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Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives.

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A bestselling author and distinguished critic goes back to high school to find out whether books can shape lives It's no secret that millions of American teenagers, caught up in social media, television, movies, and games, don't read seriously-they associate sustained reading with duty or work, not with pleasure. This indifference has become a grievous loss to our standing A bestselling author and distinguished critic goes back to high school to find out whether books can shape lives It's no secret that millions of American teenagers, caught up in social media, television, movies, and games, don't read seriously-they associate sustained reading with duty or work, not with pleasure. This indifference has become a grievous loss to our standing as a great nation--and a personal loss, too, for millions of teenagers who may turn into adults with limited understanding of themselves and the world. Can teenagers be turned on to serious reading? What kind of teachers can do it, and what books? To find out, Denby sat in on a tenth-grade English class in a demanding New York public school for an entire academic year, and made frequent visits to a troubled inner-city public school in New Haven and to a respected public school in Westchester county. He read all the stories, poems, plays, and novels that the kids were reading, and creates an impassioned portrait of charismatic teachers at work, classroom dramas large and small, and fresh and inspiring encounters with the books themselves, including The Scarlet Letter, Brave New World, 1984, Slaughterhouse-Five, Notes From Underground, Long Way Gone and many more. Lit Up is a dramatic narrative that traces awkward and baffled beginnings but also exciting breakthroughs and the emergence of pleasure in reading. In a sea of bad news about education and the fate of the book, Denby reaffirms the power of great teachers and the importance and inspiration of great books.


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A bestselling author and distinguished critic goes back to high school to find out whether books can shape lives It's no secret that millions of American teenagers, caught up in social media, television, movies, and games, don't read seriously-they associate sustained reading with duty or work, not with pleasure. This indifference has become a grievous loss to our standing A bestselling author and distinguished critic goes back to high school to find out whether books can shape lives It's no secret that millions of American teenagers, caught up in social media, television, movies, and games, don't read seriously-they associate sustained reading with duty or work, not with pleasure. This indifference has become a grievous loss to our standing as a great nation--and a personal loss, too, for millions of teenagers who may turn into adults with limited understanding of themselves and the world. Can teenagers be turned on to serious reading? What kind of teachers can do it, and what books? To find out, Denby sat in on a tenth-grade English class in a demanding New York public school for an entire academic year, and made frequent visits to a troubled inner-city public school in New Haven and to a respected public school in Westchester county. He read all the stories, poems, plays, and novels that the kids were reading, and creates an impassioned portrait of charismatic teachers at work, classroom dramas large and small, and fresh and inspiring encounters with the books themselves, including The Scarlet Letter, Brave New World, 1984, Slaughterhouse-Five, Notes From Underground, Long Way Gone and many more. Lit Up is a dramatic narrative that traces awkward and baffled beginnings but also exciting breakthroughs and the emergence of pleasure in reading. In a sea of bad news about education and the fate of the book, Denby reaffirms the power of great teachers and the importance and inspiration of great books.

30 review for Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives.

  1. 4 out of 5

    Leigh Anne

    A pompous polemic with some glaring factual errors, designed for close-minded cranks. It's a pity this book turned out to be such a hot mess, because the premise holds a great deal of potential: observe the reading students do at three schools to explore how various teachers try to engage different kinds of kids with reading. Alas, right off the bat the reader discovers this is one of those "Kids don't read anymore because technology and it's the end of civilization!" screeds that assumes Millenn A pompous polemic with some glaring factual errors, designed for close-minded cranks. It's a pity this book turned out to be such a hot mess, because the premise holds a great deal of potential: observe the reading students do at three schools to explore how various teachers try to engage different kinds of kids with reading. Alas, right off the bat the reader discovers this is one of those "Kids don't read anymore because technology and it's the end of civilization!" screeds that assumes Millennials are misguided, ignorant souls who will never be anywhere near as intelligent or civilized because they aren't like their Boomer predecessors. Denby's biggest mistake is assuming that, if kids never read "good" literature, they're not really reading. He takes a hard line on this position, constantly bemoaning the inferiority of YA lit. The Hunger Games and Twilight are cited ad nauseam as examples of garbage books that aren't "real" reading, which almost made this reviewer throw the book out the window. He completely ignores the mountain of evidence that exists to show that reading anything is better than reading nothing, paying lip service to this idea quickly with one quote from Ann Patchett and then dismissing it out of hand. The second problem here is that, after chapter after chapter of shitting on these kids for being kids, Denby makes the mother of all mistakes by consistently referring to George Orwell's 1984 heroine as "Clare." Given that her name is JULIA, this is a big old fuck-up. If you're feeling charitable, you might attribute this to an editing mistake. If you are NOT feeling charitable--and by the time you hit this gaffe in the narrative, you are not--you can savor the irony of an intellectual snob making a huge honker of a mistake while looking down his nose at other people. Thirdly, the structure of this book is all over the damn place, and the content is highly misleading. This is really the story of ONE school, with a few token chapters given to two other schools, presumably for comparison/contrast. OF COURSE we spend the most time with the middle-class kids at the GOOD school, and OF COURSE we get a lot of Denby's inner thoughts and feelings about the things he's seeing, almost always delivered with disdain for the students and, occasionally, their teacher (After the fifth time he whined about Shakespeare not being on the one school's syllabus, I wanted to bitch-smack him into the middle of next Tuesday, especially after he describes missing the Bard "as one would a lover." Pardon me while I puke. Ahem. The book would've been a lot more interesting if Denby had cut back on the attitude and actually presented a neutral, observational portrait of ONE school, or devoted equal attention to all three. It's pretty clear he's playing favorites here, which is a damn shame, because ALL of these kids are wonderful and intreesting. In fact, the only reason this book gets any stars at all is because the kids really are all right. They're fifteen, engaging for the first time with "good" literature, and their teachers are doing the best they can to make it interesting and engaging. The best parts of the book are when Denby shuts the fuck up and lets us eavesdrop on the kids and their experiences. Finally, as if this weren't enough, there's a relentless anti-technology bent that assumes all time spent engaging with cell phones, social media, and other conteporary accoutrements is time wasted. There was absolutely NO attempt to even pretend to present a balanced portrait: internet bad, "real" life good. The notion that internet culture, being an EXTENSION of our lives, is just as real as anything else we engage with, isn't even considered. The fact that at least one teacher shares this position as well makes me worry about the damage we're doing to kids by constantly disrespecting and devaluing their modes of communication. It's also hypocritical as fuck, because I bet you a million dollars Denby, like everyone else, engages with the internet on a regular basis. At the end of the day, this book is ONLY valuable to you if you want to skim the kids' stories and skip Denby's pompous moralizing. Or you could flip to the back for the complete reading lists the kids used that year (interesting) and the bibliography (much shorter than it should have been and missing key texts in the literature...like the Pew report that shows Millennials are MORE LIKELY THAN ANYONE ELSE to have read a print book in a given time period: http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/09/10... Talk about cherry-picking the research. And of course, libraries and librarians are never mentioned, because we never fucking are. Bottom line: the kids are all right, despite SOME adults' attempts to paint them as ignorant savages in need of rescuing. Reading is reading is reading: it's good to encourage kids to read the classics, but it's GREAT when teachers--as in one of the two schools written about only slightly--try to find books that will appeal to readers where they are and build from there. Of course, if you find yourself trapped at the desk with a ranty, get-off-my-lawn sort of patron, you may want to save yourself by giving them this book and fleeing to safety while they're distracted. Confirmation bias, though ugly to behold, can occasionally save your life.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Beth

