Friday, August 19, 2016

Further Thoughts on David Denby's Lit Up

In America Magazine's most recent issue you'll find my review of David Denby's Lit Up.  Some additional thoughts—on Denby's project, and teaching while Catholic—that I didn't have room to fit in the piece:

What about the other two schools?
One key element of the book that I downplayed in the review was the fact that Denby spent time at three schools observing English classes, not just Beacon in Manhattan. One was a public school in the wealthy suburb of Mamaroneck, NY, the other an inner-city school in New Haven called Hillhouse. Denby's original plan for the book was to immerse himself in Leon's class at Beacon only; however, given that Beacon was a selective school that drew the best students from New York City, Denby decided to cast a wider net, hence the trips to Mamaroneck and Hillhouse. Yet to my mind his coverage of these schools seemed gratuitous, a half-hearted gesture at obtaining a more representative research field. Case in point: just three of the book's fifteen chapters are devoted to Mamaroneck and Hillhouse; the remaining dozen all concern Beacon and Sean Leon's class.

In omitting these other schools in my review, however, I wasn't able to mention Jessica Zelenski, the teacher whose classroom Denby visits in New Haven. Her student population poses what seems like an insurmountable challenge. Students arrive in class, it seems, either boisterous or lost in their headphones; when she asks how many of her twenty-three students live with their father, only five raise their hands. How to get these kids, preoccupied by so much, to pay attention to what she is saying about some old book, never mind to go home and actually read it and write about it? But Zelenski,, "brass-lunged," is up for the task. As Denby writes, "Her operating method was less about maintaining order than about grabbing the students' attention and making them engage...she mixed it up with the students, demanding answers, chaffing, taunting, and then offering praise."

I know exactly the situation Zelenski finds herself in, because I've been in it, too. You almost have to out-energize the students, and get the loudest, most boisterous student in the room to pay attention to you by being louder and more intense than he or she is (and, let's face it, it's usually a he). I know of no more exhausting work that I have ever done, but also no more rewarding work, if you are able to succeed. Zelenski does.

Catholic and Teaching English
Zelenski is a single mother, and, as Denby reports it, a practicing Catholic. Sean Leon, the heroic teacher at Beacon, is a lapsed Catholic. As I was reading this book, it dawned on me that there is a real connection between the Catholic worldview and the things that drive a passionate teacher of literature. Both views acknowledge the importance of our being moved or changed or even converted by what is outside of us. Both views stress being engaged in the present, of giving what is before us our full attention. Both views emphasize openness to the lives of others.

I would say that this connection between Catholicism and teaching literature will only become more apparent as public schools become more technocratic and data-driven in their pedagogy. English class might be the only place left in a public school where a teacher can, by the very act of teaching her content area, help shape students' souls. I don't mean to say that other teachers can't change their students' lives, because they do, in profound ways. But as an English teacher you have, every day, an opportunity to read and discuss with students plays, poems, novels, etc. that call upon them to change the way they live. And it's not surprising to me that an English teacher who is driven by this possibility, who is motivated to get her students to being open to being transformed by what they read, would also have some connection to the Catholic faith. The two viewsCatholic and literaryshare similar DNA. As English class become more information- and skills-driven, I think that the standout teachers—the ones like Leon and Zelenski who buck the system and insist that students are consumed by, not consumers of, what they read—will be the ones driven by some broader religious-like vision, or at least colored by it, as Leon has been.

Literature makes demands on us, demands that are spiritual and moral in nature, and call us not only to compassion but to self-examination. The standard English class, subject to required testing, shot through with the technocratic goals of the Common Core, and reliant upon mass-market textbooks, seems to do everything possible to sanitize literature, to prevent these demands from having any purchase on students. Leon and Zelenski succeed by refusing to let that sanitizing happen. Kudos to Denby for highlighting them.

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