I have been implementing the wonderful program, Junior Great Books with my group of Enrichment students for a little over a month.  I have had mixed experiences, though none related to the program itself.

Implementing the program has required me to do a lot of reflection on best practices and management issues as well as opened my eyes to some real problems with how my students are and have been receiving instruction during their short academic careers to this point.

The Challenges
The main challenges I am facing are: the lack of a classroom, the size of my group, specific behaviors in my group and the time window I have in which to teach.  I have a group of 17 students in grades 1 and 2, with a range of reading levels.  The only room available to me is a section of tiered rowed seats in our IMC (Library).  I don’t have a place for my students to sit in circle or tables or desks to configure to best meet the needs of the program.  The library itself is too wide open to make discussion possible and there is not a table big enough for all of us. I also only have about 30 minutes with my students each day due to transition time (they all come to me from different classrooms and grade levels and I have to take them to lunch, which eats about 5 minutes at the start and end of each period).

I have tried my best to stay true to the program, taking the first day to just read through the story as if it were a bedtime story for pure enjoyment.  The stories are so engaging and well written that the students are always engrossed and attentive. We have also taken time to discuss the guiding questions in the margins of our books on the second day.  We have spent our afternoons (an extra 20 minute period tacked on at the end of the day by our region for ‘intervention’) creating VoiceThread projects about the stories with drawings done by the students.  We have also worked on the worksheets provided to delve deeper into vocabulary and concepts in the story.

The most challenging part of the program to teach, the Shared Inquiry discussions, has been, not surprisingly, difficult to run without a way for my students to sit in a circle, and with trying to engage 17 students in a discussion.  We have managed to have some great conversation, though it took some real patience on my part to pull the ideas out of them.  Many of my students have been, for lack of a better phrase, spoonfed for many years. They have been allowed to sit back and have the teacher do most of the work while they sat passively and received information*.  In addition, with the stress of mandated testing, many of our students are used to there being a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answer.  They often look at me with blank expressions, hoping that I will finally give away the ‘answer.’   I have been very open about the program, explaining over and over that I don’t have the answers, that we are looking for answers together.  I understand that this change in roles from me as the holder of information to them doing most of the work will not happen overnight.  I am open with them that we are learning something new together and I am not expecting everything to come together overnight.

You can see an example on the left of how my students struggle with thinking deeper about the stories in this worksheet filled out by a student. He simply chose a definition from the box and plugged it in under a question. I should add that the third question (which used a word not defined in the box) he did begin to answer with his own thoughts.

The last challenge I have had is something that comes naturally when you have 17 students from different grades and classes coming to you every morning. I have spent the last few weeks wrangling my group back together after a disjointed winter.  We have had to relearn some procedures (such as passing out books and cleaning up), and I have 2 students who struggle with the program’s structure itself.  Many of my students complained a couple of weeks ago that ‘we don’t do anything.’  I explained the purpose of the program and I have explicitly mapped out how each day works and what we do on each day, but for a few of them just sitting and reading is not really doing anything.

After a few student conferences and re-explaining I think we are all on the same page (no pun intended) but I have two students who struggle with just staying in a seat or staying focused.  I have sat them next to me, but it is distracting to the other students. I have tried sitting them behind the other students so they are not distracting, but they tend to wander away from the group.  I also have a point sheet for them that they can use to keep track of their behaviors (being in their seat, participating, listening, etc…) and earn points toward our ‘free time’ on Friday afternoons.  This has worked so far for one of them, but what the other really needs is someone to sit next to him to keep him on task while I teach, but unfortunately that does not seem to be an option.

Another hurdle has been the overarching culture present in my school that goes against the underlying goals of the program. Many of my students tease each other, pick fights and are not used to Socratic discussion.  This has required me to spend time establishing class norms and expectations as well as addressing issues that my students bring from their different classrooms as well as addressing personality differences/conflicts before we could even tackle the program head on.

I haven’t given up, and I am still pulling together ideas and trying new things. Teaching is a Science, after all.

Finding Solutions

I have found some solutions and have had some successes overcoming challenges.  During discussion I found that the best strategy was not to let them raise their hands or try to jump into the discussion, but rather to just call on someone out of the blue and then move on to someone else without anyone knowing who would be next.  Still, with 17 First and Second grade students, a deep discussion can be difficult to hold.  We managed, while reading Arap Sang and the Cranes, to decide that the Vultures were lazy, that the Cranes were nice and that Arap Sang was nice. We even managed to pull proof from the text, but ran out of time to really continue the discussion.  I celebrated with them that we had found answers to our question: “Why do the cranes help Arap Sang, while Vulture and Elephant do not?”

To solve the problem of such a large group discussion I have now broken the group into two groups so that I can work with a smaller group for discussion while the other group works on an independent project.  I also got a great idea from a Great Books trainer, Deb Bowles, who came to ‘check in’ on those of us at my school who are using the program.  She suggested that I have the other students not participating in the discussion play a kind of ‘tic-tac-toe,’ keeping track of how many times a boy speaks, or a girl, or how many times a word is said, etc….  I will definitely be trying it! It may even be a way to keep my fidgety students focused for all of our activities.