    This is a book about assigned reading in high schools, and ostensibly how great books can turn teenagers into readers. What it's actually about: how a critic can never refrain from criticizing - often in an insightful way, but sometimes in an overbearing way - and how great teachers make kids love reading. It's a compelling read the entire way through, even as I rolled my eyes and disagreed with it; I'll give Denby that. And I enjoyed disagreeing with it. This is a good book to bounce off of. Ul This is a book about assigned reading in high schools, and ostensibly how great books can turn teenagers into readers. What it's actually about: how a critic can never refrain from criticizing - often in an insightful way, but sometimes in an overbearing way - and how great teachers make kids love reading. It's a compelling read the entire way through, even as I rolled my eyes and disagreed with it; I'll give Denby that. And I enjoyed disagreeing with it. This is a good book to bounce off of. Ultimately, Denby argues that great books, when kids are taught how to appreciate them, will transform people into readers. (He spends some time establishing why reading is important, and I agreed with all that, so it's not as interesting to me. There's a fascinating section on the Internet and how reading online affects attention spans. I liked that, too.) But he goes to a very expected place: there's trash, and there's Literature, and obviously, we want kids reading the latter, right? Even the Mamaroneck reading experiment - which I love! - centers around the idea of laddering. Hook kids with stuff on their level, and then get them reading real literature. Which isn't a bad thing - if you're an educator, it's your job to give kids the skills to read Dostoevsky! - but over and over, the implication that other literature isn't good enough is hammered home. Except for lip service paid to one educator who says otherwise, this book is a homage to those writers who've survived decades of curriculum development (often because of inertia or stagnation, the cynic in me argues). It certainly urges nuanced reading of the classics, often highlighting how out-of-sync teenagers can be with the critics' readings - a funny perspective on kids who are cutting their teeth on difficult works written in other-than-contemporary English - and once again adheres to the view that there is a right way to read something, and that bringing yourself, even if your self is a young, new-t0-this-stuff person, to the book isn't the right way. Which is something I argue against all the time: all readers bring themselves to works, after all, and if they come away with a different perspective than the author intended, well, maybe the author should have been more precise. That said, I can also acknowledge that some readings are so far out there as to be absurd, and that often a sense of place - setting, politics, etc - is required to properly respond to a book not written within students' lifetimes. The funny thing is, the teachers are shown to provide all that, and to listen to and respect students' opinions. Which is something the author appreciates from a distance, but his inner critic seems to propel him to criticize, to paper over with the correct reading, over and over. (This is why I never went for a graduate degree in English lit.) I recognize that I brought myself to this book, and that I bounced off it in ways that are all about me: genre, respect for teenagers, respecting analysis even when it diverges from your own view, exploring the limits of the individual's interpretations. Which, to me, only highlights what happens after you graduate and no longer have assigned readings - or people telling you what to think and why. In summation: English teachers are awesome and dedicated and brilliant, and this book celebrates that even as its author injects his own views. Which means I enjoyed this a lot, though I disagreed with sections.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Melora

    Denby begins his book with a very traditionalist, “kids-today” attitude – high school students should be reading and analyzing “classic” texts – Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Whitman, etc. – and anything less spells the End of Civilization As We Know It – but as the book progresses he gradually becomes more open to the mixed reading plans which the teachers he spends time with use for their 10th and 11th grade English classes. He remains somewhat skeptical of the more modern, ephemeral books (Coelho's Denby begins his book with a very traditionalist, “kids-today” attitude – high school students should be reading and analyzing “classic” texts – Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Whitman, etc. – and anything less spells the End of Civilization As We Know It – but as the book progresses he gradually becomes more open to the mixed reading plans which the teachers he spends time with use for their 10th and 11th grade English classes. He remains somewhat skeptical of the more modern, ephemeral books (Coelho's The Alchemist, in particular) and keeps pining for more Shakespeare, but he does come to understand the method to the madness. This approach worked for me, as I also have been inclined to think that kids should read classics of world and American literature in high school, assuming that more recent works are accessible and won't require “teaching.” Denby's story of a year (really a couple years, but he fits them into a one year framework) spent observing English classes, mostly 10th grade, at several schools, helped me come, as he did, to a more nuanced view of how high school literature should be taught. Denby begins with a Question (really more than one, but one Main question) and a Worry. His question is “How does the appetite for serious reading get created in the first place? A baby held in happy attention to books and stories has a good chance of loving reading as an adult. What about the others?” The worry is that teenagers, utterly entranced by various forms of digital media, are no longer reading literature for pleasure. ”In general American teenagers may be reading more sheer words than ever, but they are reading mostly on screens; they certainly aren't reading many serious books. Most of them are incredibly busy. School, homework, sports, jobs, parents, brothers, sisters, half brothers, half sisters, friendships, love affairs, hanging out, music, and, most of all, screens (TV, Internet, social networking, games, texting) – compared to all of that, reading is a weak, petulant claimant on their time.” Rather than trying to describe, comprehensively, the state of high school literature instruction in the country, Denby decides to focus on describing the activity in one tenth grade English class. After identifying a talented (and obviously exceptional) teacher to observe, though, he decides that his friends, who have advised him that this approach will be too limited to yield useful results, are right, and he adds an English class at each of two other schools, one inner city, and one in a wealthy suburb. With these three classes, plus two 11th grade classes to look in on, he has his parameters. ”...the point of view of this book is frankly parental. I wanted to see what the students were like and how they were doing intellectually. I decided not to suppress my feelings about them. I would describe them physically (or else they would never come alive on the page) and commit the sin of “judging,” always bearing in mind that they were very young. Fifteen-year-olds, through an academic year, develop stems and roots, their cells divide. In particular, I wanted to see if readers could be born – what happens when a nonreader becomes a reader? – which means necessarily recording the students' mistakes and awkward moments as well as their insights and breakthroughs as they struggled into life. If they struggled into life.” Over the course of the book, Denby does just as he says above. He describes the students, and they do come to life. We meet a whole range of teenagers: class clowns, belligerent underdogs, ambitious achievers, and even a few (very few) passionate readers. Denby, somewhat inconsistently, moves between bemoaning the students' complete immersion in digital culture and expressing surprised dismay at their undeveloped literary analysis skills. As he gets to know the students better, though, over the course of the school year, he comes to appreciate their responses to literature, which do, in many cases, become much more perceptive, and also to recognize the challenges they face in becoming skilled readers. As well as the perspective on the students, Denby also explores various approaches taken by the English teachers whose classes he sits in on. The “main” teacher, Sean Leon, is impressive but not typical. ”Beacon's Sean Leon had an unusual reading list – existential classics, including Huxley, Orwell, Hesse, Vonnegut, Dostoevsky, Beckett, but not Twain, Dickens, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, or even Shakespeare. He grabbed his students by the throats and shook them into life. He challenged them constantly, asking them to define themselves and take hold of their lives. He was clearly trying to shape character with the books he assigned, the discussions he led.” Other teachers work from more traditional lists but put great attention on student selected reading choices, which are read in class and are meant to help develop a love of reading and lead students to “climb a ladder” to more challenging books. In-class and out-of-class projects are described, as well as different approaches to discussions. There clearly isn't a “right” way to teach literature, but some ways appear to be more successful than others, depending on the skill, dedication, and personality of the teacher, and some book choices are seen to be better suited than others to 10th graders. If reading about sitting in on a 10th grade English class sounds dull, it isn't. The students, with their touching blend of toughness and vulnerability, are far more sympathetic than I (or, I think Denby) expected, and the amazing devotion of Denby's chosen English teachers to their students is awe inspiring. Denby closes on a moderately hopeful, or, at least, not too pessimistic note regarding the reading futures of America's media obsessed youth. “Conversations that uncover the moral issues lodged in narrative have a good chance of meaning something special to fifteen-year-olds. My apocalyptic tremblings a the end of the digital fast at Beacon had long subsided. Fifteen-year-olds will read seriously when inspired by charismatic teachers alert to what moves adolescents.” I enjoyed this very much. I've taught Homer, Shakespeare, Stevenson, London, etc. to a small co-op group, and I am well aware of how hard it is to keep the interest and enthusiasm of even a small group of well-prepared teens, let alone trying to teach a large (I think Sean Leon had 32 students in just the class Denby focused on), diverse class, and leaving aside the challenge of maintaining passion, sympathy, and creativity in class after class, year after year. The range of methods employed here was exciting – so many ideas for reaching students and helping them to become engaged, passionate readers. Denby's “crotchety old man” pose occasionally wore a little thin, but since I share most of his crotchets it didn't really bother me much. Recommended. *I received this book from LibraryThing through their Early Reviewers program with the understanding that the content of my review would not affect my likelihood of receiving books through the program in the future. Many thanks to Henry Holt and Company and LibraryThing!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Gary Anderson

