Author: David Denby
Year Published: 2015
Genre: Adult non-fiction
Pages: 238 plus notes and index
FTC Disclosure: Checked out from my school library.
Please excuse me if this review turns into a long, rambling fan letter. I want to record quotes from the book for safe keeping. I am placing them here so I can look back and grab them when I need them. When I read books which inspire me to be a better teacher, a better educator, I always feel like underlining all inspiring quotes to revisit on down days. This blog post is my effort at e-underlining.
The reporter, David Denby visited three schools on and off for a whole school year. He wanted to see what books the English teachers were assigning and what they did with the books they did assign.
Denby worried, as many of us bookish types to, that students today are not being introduced to great literature and afraid their life is the poorer for it.
"Reading fiction carries you further into imagination and invention that you would be capable on your own, takes you into other people's lives, and often, by reflection, deeper into your own." (xvi)So he set out on this project to see what was actually happening in schools. He visited Beacon School in Manhattan, Mamaroneck HS in Pennsylvannia, and Hillhouse HS in New Haven, Connecticut.
"I wanted to see if readers could be born---what happens when a nonreader becomes a reader?---which meant necessarily recording the students' mistakes and awkward moments as well as their insights and breakthroughs as they struggles into life. If they struggled into life." (xx)David Denby spent the most amount of time with a tenth grade English teacher, Mr. Leon, at Beacon School. Mr. Leon shared some ideas from the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran with his students, "A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil." (9)
As the class is grappling with A Brave New World, Denby muses,
"The Internet informs, informs, informs; connects, connects, connects; but I could say from my own experience that it also dissolves deep concentration, maybe even dissolves the self, whereas reading something in depth patches it back together again. As you read in depth, you're in touch with the large movements of history, commerce, art...You move move outward and inward at the same time, drilling into yourself, matching your own acts against those of men and women in fiction, in history, in sports, in science, anywhere. After that, the book settles into your unconscious; if affects you without your knowing exactly how." (57)Mr. Leon's is often provocative with his classes. He intentionally riles up his students to spark conversation and get them to think.
"Yet, Mr. Leon implied the students were in "chains," to use a Rousseau's word that he placed on the board at the beginning of the year. He loved literature, he wanted students to love it, and he believed in the character-forming experiences of reading difficult books. He wanted to strike the leg-irons, open the links; he wanted to make a new boy, a new girl. He wanted to get them to talk to one another, not to text one another. He demanded conversation rather than networking." (61)Again Denby muses about the value of literature in today's society.
"The experienced self yields a soul. Education in largest sense creates social beings, citizens, and also a soulful life, and reading has to be a big part of the slow-moving, slow-gathering process...If you don't read books, and if you don't get consumed by the physical and moral life of men and women in fiction and history, too many facets of yourself may never come into being." (62)
At Mamaroneck HS the English department was trying something new to remake the students into students who enjoyed reading.
"The habits of 9th and 10th graders could be changed. The nonreaders, or grudging readers, could be gently but firmly pushed into becoming readers---real readers, not just functional readers. They could be pushed into enjoying themselves...The practical question was this: How do you waken hunger amid indifference or disgust? Answer: With persistence, pressure, and subtlety...The people I spoke with were book lovers, and, for them, nonreading was an offence against spirit. Just as much as Mr. Leon, they were out to save lives." (79-80) Students were encouraged in their free choice selections to ladder up...read better stuff. Teachers book talked books one or twice a week. It forced teachers to read more and pay attention to what was popular. The superintendent of schools decided to change the gap between rich and poor kids on testing by getting more kids reading. (84)
Denby is pretty frustrated by what he finds at Hillhouse HS, in New Haven, Connecticut. He points out all the ways that the school is letting down these students living in an impoverished area of town. They don't even have anyone at the school designated to help kids get into college. And if kids do go on to college, they are likely to run out of money or think it is too hard and drop out. "Miss Zelenski [their English teacher] knew all this, but she said a larger issue than college entrance was at stake. They needed literature to live." (163) I love this thought.
College is important but we need literature to live!
Mamaronek HS used all kinds of lesson plans to engage students in literature. The class Denby visited was studying Macbeth and Shakespearean soliloquies. Both were written by the Bard in iambic pentameter. To assist the class with this the teacher attempts to read one of the soliloquies while a student taps a drum in the rhythm. The effect is not bad. She has the students' rapt attention. She then asked the students to write a soliloquy of their own. "Write in the voice of the leading character of the book you are currently reading. Currently reading! Write it in iambic pentameter and in blank verse, without rhymes, but don't worry too much about consistency. Follow the rules and break them. Shakespeare broke rules all the time, she told them." (181)
Part of the connection between classic texts and contemporary books was that they intermingled in the reader's mind, working on each other. It is the goal at Mamaroneck "to create pleasure by connecting one book to another, the endless chain that made a reading life and that made a man and a woman, too." (183)
Denby noticed and appreciated the hard work of all of the teachers he visited.
"The students worked hard; their teacher worked hard. School! It can---sometimes----be the most worthy place in America." (204)
" Everyone milled around at the end of the last class and some of the students were unwilling to let go...No one could say what would happen to any of the students in the future, but it was unlikely that they would be afraid of an book, and unlikely as well that they would go through life thinking that literature couldn't possibly matter to them." (221)
"In all the classes I attended, teachers put themselves out in order to get students to put themselves out. This meant more than the obvious things---that a teacher has to be intellectually serious, responsive to everyone, and also in her person the spirit of justice. I repeat, for many kids, a good teacher may be the most palpable form of honor they ever experience." (237)I was really touched and caught up in the message of this book. Good literature is vital to life and we must not push it off the curriculum just because students balk at having to read hard or long books. They actually end up feeling really proud when they do conquer these books.
I can't decide who I should loan this book to first, my principal or the AP Lit teacher who is forever putting great literature in students hands?
One more message I don't want to forget. Mr. Leon asked and reminded his students to be present as they read. He hoped they would be confused and willing to look for themselves in what they read. He also promised he would always be present. He loved teaching and would always bring his A-game to class. That is a pretty fantastic promise to make.
For teachers, especially teachers at the high school and community college level, this book is a treasure. Read it.