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How Do You Get Teenagers to Read Seriously? A Personal Journey

This is a guest post by journalist David Denby. 

Denby Author Photo credit Nina Subin
David Denby, Photo Credit Nina Subin

Five years ago, I asked myself a question that was simple enough in form but profound in its implications: How in the world do you get fifteen-year-olds, many of them immersed in screens, to read seriously? I chose fifteen-year-olds—tenth graders—because they are running through a period in their lives when crucial issues of identity (straight or gay? college or military? what kind of work?) claim a lot of their attention. Yet, at fifteen, they can still be reached. I realize, of course, that no one reading an NCTE blog could be indifferent to what’s at stake. Getting students to read seriously lies at the heart of establishing judgment, critical thinking, citizenship, and a future audience for literature—an active participation of readers and writers in the defining stories we tell one another. I am not a teacher, but I have been taught, and I revere teachers. So, let us say that your obsession became my obsession, too. And there was something else, something personal in this inquiry. I wondered: How much was I reading outside of articles and short stories? I needed to read seriously myself.

I am a journalist and, for forty-five years, a movie critic (most recently for The New Yorker). I’m not trained to write a teaching handbook, but I could, I hoped, observe teachers in action and create a dramatic narrative of a year’s work. In the past, I had done something similar. In 1996, I wrote Great Books, my account of taking again the required courses in Western classics (Homer to Virginia Woolf) that I had first taken as a freshman at Columbia years before. As in that book, I was determined to sit quietly at the side of the room, read everything that the students were reading, talk to teachers and students after class and only at their own convenience. My idea was to leave the life of the class as undisturbed as possible. At the same time, I would describe my own responses to the literature we were reading together. The reader of my book needed a companion as we made our way through the reading list.

I wound up “embedding” for an entire academic year in a single tenth-grade English class in a Manhattan public school. At the Beacon School, then on West 61st Street, the students were mixed by ethnicity (White, Black, Latino, and Asian) and by family wealth (upper-middle-class, middle-class, and poor families—about a quarter of the school’s students fell below the poverty line). In a country as diverse as America, there are no “typical” schools, but this school was at least representative. It was also a very lively place.

The teacher was a dynamo named Sean Leon, a man in his late thirties, of mixed American and Irish heritage. Mr. Leon frequently taught grammar and syntax, which he presented to the students in a festive mood (“I get revved up about it, so don’t try to figure me out. I love this stuff”), almost as if syntax were a reward for hard work. But the heart of his class was impassioned study of difficult texts: stories by Faulkner and Hawthorne, the classic dystopian novels of Orwell and Huxley, novels by Hesse and Vonnegut, and Dostoyevsky’s daunting Notes from Underground. After discussion of structure, metaphor, symbol, Mr. Leon, using the books as a jumping-off point, challenged his students to say how they saw their lives and what they lived for. He forbade sarcasm and unkindness of any sort, but the conversations were often personal and intense. The texts were obviously chosen to stimulate the most serious questions, and the students were flattered and excited by his expectations. I tried to create each of my chapters as a kind of dramatic progression from initial puzzlement or “wrong” answers to something like greater literary and moral clarity. Taught Mr. Leon’s way, literature enabled the students to tell their own stories, to fix the beginnings of an identity out of the chaos of fear and desire.

Like many good teachers, Mr. Leon altered classroom routine. When discussing Sylvia Plath’s brilliant and bitter late poetry, the students wrote (anonymously) their own bitter short poems (complaining about parents mostly), which got passed around and read aloud in class. When discussing Notes from Underground, they took turns standing in for Dostoyevsky’s perverse hero as other students questioned him, getting to the heart of this troubling novel by participating in its energies directly. For a while the class was a kind of Russian musical chairs. Of course, not all the classes were equally successful, but I hope I have conveyed the give-and-take of a classroom in which many of the students emerge as “characters”—that is, they become more confident; they become a stronger version of themselves.”

By the end of the year, I knew I would be able to create an organic narrative, but I also knew that Mr. Leon’s couldn’t be the only way to teach tenth-grade English. I needed to see more; I needed to get out of New York City, and the following year I paid frequent visits to an inner-city school in New Haven and a suburban school (in Mamaroneck, north of the city), where the students and the educational issues were very different from those at Beacon. Many of the students at Hillhouse High School in New Haven had poor skills, and though they were functional readers, they didn’t, at first, see much point in reading novels, essays, and poems. A passionate teacher, Jessica Zelenski, mixed it up with them, cajoling, challenging, praising, and by the end of the year they were reading stories by Vonnegut and Hemingway with pleasure, and they chose a book of their own to read in its entirety (a favorite: Ishmael Beah’s 2007 narrative of his time as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone.)

At Mamaroneck, the school discovered a few years ago that some of the students (boys in particular) weren’t doing the reading; they would look up the books on the Internet (SparkNotes) and brazen their way through. A common enough problem. Mamaroneck’s way was not to scold or spend time and money on remediation, but to insist that the students (from ninth grade on), read one book after another of their own choice. Mamaroneck did not give up on Macbeth and The Great Gatsby and other core readings in tenth grade, but the students had to read one freely chosen book after another, log in their progression, and talk to the teacher if they were reading the same kind of book over and over (“If you like horror fiction, why don’t you read stories by Edgar Allan Poe or Robert Louis Stevenson?” etc.). In other words, the school worked with the students’ pleasures and passions and moved them up the ladder of quality. If I may generalize for a second: Grudging readers can be turned into real readers if teachers forge the link between reading and need (Mr. Leon, Miss Zelenski) or reading and pleasure (Mamaroneck). Once the link is forged, and reinforced by passionate teachers who demand a lot and give a lot, there’s a good chance it will last, and the student will become a lifetime reader. English teachers are the irreplaceable creators of those links. At their best, teachers are everyday gods, standing at the entryway to selfhood and the world. For a while, they are the law, they are knowledge, they are justice.

My book was called Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives, and it was published in February. In response to my initial question: Grudging readers can be aroused out of electronic fixation (or in my case, professional habit) by two things: the realization that they need literature more than anything else in life, or that they get more pleasure from reading than they do from anything else. I hope I have demonstrated, point by point, how that might happen in a classroom.

Completing the book had an odd effect on me: I was no longer reviewing movies, and I abruptly stopped going to them. Instead, I went into one reading jag after another. Emma, Huckleberry Finn, and Middlemarch, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and much more; contemporary work by Zadie Smith, Elena Ferrante, Jennifer Egan, and Cathleen Schine. I say this not as a boast. The emotion I experienced was more like relief and gratitude. I was home.

David Denby is a staff writer and former critic for The New Yorker. In the past, his essays and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, and New York. His books include Great Books, American Sucker, and Do the Movies Have a Future?