    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. Wh 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 her 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. Cross-posted on What's Not Wrong?

  5. 4 out of 5

    Biblio Files (takingadayoff)

    David Denby returned to college as a middle aged man in 1991 to check on the state of the literature in education. He wrote a fascinating book on the experience called Great Books. Now in his seventies, he's gone back to see how literature is holding up in the high schools. This time though, he's only observing, not participating. He wants to see for himself if literature has any place at all in high school anymore. He worries that the internet has made our children stupid. Apparently this is a David Denby returned to college as a middle aged man in 1991 to check on the state of the literature in education. He wrote a fascinating book on the experience called Great Books. Now in his seventies, he's gone back to see how literature is holding up in the high schools. This time though, he's only observing, not participating. He wants to see for himself if literature has any place at all in high school anymore. He worries that the internet has made our children stupid. Apparently this is a worry that every generation has -- will Television destroy our brains? Will movies and cars and telephones destroy conversation and writing and deep thinking? The answer is yes, but only if we let it. And there's no evidence that the young people Denby observed are letting that happen to them. He sits in on for months at a time to observe English classes in action in a couple of schools, watching several teachers wrangle groups of fifteen year-olds into thoughtful, inquisitive, and skeptical readers. They become Reading Teams in a way, working together to analyze the books. It's an impressive project, with the students, some reluctant at first, becoming first rate deconstructionists. The teachers are real superstars, putting incredible effort into making the books relevant to the students, not leaving anyone to phone in their efforts. That's the real lesson of Lit Up, I think, that if you find good teachers, support them with resources and encouragement, and not hamper them with rigid mandates and excessive testing requirements, you have a good chance of turning out students who can think for themselves and want to learn more. There's hope for the future!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    In Lit Up, David Denby visits English classrooms across three schools. Denby is most taken with Sean Leon's grade 10 class, which is a sort of introduction to modernism. Leon might today seem a bit egotistical, speaking at the head of the class and designing his own reading list and themes. This question of whether the class can be constructed too much around the teacher's preferences and personality was a dilemma for me. Students seemed to like me more than the books we read and that bothered m In Lit Up, David Denby visits English classrooms across three schools. Denby is most taken with Sean Leon's grade 10 class, which is a sort of introduction to modernism. Leon might today seem a bit egotistical, speaking at the head of the class and designing his own reading list and themes. This question of whether the class can be constructed too much around the teacher's preferences and personality was a dilemma for me. Students seemed to like me more than the books we read and that bothered me. So over several years, I dialled back my personality as much as I could and really focused on constructing elaborately abstract units of study. When I described my course to parents and other adults, they often would say they wish they could take my class. I love those units and I still use them, but I've come to realize that most students value relationships before content and they value content before skill development. So some years ago I decided to be less of blankly professional bureaucrat and tried to become more of a person with my students. Although Mr. Leon's class is best designed to be attended by an outside observer, I was nevertheless unsurprised that Denby returned to it more than any other teacher he encountered. In another school, Denby encounters a teacher working as hard as she can to engage students who face a lot of adversity, a phrase which here includes poverty and gang violence (including student deaths). These students can be, and I don't think this should be surprising, difficult to build relationships with. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that they don't need positive (sometimes chastising) teachers in their life. It seems uniquely American to me that the USA has so often responded to these circumstances by blaming teachers (and teacher unions) and by calling for a more regulated curriculum built around constant testing. They seem willing to consider every possible explanation for what's happening in these moments, excepting their obsession with meritocracy and status and the blind eye they turn to income inequality, mass incarceration... I mostly dislike books about teaching, perhaps because they touch on a subject I take rather seriously, but I could imagine Lit Up being a useful work for new teachers. A final note: in each of classrooms he visits, Denby finds teachers who have their faults and flaws, and yet they are working with remarkable passion and skill to open up life and the world and everything with their students through reading.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Ms.pegasus

