Tearing Apart a Book in Junior Great Books

It’s a Darien parent’s dream. Imagine a group of enthusiastic third graders fired up to talk about not the newest Wii or Xbox game but … quality literature!

It’s a Darien parent’s dream.  Imagine a group of enthusiastic third graders fired up to talk about not the newest Wii or Xbox game but … quality literature! 

Thanks to an independent, nonprofit educational organization called The Great Books Foundation, many Darien students are enjoying a different kind of fun called Junior Great Books (JGB). 

JGB is an enrichment program offered at Ox Ridge School and other schools all around the country.  There are no lectures.  No tests.  And no wrong answers (other than those completely off topic which are hard to have unless you are trying to be a wise guy).  But this is not some flaky joke of a class.  Far from it, the participants in JGB are prepared, having read their assigned stories at home once, often twice.  They are engaged, interested, opinionated, and wonderfully willing to share their views.

How does JGB work?  The students read a story at home.  Parent volunteers bring in a list of interpretive questions that have more than one answer supportable with evidence from the text.  The parents then simply facilitate the give-and-take exchange of ideas amongst the students.  The students learn the meaning of the text, not by hearing what the adult says it is, but by listening to each other.  To use JGB terminology, the children learn by having a “shared inquiry discussion”. 

I have to confess—last year when I took the training class to learn how to lead a JGB group of second graders, I wasn’t entirely convinced that my young child participants would be able to have a shared inquiry discussion.  I had those kinds of discussions in torts class in law school.  Could 6 and 7 year olds really do the same thing?

Apparently they can and they do.  To my pleasant surprise, the class was buzzing with ideas.  The conversation was not punctuated with awkward confused silences, but a seamless flow of comments, follow up questions.  One hand up would trigger another hand or two to follow suit. Anyone worried about the state of learning in public schools should take a look at what these Ox Ridge kids are doing.  It is a beautiful thing.

This year my co-leader Karen Stamoulis and I are working with third graders.  And today’s session of JGB flew by. The children discussed a Japanese folktale entitled “Ooka and the Honest Thief”.  Can a thief be honest?  At the beginning of class, SIX children believed that stealing one grain of rice was just as bad as stealing a whole sack and that the thief who took a little bit of rice should be punished.  FOUR children believed that in this story, the thief had not really stolen because he only took what his family needed to survive and he went to extraordinary lengths to return what he had taken back to the owner.  

The students bounced ideas off of each other like a game of ping pong. At the end of our session, four students still had their hands in the air, and one student burst out “oh please!” begging to have the final word. 

In the process some people changed their opinion on whether the thief was honest.  Some people stood firm with their original view.  Some were still hovering in the middle like one girl who said “the thief stole but he’s still honest at the same time – it’s weird.”  We didn’t have all of the answers.  But by grappling with a host of questions together, all of us (including the discussion leaders!) understood the story a bit better than we did when we first came in.

I would encourage Darien parents to sign their child up for JGB at their child’s school.  When JGB runs as it’s supposed to with parents who have been trained and children who are prepared to discuss a story, the children really are capable of tearing apart a story, pulling evidence from the text to back up their arguments, thinking critically about what the author is saying, learning how to speak up in a group setting, and more.  

But to me, the biggest benefit of being a JGB participant is being present with other inquisitive children who share a passion for books.  The enthusiasm is contagious and Karen and I always leave a JGB session feeling rejuvenated and inspired by the expanding young minds in our midst.  This all sounds high flying, a little too good to be true, like a dream, I know.  But I saw it with my own eyes.

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Dan Lindstrom March 05, 2012 at 03:53 PM
What a great article! I work at the Great Books Foundation, and I couldn't have written a better promotional piece. But that's not to say that this is advertising. What the author describes—kids really diving into a story, being excited about participating in discussions, learning how to back up their opinions with evidence from the text everyone has read—happens in JGB programs all the time. This story makes those of us who work at our little nonprofit happy for the students who get to participate, have fun, and improve their skills . . . and happy for the volunteer leaders and teachers who help make it happen.
Jenny Voelker March 05, 2012 at 06:35 PM
Thanks Dan. I don't mind promoting something that is having a positive effect on our kids!
Mark Gillingham March 05, 2012 at 07:20 PM
Thanks Jenny for being involved in your school. Your excitement and that of the young students comes through your post as if I were there. Young children have cogent discussion every day, but mostly not in school. You're helping to change that by participating in your school's Great Books Shared Inquiry program.
Jenny Voelker March 05, 2012 at 08:18 PM
I appreciate your support, Mark!


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