The premise of David Denby’s Lit Up is that although high school students are reluctant to read works of literature, a talented teacher can help young people find relevance and purpose in challenging texts. With that in mind, Denby attended the English classes of three different teachers who were successful to at least some degree in invigorating their students’ reading lives. The main focus is on Beacon School English teacher Sean Leon whose sophomore English class reading list is … daunting.
While I have no doubt that Mr. Leon is an inspiring teacher who brings out the best in his students, my own teacher radar went off on a couple of points. We never actually see his students reading. We see these seemingly typical sophomores come to class ready to talk in depth about the works they have read, but it’s not at all clear how they processed those books. I’m a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy, and I would have liked to understand better how Mr. Leon assigned the reading and made sure students were actually reading rather than simply Shmoop-ing. Only a handful of students are mentioned as participants in the discussions, and I wonder about the others. I’m also concerned that this class spent too much time on each book. When discussing the teaching of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Denby says at one point, “As the weeks went on, the students admitted they were surprised by the power of the fable.” As the weeks went on? When it came to a different book, Denby says, “but after a month or so of discussing Slaughterhouse-Five …” Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide (included in the bibliography of Lit Up) warns against over-teaching literary texts. Spending numerous weeks or “a month or so” seems like a perfect example of the over-teaching that causes students to turn away from reading as a pleasurable experience.
Mamaroneck, another school featured in Lit Up, uses Penny Kittle’s Book Love as the inspiration for combining titles chosen by the students with whole-class study of classic works. (Interestingly, a recent Book Love podcast featured teachers from the same school.) This approach is my approach, so it made perfect sense to me, and I have no doubt that it creates many lifelong readers. I get the sense though that Denby sees the independent reading as a sort of necessary evil bridge to books he considers more worthwhile. He tips his hand when he declares that No Easy Day by Matt Bissonnette and Kevin Mauer and The Girl You Left Behind by Jo Jo Moyes are “neither of them close to literature.” Many English teachers, including me, would disagree with that statement.
Hillhouse, the third school visited by Denby, has pervasive challenges. The majority of its students live in urban poverty. The teacher whose class Denby visited considers it her mission to show students how literature can give people “the ability to get out of themselves and to enter other people’s lives.” I was impressed with how she directly connected her students to Ishmael Beah, the author of A Long Way Gone, a book they had read in class (with copies purchased by the teacher with her own money): “The students had met a real writer whose book many of them had chosen to read. A writer and his book; they read it, and they met the author, and they were close to happiness.” Connecting students with authors is a powerful reading motivator.
Ultimately, Lit Up amounts to far less than what first meets the eye. Although there is no question that the students in these classes experienced a good year with literature, my concern is that it’s temporary. Denby’s Afterword catches up with some of the students from Beacon and Hillhouse some months later, and reading doesn’t seem to have stuck with them. They may have been “lit up” for a time, but for the most part, their reading lights apparently flickered out when the classes ended. (No teachers or students from Mamaroneck, the Book Love school, were mentioned in the Afterword.) Still, I’m glad good teachers are helping students experience books and literature, and I’m glad a book like Lit Up is being talked about in the mainstream media to draw attention to how reading is fading from the lives of many young people.
I think it comes down to this. Teaching literature is a noble enterprise. Helping adolescents develop lasting reading lives is also a noble enterprise. These two goals have some overlapping areas, but they are not the same. Lit Up is about teaching literature, but the creation of reading habits—while acknowledged as a worthwhile outcome—isn’t really the focus of this book. I’d like to see David Denby also tell the story of schools and teachers successfully involved in transforming students into lifelong readers. I know a lot of great English teachers who are doing just that and who will gladly help Mr. Denby with such a project.