    Denby examines the process of teaching literature to high school students. He opens with a number of epigrams. One especially stuck in my mind. “You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” (Ray Bradbury, 1993). The English teachers that Denby follows through the school year face formidable obstacles. Their students have already formed strong opinions about reading — mostly negative. Compartmentalizing distractions like Facebook, Twitter, texting, and Denby examines the process of teaching literature to high school students. He opens with a number of epigrams. One especially stuck in my mind. “You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” (Ray Bradbury, 1993). The English teachers that Denby follows through the school year face formidable obstacles. Their students have already formed strong opinions about reading — mostly negative. Compartmentalizing distractions like Facebook, Twitter, texting, and smartphone apps inundate the attention of these students. Many if not all must certainly view the study of literature as a hypocritical imposition devised by the adult world. How many adults read books? (According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 21% of American adults had not read a single book during the past year). How many adults in the public arena demonstrate the critical thinking demanded in English classes? How would adults fare if denied access to any of their electronic devices for two days (an exercise English teacher Sean Leon conducted in his class)? Do the arbitrarily imposed curricula and regimen of testing conform to the nuanced critical thinking demanded by their teachers? Denby's observations permit the reader to experience excitement at each incremental success. He spends the most time with Sean Leon's sophomore English class at the Beacon School in Manhattan. Students must earn the right to be at this magnet school. An entrance exam and portfolio evaluations insure a standard of academic ability, but the population draws from a diverse range of economic backgrounds and family situations. Leon capitalizes on another advantage. He assembles his own curriculum. The books he teaches are works that spark his own passions, and these students respond to that authenticity. Leon forges a community of trust and mutual respect as a foundation for his class. The students will help each other cross the boundary between the sidelines and the moral heartland of each book, a risk filled endeavor. Connect! React! For the students, articulating their feelings comes slowly. Leon replaces rules about grammar with a simple directive: “...get rid of all versions of 'to be.'” (p.38). That tool, one of many, forces his students to commit to a relationship between subject and verb. No hedging. No meandering generalities. Say it; support what you've said with the text. And then? “So what?” If what you said matters, have you made it matter to the reader? Leon asked tough questions to motivate his students. Denby visits two other schools and finds other examples of passion and ingenuity. Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Connecticut draws from an impoverished inner city population. Mamaroneck High School is in an upscale suburb of New York City. Each is tied to a more traditional curriculum. Inspired creativity in the classroom brings these students toward the goal of engaged reading. At Hillhouse an assignment for Hemingway's story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” requires each student to assume the voice of one of the characters in the setting of a court hearing. Teachers take risks as well as their students. At Mamaroneck, Mary Beth Jordan's assignment to her class demands they write a soliloquy in iambic pentameter. The character must be chosen from one of their independent reading selections. The assignment extends from their unit on Macbeth. She begins by writing her own soliloquy in the voice of Goliath. (The book she was currently reading was Malcolm Gladwell's DAVID AND GOLIATH: UNDERDOGS, MISFITS, AND THE ART OF BATTLING GIANTS). The exercise is a success. If she can put herself out there into a foreign world and language, her students are less afraid to try. I was looking for ways I could become a deeper reader when I discovered this book at the public library. I was surprised by the absence of formal theory. Instead, Denby brings a fresh perspective on the classroom (this book was written in 2016). It offsets the often unpleasant memories many of us have of enduring boring high school English classes. If you were lucky, you had a teacher like Sean Leon or Mary Beth Jordan. I didn't. Each of these teachers offered encouragement of a personal sort. Read. Read as much as you can. At some point you will begin to discover the difference between an easy read and a difficult one. At some point you will be drawn to increasingly difficult books, books that challenge your assumptions about storytelling, character, moral clarity, and human existence. To quote from Sean Leon's 10th grade syllabus: “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.” (p.9) How does this happen? Well, there are no easy answers. Each reader will need to cross that boundary between his own life (the sidelines) and the heartland of the book to answer that question. NOTES: source for Pew survey: http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/01...

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kelley

    ARC received courtesy of Goodreads.com giveaway The question that moves David Denby to sit in on a year of English classes is this: Are our kids reading? In this world of texting and information at their fingertips, is reading irrelevant? What books do "good" teachers teach? This book very clearly answers the question with a resounding "YES, if..." The "if" is mostly "if" the teacher is a great teacher, then kids will read and think about what they read. If the teacher is a poor one, well not muc ARC received courtesy of Goodreads.com giveaway The question that moves David Denby to sit in on a year of English classes is this: Are our kids reading? In this world of texting and information at their fingertips, is reading irrelevant? What books do "good" teachers teach? This book very clearly answers the question with a resounding "YES, if..." The "if" is mostly "if" the teacher is a great teacher, then kids will read and think about what they read. If the teacher is a poor one, well not much reading or anything else goes on in those classrooms. The debate that I find most interesting in English classrooms today is the YA (young adult literature) vs. "real" (the classics) literature. Denby addresses this indirectly. He visits a tenth grade English class at Beacon school in New York City. Mr. Leon teaches Hawthorne, Vonnegut, Dostoevsky and many more. His school had opted out of testing and he was free to choose his own reading lists. His students became great thinkers and readers. He truly brought out the best in them through reflection and discussion. At another school Denby visited, the classrooms each had a "library" of their own. They were filled mostly with YA novels but included "classics" as well. This school built time into each day for personal reading. The theory is that once you get kids reading they will continue to read. This worked at that school. I enjoyed seeing how each model worked at the different schools. This book gives hope to teachers! Yes, we feel like we're beating our heads against a wall. Yes, our kids are reading and learning! We are all doing something right! I got many new ideas from the teachers that Denby observed and will be passing this book along to other teachers!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Melinda

    I was engaged by the year the author spent in various classrooms with these teachers and students. This book tries to answer the question, "How do you get high school kids to read literature?" I think, for me, Denby was more successful in answering the question, "Is classic literature still worth reading?" He shows that great ideas expressed through writing can still engage teenagers and compel them to make connections, to think and to respond to Big Ideas that cross time and continents. I do be I was engaged by the year the author spent in various classrooms with these teachers and students. This book tries to answer the question, "How do you get high school kids to read literature?" I think, for me, Denby was more successful in answering the question, "Is classic literature still worth reading?" He shows that great ideas expressed through writing can still engage teenagers and compel them to make connections, to think and to respond to Big Ideas that cross time and continents. I do believe that "every great civilization, including ours, has had a great literature and great readers," and I do worry about the lack of interest in reading that I see with my students. Of course any reading is good, but literature opens one's world in a way that The Hunger Games and Twilight just doesn't. All reading is not the same -- not in method or content. Yes, Denby can be annoying. There were times when I thought he was off the mark in the comments he made about what he was observing. But, the book's not about him. It's about the teachers and students who are wrestling, in this digital age, with a dying art -- the skill of reading literature.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lesa