We have only been doing this program for a few weeks, with many interruptions due to testing, snow days and meetings I have had to attend for my role as Technology Teacher Leader.  I don’t pretend to have become an expert, but I feel my students coming around and I also know that I am asking something of them that may have never been asked of them before, so it is bound to be quite a journey.

In some ways, we’re in the same boat!

I look forward to seeing how my teaching improves and how my students’ independence and confidence grows over the final weeks of the year.

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*This refers more to the mandated curricula that has been forced on our school, though it is most likely a mixture of mandated, scripted programs and teaching style has contributed to the problem.

11 Thoughts on “Junior Great Books: A month of learning & reflection”

  • Sounds like you are doing an amazing job with these students. You are breaking a pattern in how how they learn and that can be very hard — but the benefits to breaking that habit now at this young age are too many to list. Many do subscribe to a form of "learned helplessness" and you are helping them to break free of that it sounds. Keep doing what you are doing MB! I look forward to reading further how they progress in their learning.

  • Thanks, Irene! I can always count on your for some encouraging words! I will definitely keep updating as we move along in the process!

  • I started the program this year in 2nd grade with the gifted cluster teacher. We started with and inside and outside circle. The inside circle had a discussion while the outside circle listened. After a couple of times we moved to two seperate discussion groups. I am now meeting with the children without the gifted cluster teacher. While one group talks, the other group works on a project from the teacher's edition. This is working out very well. It takes a lot of modeling and patience. My students have really improved their comprehension skills using these stories and the discussions. We have been doing the Jr. Great Books stories all year and my students now can have quite a lively discussion. We just finished The Emperor's New Clothes and I was very happy to see how far the childre have come.

  • Mary Anne,

    Sounds like you have a great model! I don't think that the introduction and implementation of the program was well thought out in my school/district.

    I am looking forward, after our state testing is over, to get back into the program with my group.

    Is there an online community for Great Books teachers? I would love to hear how other teachers like you are implementing the program and bounce ideas around!

    Thanks for stopping by. I can hear the pride in your 'voice.'

  • We use Jr. Great Books in my school district. As a 6th grade teacher, I struggle with some of the same things you mentioned. Our stories are hit or miss… a couple are incredible. Shared inquiry discussions are pretty difficult with 32 to 36 12 year olds. I break my class into two, give one group an activity and discuss with one half. Then I switch and often use a new discussion question. I've tried having an outer circle that "grades" the inner circle, but felt like I was trying to manage both circles while leading the discussion. I love the program, but it is challenging to scale it to a real classroom environment.

  • Wow, 32-36! You've got me beat 🙂

    It is challenging, and sometimes I wish that there could be some kind of aide in the room, but we don't live in a perfect world! What kinds of activities, I wonder, do you give the other half of the class. I'm sure they're more independent than my 1st and 2nd graders, but I'd love to hear about them!

    Thanks for your comment!

  • Your two posts reg. the Jr Great Books have been very useful and illuminating.

    Just a thought, it is possible that the two students who have a hard time sitting still and reading may be gifted visual-spatial learners, who usually learn by 'doing' things with their hands. You may get them to draw a picture (or series of pictures, or a cartoon strip) about the story to demonstrate their comprehension. Or you may get them to rewrite the story in their own words or add in a different set of characters, making sure not to change the original progression of the story or its message.

    Hope that helps.

  • I'm the Deb, Mary Beth mentions in her blog and I work for the Great Books Foundation. I love this forum where teachers are helping teachers and brainstorming ideas, that's a core idea of Shared Inquiry, two heads are better than one.

    I love what Mary Beth says, it's challenging to work with a large group of students and in a perfect world you would have an aide, unfortunately that's not usually the case. I can understand it feels like you're managing two groups when you do the inner and outer circle and in the beginning you will be. Eventually, you want the students in the outer circle to learn to manage themselves. I love the idea of having a discussion with one group while the other group works on an independent activity. That's another skill students need to learn, to be able to work independently and complete an assignment without on-site supervision.

  • Someone said it earlier, this process takes modeling and patience. It's a new skill that most students haven't developed but the benefits to be gained are immeasurable. I applaud all of you for taking the time to try something new, to continue when challenges arise and to seek help when it's needed. As a former teacher who used Junior Great Books, I know the challenges first hand but I also know the rewards! Be encouraged! You're doing a great work and children's lives will be forever changed because of you.

  • I will be starting my first session of JGB’s in 2 weeks as an after school enrichment program. I will have eight 4th graders. One of our newest (young) teachers told me her fondest memory about JGB’s was that her teacher ACTUALLY wrote in pencil in the margin of the book!!!! She thought that was the coolest thing ever and loved the whole program. I am hoping to have the same reaction with my students. I am very excited to begin and thanks to everyone who posted on here with suggestions!

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