David Denby's Lit Up, Common Core, and the "Soulful Life"

David Denby's Lit Up is the story of one New Yorker movie and literary critic embedded in three schools, witnessing teachers and students as they wrestle with 24 great books. Denby spent a year with sophomores in New York City's innovative Beacon High School, and then he learned in depth from 10th graders at another affluent school, Westchester County's Mamaroneck H.S., and Hillhouse H.S. in the inner city of New Haven, Connecticut.

Denby's masterpiece is more than a critique of test-driven school reform. It is more than an indictment of our "hyper-media age." But, it should be contemplated along with Claire Needell Hollander's 2013 New York Times analysis of Common Core. Hollander explained that for teachers, "Emotion is our lever. The teen mind is our stone. Once high stakes standardized tests are involved, however, Common Core's architects must focus on the "bloodless task" of avoiding political risks. They must then select neutral texts that are "created to be 'agnostic' with regard to student interest ... they are texts that no student would choose to read on her own."

Hollander concluded that Common Core must be neutral as to whether "students should read Shakespeare, Salinger, or a Ford owner's manual as long as the text remains 'complex.'" As long as students' curiosity, sadness, confusion and knowledge deficits are ignored, they will be on the "receiving end of lessons planned for a language-skills learning abstraction."

Of course, there are plenty of other reasons why Common Core is failing. It eschews "frontloading" or bringing in background information which is necessary for students, especially poor students, to grasp the meaning of readings. And, it is too distant from the realities which kids face. Common Core is accompanied by high stakes testing, and that leads to curriculum pacing guides that make it more difficult or even impossible to go in depth on issues which capture the students' imaginations.

Above all, Common Core gets the purpose of education backwards. I'm sure Ms. Hollander, as well as the students portrayed in Lit Up, would agree with Denby that, "The experienced self yields a soul. Education in the largest sense creates social beings, citizens, and also a soulful life, and reading has to be a big part of the slow-moving, slow-gathering process."

Obviously, it would have been easier to implement the complex, college readiness Common Core curriculum in high-performing affluent schools than in classes of low-income students who may be years behind in terms of reading skills, and who may have never encountered anything but worksheet-driven basic skills instruction. Denby's account of two affluent schools' experiences, however, also illustrates the wrong-headedness of Common Core, with or without its high-stakes testing.

When visiting Westchester County's Mamaroneck H.S., Denby learned of estimates that as few as 20% or less of students read the literature assigned to them. A proliferation of study guides means that students have long "faked their way through," cribbing answers from various other sources. And, even in great schools there is a tendency to give up on reading when the passages are too hard. Mamaroneck eventually showed success with "nonreaders, or grudging readers," but it discovered that they must be "gently but firmly pushed into becoming readers - real readers, not functional readers." They did so "with persistence, pressure, and subtlety."

Even at the amazing Beacon H.S. in New York City (where they were liberated from the normative, high stakes standardized tests), motivating students to read was a process that could not be hurried, much less shoehorned into a one-size-fits-all curriculum pacing guide. Denby is especially astute in describing what it takes to capture teenagers' attention. He realizes, "Challenge a mumbling or ironically self-deprecating American fifteen-year-old, and you will find someone looking for answers or at least ready to ask questions."

The challenges faced by Jessica Zelenski and her inner city kids at Hillhouse H.S. were much tougher. Only one of her students had been read to as a child. As Denby notes, Hillhouse students not only lacked the facts necessary to grasp the concepts in challenging readings, but they also lacked curiosity about the economic and political realities that shaped their lives. Being a veteran teacher, Zelenski recognized that Common Core assignments were too hard and too disconnected from her students' background knowledge. They wouldn't read in depth unless it was tied to what they knew. As one student cryptically commented, drugs, pregnancy, violence are "what we know."

Consequently, Zelenski had to commit the supposed sin that Common Core seeks to eradicate - frontloading. Before complex readings could be mastered, she frontloaded or provided the background information necessary to read for mastery. Denby added that she also "loaded it in the front, in the middle, in the rear."

At first, Zelenski couldn't get her students to read at all. She knew from experience that initially the students wouldn't read at home, and she adjusted her instruction to fit her class's circumstances. But, Denby noticed the same pattern as he had seen before, "Students came into the tenth grade with an ardent and detailed belief in fairness." When inspired by literature, students talked about "love, the absence of love, about loyalty and betrayal ..." And they did so for reasons that were more important than passing a college-readiness exam. Zelenski understood, "They needed literature to live."

Denby and the teachers he portrays understand that the purpose of reading literature is not a passing score, but engaging in "the journey within." The goal must be an understanding of "the endless chain that made a reading life and that made a man and a woman, too." Better yet, their students now understand that wisdom.

When Denby's wonderful book captured my attention, I pledged to read it as a student should, with the same lack of a predetermined mindset. Lit Up's greatness made it easy to put my experiences in the inner city on the backburner. At this point, however, I feel free to add that he reaches the same main conclusion and stresses principles similar to those that 25 years in the inner city taught me. The rock upon which real learning must be built are the moral impulses and the values that are loved by both adults and students.

As all of our attention spans grow shorter, we can't toss our concentration skills on the ash heap of history. As the world speeds up, we must at least preserve our basic, old-fashioned education values. Reading is changing, however, and (Denby's experience with three schools notwithstanding) we cannot hold back the tide.

We adults cannot predetermine what the attention spans of subsequent generations will be. We should take our stand by umpiring a structured discussion on the principles that we seek to preserve. It is not up to teachers to preordain which of our favored values survive, but we must protect the integrity of the schooling process, especially reading and literature. We all have a moral core, and we all want attention to be paid to our humanity. The hearts of teens today are as hungry as those of preceding generations. Other than students' longing to connect, to really connect, I doubt there is another power on earth that could pry their fingers off of their text messaging contraptions.