    I was lucky enough to have high school English teachers who challenged us every day. Larry Zimmer, my teacher for junior and senior English, was the best teacher I ever had in all my years of schooling, and twice I wrote pieces in which I thanked him. So, I was fascinated by David Denby's book, Lit Up. But, I also challenge the premise, subtitled "One Reporter, Three Schools, Twenty-four Books that Can Change Lives". Although the English teachers at those schools used literature to change lives, I was lucky enough to have high school English teachers who challenged us every day. Larry Zimmer, my teacher for junior and senior English, was the best teacher I ever had in all my years of schooling, and twice I wrote pieces in which I thanked him. So, I was fascinated by David Denby's book, Lit Up. But, I also challenge the premise, subtitled "One Reporter, Three Schools, Twenty-four Books that Can Change Lives". Although the English teachers at those schools used literature to change lives, it was the teachers, their styles, and their choices in literature that changed lives. Those books might not have changed lives in other hands. The author is worried about people who do not read in the U.S., and he's right to worry. He says, "A child held, read to and talked to, undergoes an initiation into a useful life; she may slow undergo an initiation into happiness." But, he has seen all the statistics saying teens don't read, so he decided to follow a teacher to determine if teens could learn to like literature and reading. Was tenth grade too late to teach teens to love reading? Sean Leon's English class at Beacon School became his subject for study. Although he spent an entire year with Leon's class, he realized later he should look at some other classes, so he spent time at two other public schools. At the Beacon School, the English teachers can select the books for their classes, and Sean Leon chose to teach modernist literature. Leon taught works such as Siddhartha, Slaughterhouse-Five, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Sartre's No Exit. He wanted his students to define themselves through this literature. He challenged his students at one time to put aside their technology for two days. Denby agrees. "Technology had killed teenagers pleasure in reading books." But, in looking at the difficult reading list, and following Leon's classroom discussions in this book, I propose it was Leon as a teacher that made those works relevant to his students' lives, not the works themselves. And, although most of the Beacon School students from Leon's class went on to college, I wonder if those works actually turned most of them into readers. Instead, I'm more inclined to think the experiment at Mamaroneck High School might encourage lifelong reading, if the experiment continued. In that public high school, they were determined to create an enjoyment of reading, knowing that would change young people forever. The principal, Elizabeth Clair, said "You have to find the passion, create a social culture of reading." I know that atmosphere would have worked with me, one in which teachers book talked books, offered silent reading, encouraged students to find their own choices, but to continue to challenge themselves. Various styles of teaching will work with different students. Even Denby tired of Sean Leon's grim choices, and some of the female students silently rebelled when there were no female authors or main characters in the modernist literature. But, Leon, covered in great depth, and the other four teachers who were briefly discussed, brought passion to their teaching. Yes, I'd like to say the books he discussed changed lives. And, I know I did exactly what English teachers want when I fell passionately in love with an author and his books in high school. But, I still give credit to the English teachers themselves, the ones who made those choices, and taught high school students. I think those English teachers found ways to change lives, using literature. And, the teachers and the literature cannot be separated.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Amber

    I received a copy of this book through Goodreads' First Reads program. I am an avid reader and bibliophile. As a child, I was fortunate to grow up in a home full of books, my parents read to me often, and I read voraciously on my own as soon as I was able to. Even though I was primed from a young age to be a reader, I know the impact an influential teacher can have on reading habits. I still remember the wonderfully passionate teacher who introduced me to my first "literature" and turned my read I received a copy of this book through Goodreads' First Reads program. I am an avid reader and bibliophile. As a child, I was fortunate to grow up in a home full of books, my parents read to me often, and I read voraciously on my own as soon as I was able to. Even though I was primed from a young age to be a reader, I know the impact an influential teacher can have on reading habits. I still remember the wonderfully passionate teacher who introduced me to my first "literature" and turned my reading into a new direction. My 4th grade teacher introduced us to William Shakespeare in the form of graphic novels of his 12 most well-known plays. I was hooked, and would go on to read his unabridged works on my own, for fun, a couple years later. I still have a soft spot for the Bard. If you go solely by what you read and hear in the news, American culture as a whole seems to be headed in a direction where people glory in ignorance (I shudder every time I hear an adult brag that they "don't read books"). With generations of children growing up glued to screens, and the liberal arts increasingly derided, I often wonder if we are headed for a downward spiral of illiteracy. It is a terrifying thought. I am happy to say that this book restored some of my faith in the youth of today. It proves that any child can be turned into a reader, and even the unpracticed ones can rise to the challenge of reading demanding literature with the proper support and encouragement. The three schools the author studies differ in terms of economics, academic standing, and student body diversity, but they all have two things in common: a recognition of the importance of reading to academic and lifelong success, and devoted and passionate instructors. The turnarounds in reading habits described here are drastic, and the insights of the students during classroom discussions and projects are impressive. In just the course of one school year, the author sees tremendous growth in the students. This book is a timely reminder that reading is still important and literature is not obsolete.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Monica Edinger

    Provoking. Denby spends his time observing English classes in several different high schools and hones in on what happens as gifted teachers lead students grappling with difficult texts. While it is mostly on the more traditional approach to literature instruction (a class tussling with one book, mostly so-called "canon" ones), Denby is very appreciative of one school's focus on individual reading, writing glowingly of Penny Kittle's work and with respect for Dick Allington's research. In his bi Provoking. Denby spends his time observing English classes in several different high schools and hones in on what happens as gifted teachers lead students grappling with difficult texts. While it is mostly on the more traditional approach to literature instruction (a class tussling with one book, mostly so-called "canon" ones), Denby is very appreciative of one school's focus on individual reading, writing glowingly of Penny Kittle's work and with respect for Dick Allington's research. In his bibliography he's got works like Jeff Wilhelm's Readacide. Also Tracy Kidder's Among Schoolchildren of which this reminded me --- both being explorations from the perspective of nonfiction writers, not educators. Denby writes movingly of the kids' backgrounds, what they are dealing with, their teachers too. The latter is especially interesting in terms of their different approaches and methods in their classrooms. What came through for me wasn't so much the individual books studied as much as the passion and efforts of the teachers and the effect on their students. Denby is cranky in spots about devices, genre works like The Hunger Games, and isn't necessarily in love with the specific 24 books of the subtitle (I am not of his opinion that they are necessarily so life- changing), but overall this is a thoughtful and worthwhile read.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sharen

    What could have been an interesting investigation into how English teachers engage high school students in reading books for pleasure turned out to be a great disappointment. The author had good intentions, yet (belying the title) he focuses on a teacher Sean Leon in one school, whose depressing reading list of 'classics' would make any adult reach for the straight-back razor. One cannot imagine this list igniting the imagination of most teenagers. The greatest insult is that, "Mr. Leon's books What could have been an interesting investigation into how English teachers engage high school students in reading books for pleasure turned out to be a great disappointment. The author had good intentions, yet (belying the title) he focuses on a teacher Sean Leon in one school, whose depressing reading list of 'classics' would make any adult reach for the straight-back razor. One cannot imagine this list igniting the imagination of most teenagers. The greatest insult is that, "Mr. Leon's books were neither written by women nor featured women (except for crazy Miss Emily in Faulkner's story.) The girls in the class did not challenge the reading list, but some sort of displeasure came through." Denby brings this topic up with Mr. Leon, who basically shrugs it off. ("...the writers he favored were all men.") As we have learned through feminist analysis, there are two ways to learn: 1. through looking out the window or 2. through looking in the mirror. To force the girls in his class to devote a year to learning via the former strategy, and to deny the boys in his class the opportunity to do so, is a crime. It is certainly not praiseworthy in a book which purports to hold up Mr. Leon as an example of an extraordinary English teacher. Assignment for Mr. Leon: Read and discuss "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf. Twice.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Eden

    This documents the role English teachers play in teenagers lives. You follow the reporter throughout the year of these three schools, reacting to the book choices and students has they are challenged to do more than just be. It's remarkable the amount of time and energy teachers put into their students. Great book, leaving you falling in love with the book, cheering the students on, and admiring the passionate teachers.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Rob Tapper

