkle by Irving, Hawthorne's The Birthmark, Poe's The Cask of Amontillado, Twain's The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Daisy Miller by James, Crane's The Open Boat, Capote's In Cold Blood, The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway, and Invisible Man by Ellison. (I read Hemingway, Capote, and Poe as a teen, and later Crane and James as an adult. I never read any of these in a classroom setting.)

James Hillhouse 10th teacher Jessica Zelenski taught To Kill a Mockingbird by Lee, Ursula LeGuin's The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas, Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros, Shakespeare's Sonnets, Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, and Hemingway's the Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Students chose to read Beah's A Long Way Gone, Tan's Joy Luck Club, Night by Wiesel, or A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. To prod students to actually finish reading one book was victory. (I only read the Sonnets in a classroom. I read Lee, Tan,  and Wiesel as an adult. My son read Beah in college.)

Mary Beth Jordan at Mamaroneck high taught 10th graders Wall's The Glass Castle, Night by Weisel, Macbeth by Shakespeare, East of Eden by Steinbeck, The Flowers by Alice Walker, Cheever's The Reunion, Saunders's Sticks, and poetry by Shelley, Frost, Eliot, Roethke, and Kumin. Students chose to read Orwell's 1984 or Bradbury's 451, and The Kite Runner by Hosseini or King's The Body. (Again, I read none of these in a classroom setting. I read Wall, Hosseini and Eliot as an adult, and Night, Steinbeck, Orwell and Bradbury as a teen.)

Denby, a movie critic, wrote Great Books in 1996.

I received a free ebook from the publisher in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Lit Up by David Denby
Henry Holt & Co
Publication Date: February 2, 2016
$30.00 hard cover
ISBN: 9780805095852