Early Thoughts on David Denby’s Lit Up and on High School English in General


I’ve read almost nothing this week. I’ve been scrambling to finish some freelance jobs and other side work (bacon must be brought home, and so forth – preferably organic bacon), and I have several blog posts in progress, all of which are kind of complicated and are not going to be fully realized between now and midnight. So for now I’m just going to tell you a bit about David Denby’s Lit Up. First of all, Denby is the guy who wrote Great Books back in 1997, about how he returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, as an adult to retake that university’s core humanities courses. I sampled the book a long time ago and was put off by it for reasons I don’t remember. I read his book about playing the stock market, American Sucker, and learned a lot about day trading but found Denby’s persona bitter and unlikable. So far I am enjoying Lit Up, which is the result of a project in which Denby spent one full year observing 10th grade English classes at Beacon High School in Manhattan followed by another year of sampling a variety of other English classes at several other schools. I was prepared to love this book, but I knew there was always the danger that I would hate it, since the ground Denby is treading is sacred to me, though I sometimes like to pretend it isn’t.

Here’s how the book starts:

“Well, maybe not on the way home from the hospital. Maybe when the baby is six weeks old, or when she begins smiling. That might be a good time to pull her into your lap, or prop her up between you and your spouse or partner. Turning through pages, you read aloud a picture book. She won’t remember the words or pictures, but an impression of being held and read to will remain – a familiarity with the experience, an emotional reminder of pleasure, especially when it’s repeated hundreds of times. Second part of the deal: you talk to your baby constantly, from birth, asking questions, and gently demanding answers when she’s old enough to give them. Like a child in a fairy tale, she will possess an unknown power, which, sooner or later, will burst forth. The reading ego, and the speaking ego, need thousands of little victories before they assert themselves without fear, and she will be ready. A child held, read to and talked to, undergoes an initiation into a useful life; she may also undergo an initiation into happiness.” Italics/underlining/boldface type are mine, because OMG that sentence! And how brilliant is the idea that reading aloud should begin with the baby’s first smile?

The teacher Denby shadows for a year is Sean Leon, a mid-career teacher at Beacon High School – a magnet school for academics and the arts in Manhattan. Denby chose Beacon because a seasoned teacher told him that Beacon was noteworthy for delivering an outstanding education in spite of an absolutely horrible physical plant. Leon is one of those English teachers who can be kind of annoying – the kind who are a little bit too aware that they are in a position to change students’ lives. Denby doesn’t mention it, but there is absolutely no doubt that at some point in his career Leon has climbed up on a desk and O-Captain-My-Captained around up there for a while. It’s true, of course, that teachers do sometimes change students’ lives. It’s OK to know that, but you have to finesse it a little. You can’t wear it tattooed on your forehead on the first day of school. Ultimately, English classrooms are about the students and the texts. If teachers can find ways to efface themselves, they should do so – at least sometimes. Maria Montessori’s “A great teacher is one who makes herself gradually unnecessary” has never lost its power to give me shivers.

Denby quotes the beginning of a student essay: “Themes are a big part of The Kite Runner,” it begins. “In all great works of literature, themes are brought up. The Kite Runner is a great example of this, bringing up the themes of truth/realization, friendship, and manhood, which is brought up a lot in Azar Nafisi’s five quotes” (11). Denby offers some generalized sympathy for the man who will have to take that essay home and grade it: “A pang of despair. They were fifteen, they lived in a hyper-media age, and they were not, I was sure, easy, with literature and writing. Still, these sentences were a misfortune, a way of turning the devices Sean Leon had given them [i.e. the five quotations from Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran that the instructor had given the students as part of the assignment] into lame tautology. He had brought on this kind of gibberish, and he would have to clear it out of their heads. He had his work cut out for him. They all did, the English teachers of America” (11).

Leon teaches Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” – which I’ve taught only once, and not in a school setting – and Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Denby is stunned by the students’ misinterpretations of the stories (ha!), but to me the most interesting part of this chapter is Denby’s observations of how the students read out loud. I think it is important for students (and teachers) to read out loud in class, but there has also always been a little bit of anxiety surrounding this subject for me. When my students read aloud, I used to be consumed with worries like Are we spending too much time reading from the book? Are they going to write on their course evaluations that all we ever did was read out loud from the book? Do they think they don’t have to read at home because we read in class? Have I called on everyone? Am I calling on the girls more than on the boys, or vice versa? Should I go easy on students who struggle with reading aloud? Should I make them read more, to build their skills? What about the ESL students? Are they embarrassed? Should I just read it all myself, and be done with it?

Any questions why I burned out at thirty-six?

Anyway, here’s Denby’s observation as he listens to a girl read from Hawthorne: “Like other students who had read aloud in class, she read efficiently, without hesitation or stumbling – they were all fluent, “good readers” – but she read it without emphasis, too, indeed without expression of any kind, as if reading aloud were simply an exercise, a duty that had to be got through. They all read that way, flatly, barely above a monotone, and I thought I knew why: they didn’t want to reveal any of themselves by giving one phrase or another extra emphasis. Not personal strengths or weaknesses, not sexual feelings – not anything. They were shy, and they read defensively, and I felt a traditionalist pang for earlier American schoolrooms in which public reading and even memorization had been a central part of education” (19).

The shyness and defensiveness Denby describes here is related to my chain of nervous questions above, of course, though I’m grateful to Denby for putting my questions into statement for. Denby feels “traditionalist pangs” with some frequency – this is part of what bothered me about Great Books and may eventually irritate me in this book too, but in this case I’m so struck by his statement that I forgive him.

Denby proceeds through some nonsense about how difficult The Scarlet Letter is to teach. This is a myth – as long as you have the good sense to NOT assign the forty-page introduction that doesn’t have anything to do with anything, The Scarlet Letter more or less teaches itself. It was one of my favorites when I was teaching. But Denby proceeds with this truism about Hawthorne being archaic and dated and irrelevant, and he sits in on an American literature class that is acting out the opening scene. The teacher has dressed some girl in a black dress and made her climb out of a cabinet holding a doll – of COURSE The Scarlet Letter is going to be hard to teach if you make it look ridiculous. I have no patience for silly stunts like this that infantilize kids, stunts that essentially announce to the students that the teacher thinks they can’t read the book without playing silly games. In my own education, preschool to grad school, the teachers who made an impression on me (a positive impression, that is) were the ones who took me seriously.

I say this in spite of the fact that, as I once heard a sophomore whisper to a classmate, “that’s the good thing about Ms. Edstrom – once a semester or so she whips out the markers.”

More soon.


This entry was posted in Authors, David Denby, Nonfiction - Education, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Literary Studies, Nonfiction - Media and Pop Culture, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Early Thoughts on David Denby’s Lit Up and on High School English in General

  1. Maria Caswell says:

    What did you do with the markers???!!!

    • lfpbe says:

      Oh gosh. We used the Middle English descriptions to draw the characters in Canterbury Tales. We drew antagonists from books and then made dartboards of them on the bulletin board. I had everyone choose their favorite word in the English language, illustrate it, and put it on the wall. Whatever seemed amusing.

  2. badkitty1016 says:

    I, too, wanted to know what the markers were for!! Thanks for asking, Maria! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s