    Compelling comparison of techniques for imbibing an enthusiasm for reading from some different teachers in different schools with various students in New York state. An excellent refresher on what is literature; classic teaching texts and authors.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Alicia

    I gave this the good ol' college try like the kids in the English classes did with the classic poetry and literature and short stories that Denby hung out in to profile the schools, the classes (and thus the teachers), and the students giving a picture of what reading looks like. I was geared up, having had this suggested to read, and did Post-it some at the beginning and then it became drudgery. It read as disengaged and while there were plenty of points that were relevant to the conversation: I gave this the good ol' college try like the kids in the English classes did with the classic poetry and literature and short stories that Denby hung out in to profile the schools, the classes (and thus the teachers), and the students giving a picture of what reading looks like. I was geared up, having had this suggested to read, and did Post-it some at the beginning and then it became drudgery. It read as disengaged and while there were plenty of points that were relevant to the conversation: technology use, family dynamics, socioeconomic status of the school/families, general life attitude, etc. it didn't do much or go anywhere and I was looking for a bit of reflection or waxing philosophical. I didn't get that, just a profile of some English stuff and ultimately one of the messages was the teacher and their relationship with the students makes all the difference regardless of the lessons.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Nadine

    Fascinating look at the “what” and “how” of teaching HS literature in 3 US schools by a very knowledgeable observer. Agree the lack of diversity in choice and focus on dead white men an issue. Would love to see a more global comparison...

  18. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    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 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. 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.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sam Sattler

    In a world where music, books, and movies are free and instantly available twenty-four hours a day, do they have any real value to consumers? When books lose their physical presence in favor of a bunch of electronic blips that can be accessed on a variety of hand-held devices, do they even seem real anymore? Or do they lose their aura of timelessness and their influence on the lives of readers? Is a culture so in thrall to its electronic technology even capable of producing serious readers? David In a world where music, books, and movies are free and instantly available twenty-four hours a day, do they have any real value to consumers? When books lose their physical presence in favor of a bunch of electronic blips that can be accessed on a variety of hand-held devices, do they even seem real anymore? Or do they lose their aura of timelessness and their influence on the lives of readers? Is a culture so in thrall to its electronic technology even capable of producing serious readers? David Denby knows the importance of "reading seriously," and feels strongly that if "literature matters less to young people than it once did, we are all in trouble." But how, he wonders, does an appetite for a lifetime of serious reading get created in a society so dominated by the kind of technology that provides and encourages instant gratification? Denby believes that age fifteen is both a "danger spot and a sweet spot" when it comes to creating lifelong readers - grab them now or risk forever losing them - so he decided to spend time in three high schools to see for himself what is happening there. In each instance, Denby's plan is to observe students and teachers in the classroom, reading the assigned books with them but keeping his mouth shut during classroom discussions, and only speaking with students and teachers after or before classes. As he puts it, he "wanted to see if readers could be born - what happens when a nonreaders becomes a reader." Over a two-year span, Denby would spend most of his time at Beacon, a magnet high school in Manhattan but also visited James Hillhouse High School, an inner-city school in New Haven, and a high school in Mamaroneck, a wealthy New York suburb. To outsiders, it might appear that these three schools have little in common. Hillhouse, despite its proximity to one of the country's best universities, serves a largely at-risk population of low-income African-American students. Beacon's students have to compete to join its student body, and the parents of Mamaroneck students pay dearly for the privilege of having their children attend high school there. But, as Denby would find, each of the schools was blessed with the kind of dedicated, enthusiastic teacher that can make all the difference in the lives of students. Denby observed teachers who challenge their students by assigning the kind of reading that is "too hard for them," books that force them to search for answers within themselves. He found teachers who never give up on a student, teachers who manage to reach even those who flippantly proclaim their status as nonreaders at the beginning of the school year. Denby was happy (and, I believe, somewhat relieved) to find that serious readers are still being born in America's classrooms. The question that leaves us with is how do we make sure that every high school has an English teacher (or two or three) like Beacon's Sean Leon and his Hillhouse and Mamaroneck counterparts. Teachers like them are key to the process of giving birth to tomorrow’s serious readers.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

    "Some kids from poor families do brilliantly in school; some rich kids barely make it through... Some poor parents invest time and imagination in raising their kids; some rich parents are negligent and distant. Family wealth is not necessarily the cause of good or bad school performance, but ... it's the surest predictor of it." The premise of this book was fascinating...the author went to three different high schools to evaluate 10th grade English classes to determine if the curriculum or even "Some kids from poor families do brilliantly in school; some rich kids barely make it through... Some poor parents invest time and imagination in raising their kids; some rich parents are negligent and distant. Family wealth is not necessarily the cause of good or bad school performance, but ... it's the surest predictor of it." The premise of this book was fascinating...the author went to three different high schools to evaluate 10th grade English classes to determine if the curriculum or even teaching style could make a difference in students' outcomes. I kept checking my back cover to see if David Denby had ever actually been a teacher. The answer is no. He is a film critic and a writer. The difficult aspect of the book was his pontificating about education. I am just not sure what qualifed him to be the expert. Denby investigated a magnet school in New York City's Upper West Side, which pulls students mainly from Manhattan and Brooklyn. Students are motivated at this school for they have to apply, to meet certain standards in testing, to submit writing samples and to complete an interview process. The curriculum was set, the students read required books, discussed concepts in class and wrote essays and reports. The second high school was a public school in the wealthy area of West Chester. The students there are given some required reading, but are permitted to read any book. The goal is to encourage a love of reading and the students would then gravitate to more "literary" books. Classes also include discussions and writing assignments. The third high school is neighborhood public high school in New Haven, Connecticut which is a low income area. In that setting the required books are minimal. The curriculum includes essays and poems which also generate discussion. The students participate in a program called Read Around where the students sample four different books, then choose the one they will read and present. In that class the hopes are the students will improve grammer, vocabulary and written skills through reading. Each teacher was vibrant, personable and had the true desire to teach. Yet Denby second-guessed each one of these professionals in the way they taught, in the type of book chosen. He also used political innuendo to blame and compare. There is no real outcome and no real answer to the problem in our education process. The chapter on the New Haven school was heartbreaking. These are children living in a dangerous area with education as their hope. Yet in that school the standardized testing results are worse every year. The students also lack a general knowledge of how to apply to a college and what is needed for a better life. In one scene that was described in the book, the teacher, Miss Zelenski, was discussing To Kill a Mockingbird. She spoke of Atticus as a hero and then asked her 23 students if they considered their father a hero. Five students raised their hands. Miss Zelenski asked how many students lived with their father...the same five students raised their hands.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Carmen

