Monday, February 15, 2016

Lit Up: One Reporter, Three Schools, and Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives

In a world where music, books, and movies are often free - and always instantly available - 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 any longer seem real?  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 anymore?

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, can an appetite for a lifetime of serious reading be created in a society so heavily dominated by technology that both 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 - you grab them then, or you risk losing them forever - so he decided to spend time in three East Coast high schools to see what was happening there for himself.

In each instance, Denby's plan was to observe students and teachers in the classroom, reading the assigned books with the class but keeping his mouth shut during discussions - 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 nonreader becomes a reader."  Over a two-year span, Denby would spend most of his time at Beacon, a magnet high school in Manhattan, but he also visited James Hillhouse High School, an inner-city school in New Haven, and a high school in a wealthy New York suburb of Mamaroneck. 

To outsiders, it might appear that these three schools have little in common.  Hillhouse, despite its close proximity to Yale University, serves a largely at-risk population of low-income African-American students.  Beacon's students, on the other hand, have to compete to join its student body, and the parents in Mamaroneck pay a cost rivaling that of college tuition for the privilege of having their children attend Mamaroneck High School.  But what the schools do have in common is the most important thing of all: the kind of dedicated, enthusiastic English teacher capable of making a lasting difference in the lives of their students.

Denby found teachers who challenged their students by assigning reading that was "too hard for them," books that would force them to search for answers within themselves.  He found teachers who never gave up on a student, teachers who managed to reach even those who flippantly proclaimed their status as nonreaders out loud at the beginning of the school year.  Denby was happy (and, I believe, relieved) to find that serious readers are still being born in America's classrooms.  The question now is how we as parents, grandparents, and educators make sure that every high school has an English teacher like Beacon's Sean Leon and his Hillhouse and Mamaroneck counterparts.  If we want to remain a nation of “serious readers,” we have to find a way to make it happen.

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