    Denby's outsider observations of today's typical (but not so typical) high school ELA classroom offered some fresh and creative lesson plan ideas thanks to a few passionate, dedicated, and well-selected teachers. Leon's classroom at NYC's upper-end Beacon school was inspirational and philosophical, and it gave me a whole new respect for teachers of advanced/gifted students -kids who already like reading or who already have a vested interest in their education and in getting good grades, and for Denby's outsider observations of today's typical (but not so typical) high school ELA classroom offered some fresh and creative lesson plan ideas thanks to a few passionate, dedicated, and well-selected teachers. Leon's classroom at NYC's upper-end Beacon school was inspirational and philosophical, and it gave me a whole new respect for teachers of advanced/gifted students -kids who already like reading or who already have a vested interest in their education and in getting good grades, and for whom the notion of graduating high school is a given. It's impressive how he challenges their assumptions, elicits a deeper level of thinking, and gets them to appraise vaunted classics in a whole new way. The skill, time, and effort he dedicates to each of his students and to the curriculum is formidable. I may have an argument with his or Denby's (it's not really clear) presentation and interpretation of Huxley's Brave New World, and I do agree with Denby that Shakespeare should hold a spot in every 10th grade lit class but overall, I would love to spend a few days among his students and discuss books. On the other hand, Denby's time with Ms. Zelenski at Hillhouse is even more inspiring in how it gets reluctant readers to basically start chanting that they want classroom "reading time" by the end of the year. Wow. Indeed, these are at-risk kids and her classroom largely reminded me of my own where, as Denby perfectly puts it, "Mere survival comes first, before selfhood and 'journeys.' " Sadly, my kids aren't chanting for independent reading time yet, but Zelenski's classroom can motivate any educator to double-down on emphasizing reading, reading, reading, books, books, books - basically, the reason why most English teachers go into the profession in the first place, before we get bogged down with tests, tests, and more tests - err, assessments. Denby heartily supports this idea that a regular reading practice is the single most powerful element in the making of a successful student, a belief long championed in my classroom, but an idea that many of us are made to question considering all the other demands in modern education and the contemporary classroom, foremost among them being time and money. In all, it's certainly a book that focuses less on struggling schools or communities and more on those kids already on the path to four-year colleges, but it does provide a nice bit of inspiration and a peephole into how other teachers are getting the nitty-gritty dirty work of teaching reading and writing skills done to a somewhat informed and somewhat overly sensitive generation of kids raised in a 24-hour social media cycle rich in sordid images and 140 character slices of information, inanity, and chatter.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Masha

    Ugh. This book pissed me off to no end. It was very promising in the first few chapters. But after reading a few more, I had it up to my neck with the Almighty Denby and Mr. Leon. I find Lit Up to be very misleading. Denby focuses on Beacon, mainly Mr. Leon, and occasionally inserts Mamaroneck and Hillhouse. Not to mention, he's very biased and somewhat pompous. He believes in reading fostering a passion for reading, that getting students to read by picking a book that is interesting to them is f Ugh. This book pissed me off to no end. It was very promising in the first few chapters. But after reading a few more, I had it up to my neck with the Almighty Denby and Mr. Leon. I find Lit Up to be very misleading. Denby focuses on Beacon, mainly Mr. Leon, and occasionally inserts Mamaroneck and Hillhouse. Not to mention, he's very biased and somewhat pompous. He believes in reading fostering a passion for reading, that getting students to read by picking a book that is interesting to them is fantastic, yet he scoffs at the idea of reading The Hunger Games and Twilight because they are not classics. As a film critic, with no experience in teaching (being a teacher, this is ONE of my biggest pet-peeves), I think he's too full of himself. Times change, not every teen is going to find Hamlet or The Scarlet Letter comprehensible or even relatable. This is where the idea of "reading for them is associate with homework" (55) comes in. Reading should be engaging and entertaining. He needs to get off his high horse.  I do not like Mr. Leon's style of teaching. First of all he states that his students will get participation points "just by raising their hands a lot" (67). What? I find this lazy. How many points? Are they daily points? What if a student is really stumped, can't relate, and doesn't raise his hand often. SO wishy-washy. Second of all, the lack of female authors, except the crazy Ms. Emily in Faulkner's story... the girls in the class did not challenge the reading list but some sort of displeasure came through" (71). Instead, Leon's class read morbid books, written by men, with sad, spineless male characters. Is he serious? Leon comes off as "deep" thinking hipster teacher. The point of English classes is to incorporate a variety of perspectives, from a variety of authors. Not to mention, the morbid books (which are appropriate) are kind of ridiculous. I understand that he is trying to show his students the "reality of life" and to question and to take a look at society, but why does it all need to be morbid?! Sophomores are still children, I strongly believe that some sort of positivity needs to be incorporated into the readings. The message in the majority of the texts they've read is: life can be pointless and there is no escape from it.  I would've argued with Leon in every single class if I attended Beacon.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kkraemer

    David Denby believes that reading is essential. He wonders whether, in this world of devices and STEM and other fine things, students can be convinced to read and to ponder the imponderables: morality, mortality, possibilities. He decides to take himself to 3 10th grade classrooms (2 in NYC; 1 in New Haven) where literature is a major focus of the year's curriculum. He outlines 3 teachers' approaches: 1, who teaches students in a selective school, who focuses the entire year on questions of ident David Denby believes that reading is essential. He wonders whether, in this world of devices and STEM and other fine things, students can be convinced to read and to ponder the imponderables: morality, mortality, possibilities. He decides to take himself to 3 10th grade classrooms (2 in NYC; 1 in New Haven) where literature is a major focus of the year's curriculum. He outlines 3 teachers' approaches: 1, who teaches students in a selective school, who focuses the entire year on questions of identity (they begin with Faulkner, Hemingway, and Plath and end with Sartre and Beckett); a second, who teaches students in a less selective school, who focuses on the Big Questions (they begin with LeGuin and Cisneros and end with Hemingway), and a third, whose school institutes a requirement that all students read independently AND also share their reading/thinking of Walls through selected modern short stories. The approaches are different, the students are different, and Denby believes that the effect is the same: literature allows students to think about important things and to explore their thinking in sophisticated ways. As a reader, I found myself taking part in many of the classroom conversations. As a citizen, though, I wondered about the degree to which, it seemed, teaching is contingent on teachers' personalities and interests. All of the teachers were charismatic. All were well read. What if teachers lack one or both qualities? Then again, maybe reading this book would re-awaken passion and interests for all. It certainly has provided me with a list of books to re-read and some thoughts about what my book group might want to explore over the next year or so.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lit Folio

    I caught this author on Book TV and like many that are featured on this channel, this was worth looking into. This is a fascinating foray into the hidden stream of great teachers--in spite of STEM-emphasis programs permeating everything, and of course, the destructive dictate of "teaching to the test". The teachers featured here are the noblest, most devoted, exceptional souls going. I was floored by the brilliance of how these teachers challenge and show their students a better way to intellige I caught this author on Book TV and like many that are featured on this channel, this was worth looking into. This is a fascinating foray into the hidden stream of great teachers--in spite of STEM-emphasis programs permeating everything, and of course, the destructive dictate of "teaching to the test". The teachers featured here are the noblest, most devoted, exceptional souls going. I was floored by the brilliance of how these teachers challenge and show their students a better way to intelligently navigate the world, albeit one that is rooted in one's own ability to figure things out for oneself. I noticed that there's a lot of contempt and fierce defensiveness with younger readers here foaming at the mouth that this "old man" pointing out the destructiveness of electronic-dominated communication. "Stockholm Syndrome", anyone? (For how else can you put it than to read up on what the neuroscientists are saying about all this electronic stuff? It's addictive. And how an addict defends his/her habit!) There is more to life than quickie soundbites and the aborted language via text messages and these wonderful teachers are showing these kids to the exit lane that leads to the wonder of rich, intelligent, discursive thinking. Tools that set the tone for a lifetime. Thank you, Mr. Denby for giving me hope. I love these teachers and I love your book.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Lissa

    4.5 stars. A big proponent of reading the classics, David Denby wrote the appropriately titled Great Books which examines college level curricula. For this books, he decided to sit in on a tenth grade English class in order to observe how the classics were taught and how teachers motivated students distracted by all forms of technology. It mostly follows one class in a good New York magnet school but also examines two other schools of differing perspectives and socioeconomic status. For a lifelo 4.5 stars. A big proponent of reading the classics, David Denby wrote the appropriately titled Great Books which examines college level curricula. For this books, he decided to sit in on a tenth grade English class in order to observe how the classics were taught and how teachers motivated students distracted by all forms of technology. It mostly follows one class in a good New York magnet school but also examines two other schools of differing perspectives and socioeconomic status. For a lifelong book-lover, this was a glorious examination of kid's lives today and how hard it is to encourage a love of literature. At times, Denby's intolerant view of what constitutes real literature annoyed me for I mostly believe in the method taught at one of the high schools which introduces easier, more enjoyable reading with the hope that it lead to classics of the higher brow. However, I think this is an important book for educators that offers hope that literature still belongs as an important part of the high school curriculum. I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance

    We can all agree on this, I think: Our world needs readers. And we are not doing a good job bringing kids to a love for reading. Denby takes on this problem by visiting three tenth grade English classrooms with fervent teachers and sharing highlights of what went on in the classrooms over the course of a year. He includes a list of books read in the classrooms in the appendix. Denby faces off with the usual culprits, primarily social media. Of course, I agree. But I tend to think that at least p We can all agree on this, I think: Our world needs readers. And we are not doing a good job bringing kids to a love for reading. Denby takes on this problem by visiting three tenth grade English classrooms with fervent teachers and sharing highlights of what went on in the classrooms over the course of a year. He includes a list of books read in the classrooms in the appendix. Denby faces off with the usual culprits, primarily social media. Of course, I agree. But I tend to think that at least part of the problem today is the inability of teachers to share the books they feel most fervent about. Much of this is state-mandated, unfortunately. Further, the students aren’t often given choice in what they choose to read. A double-whammy. I loved visiting these classrooms with Denby, where students were compelled to become More by fabulous books and passionate teachers. It gives me hope. I’d love to hear what high school English teachers think about this. And reading teachers. And my fellow librarians. I heartily recommend it for all of you.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mark Valentine

    Lit Up lit me up. Teachers know there are grizzlies attacking studentsschoolsteachers [lumping them together saves time when making rants] but Denby writes the antidote; he writes with dignity about the honorable and sacred transaction called learning. He traces three English teachers who labor like Hercules in a dozen or more ways to transfer their love of reading and their life in reading to young learners who already are grappling with psychological, emotional, intellectual growing pains in c Lit Up lit me up. Teachers know there are grizzlies attacking studentsschoolsteachers [lumping them together saves time when making rants] but Denby writes the antidote; he writes with dignity about the honorable and sacred transaction called learning. He traces three English teachers who labor like Hercules in a dozen or more ways to transfer their love of reading and their life in reading to young learners who already are grappling with psychological, emotional, intellectual growing pains in complex world. English teachers, Denby serves our profession well with his book and I encourage you to read it. Actually, anyone willing to learn from Denby (our guest teacher here) what can and does go on in English classrooms would like his book. I love reading books that lead me to reading more books. I love reading books that restore my faith in the dignified work of thinking--thinking well. I love reading books that never end (because when I finish reading them, I must share it with others).

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ben

    I loved the premise of this book. A few years ago I re-read the books I hated in high school and found most of them delightful. Denby is very thoughtful and curious. I toggled back and forth between appreciating his candid opinions about the assigned books and finding it distracting - the Holocaust memoir section was particularly strident - but he did a nice job of looping back and keeping us updated on the people involved. The narrative form restricts this book from reaching its full potential. I loved the premise of this book. A few years ago I re-read the books I hated in high school and found most of them delightful. Denby is very thoughtful and curious. I toggled back and forth between appreciating his candid opinions about the assigned books and finding it distracting - the Holocaust memoir section was particularly strident - but he did a nice job of looping back and keeping us updated on the people involved. The narrative form restricts this book from reaching its full potential. It's caught between a time capsule of pedagogy and a story about heroic teachers - when really it would work best if it was about what is working. I know Denby has a good excuse for not turning it into a policy paper but some more extensive research would have put these stories into a greater context and been more impactful for me as a reader. However, if this book sounds interesting to you, it will be. I enjoyed reading it.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Sam

    This book starts strong. I love all the philosophy of why reading matters. There are so many great quotes. His writing about Sean Leon's classroom gets boring because he mostly captures the whole group discussions, led by the teacher. There is a great profile on the Mamaroneck school district/school that focuses on student choice and "book floods" and throughout there are beautiful descriptions of individual students that would be great to use with teachers with the guiding questions, "What does This book starts strong. I love all the philosophy of why reading matters. There are so many great quotes. His writing about Sean Leon's classroom gets boring because he mostly captures the whole group discussions, led by the teacher. There is a great profile on the Mamaroneck school district/school that focuses on student choice and "book floods" and throughout there are beautiful descriptions of individual students that would be great to use with teachers with the guiding questions, "What does it mean to know a learner deeply?" and "What implications are there for topics, texts, tasks, and targets?" This is a good read for anyone teaching secondary English/Language Arts to fill you up and remind you why reading matters.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Pam

    I loved this book! The author found three outstanding English teachers teaching 15 year old teens to read, develop a love of good books, develop critical thinking, and share their thoughts orally and in writing. Wow--I was so impressed with these teachers who gave so much of themselves. I was also impressed with the author who gave so much of himself for something he believes so deeply which is the importance of reading literature and developing the habit of reading for pleasure! Thank you, Davi I loved this book! The author found three outstanding English teachers teaching 15 year old teens to read, develop a love of good books, develop critical thinking, and share their thoughts orally and in writing. Wow--I was so impressed with these teachers who gave so much of themselves. I was also impressed with the author who gave so much of himself for something he believes so deeply which is the importance of reading literature and developing the habit of reading for pleasure! Thank you, David Denby Sean Leon, Jessica Zelenski, and Mary Beth Jordan! I hope lots of teachers, librarians, parents and grandparents read this book!

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