Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Greatest Gift

by Frank Calderale

The Christmas season is a fine time of year to reflect on that for which we are most thankful. Days before Christmas I received a gift in the mail from a boy whom I had taught as a sixth grader two years ago. Because I just recently retired, this was the first year in thirty-nine years that I have not been in school to share the spirit of the season. Brendanʼs gift could not have been more timely. It was originally intended to be a retirement gift. On the final day of school, he had told me he was sorry he cold not find the gift he wanted to present to me.
I felt the contents of the envelope and immediately said to my wife, “Oh my God, this is the marble!” She looked at me a bit strangely, but sheʼs used to me. She knew a story was fast approaching.
Brendanʼs gift was inspired by a Junior Great Books® selection, “The Secret Lion,” by Alberto Álvaro Ríos—an especially appropriate story for middle-school children. It is a story of transcendence, a coming-of-age story in which childhood is juxtaposed with the realities of adulthood. The boys in this story find a grinding ball, a metal sphere used in mining to grind ore, while exploring an arroyo. When they lose the ball, something special, in their eyes, is lost. The symmetry of this object is a metaphor for what the boys perceive to be perfection. In many ways this story is reminiscent of what Alice experiences in Wonderland, a world in which childhood and adolescence collide.
The boys explore their own wonders in the arroyo. It is their childhood Wonderland. Here they can scream and shout whatever they want. It is their sanctuary from the adult world. It is perfect. As the story unfolds the boys venture off to the mountains, where they happen upon emerald green hills. This new oasis turns out to be a golf course.
Their eventual
realization that this emerald green oasis is not nature in its pristine state is, of course, the wake-up call that rivets them to the adult world. One of the most pivotal lines of inquiry for the story is the question, "What did the children lose?"
As with all Junior Great Books units, we had many opportunities to share our comments and observations about the reading. Brendanʼs class had been given prompts and questions for their writing journals. Then it was time to put our thoughts into writing. What I enjoyed most about these pieces was the stories my students shared about their lives and how they connected different facets of the story to their own experiences.
I imagine that children since antiquity have enjoyed the stories elicited from the adults in their lives. Storytelling is a rich tradition and blends so well with reading. One of the stories I shared with Brendanʼs class was a time when I, too, had lost something perfect. It was a brass marble, won on the elementary school ground and lost while I walked home along a country road, rolling it and chasing after it repeatedly. This game ended when on one precipitous roll the brass marble disappeared off the side of the road.
But it returned because of Brendan. It now sits under our Christmas tree—indeed, the first gift of Christmas. The brass marble will always remain a cherished reminder of the most perfect place I could ever have been: the classroom.
Sometimes the greatest gift of all is the kindness that resonates from the stories we share. 

Frank Calderale recently retired after thirty-nine years of teaching. Frank was one of the founders of the Shoreham-Wading River Middle School, which opened its doors in 1973. The SWR Middle School was founded as an experimental middle school under the leadership of Dennis Litky; it implemented and developed many innovative programs. Frank has seen many changes in education during his career, but his extensive use of Junior Great Books and its core curriculum has served him as a template and a beacon. Frank enjoys fiction and nonfiction reads, as well as long days outdoors.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Great Books and the Common Core State Standards: A Perfect Match

by Mitch Gurfield

The Common Core State Standards have raised the bar significantly for all K-12 students in the United States. They now must acquire a broader range of academic skills than was required previously.

The raising of the bar for students means that the bar has also been lifted for educators. Teachers and administrators must produce better-educated students. It's not an option . . . it's the law.

Throughout the country, educators are under intense pressure to implement the new standards, but it is not easy. Although the standards provide clear objectives and guidelines, they do not mandate specific programs or texts. Hence, districts and schools are left to their own devices to find the answers.

Today, countless vendors are offering solutions, but in my humble opinion, nobody comes close to offering what Great Books programs offer. For fifty years, decades before the Common Core State Standards were even conceived, Great Books programs have promoted many of the skills embodied in the standards. The widely acclaimed Shared Inquiry™ method of learning, with its emphasis on critical thinking and world-class literature, reflects keys goals of the new standards.

Consider for a moment just some of the skills that Great Books programs build:
  • Critical reading and thinking
  • Reading for deeper comprehension
  • Writing persuasive essays citing evidence in the text
  • Careful listening
  • Recognizing nuances
  • Self-reflective thinking
  • Asking penetrating questions
  • Evaluating others' ideas and building upon them
  • Constructing an interpretation based on solid evidence
  • Building a rich vocabulary
  • Appreciating other perspectives and cultures
These are the very skills set forth in the Common Core State Standards. And these are the abilities that result from implementing Great Books programs in the classroom. In fact we align so closely to the new standards, that many educators have asked us if we helped write them. (For the record, the answer is no.) We didn't catch up to the new standards, they caught up to us.

Mitch Gurfield is a sociologist, writer and educator.  He was born in New York City and received a B.A. from the City College of New York and a Masters and Ph.D. from the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research. For nearly twenty years he taught sociology atvarious colleges and universities in New York and Massachusetts. During this time, he also carried out research in Brazil and wrote two books on the country.  Since 2002, he has worked as a Senior Consultant for The Great Books Foundation.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Children: Two Roads to Reading

Mike Wolfkiel

My twin children developed very different attitudes and abilities toward reading. It turned out that my son had a fairly severe reading disability—it was the classic inability to associate letters with sounds. He was in Special Ed from kindergarten through twelfth grade. And as one would expect, his difficulties resulted in a lot of frustration with reading and strong blows to his self-esteem. I worried that he would develop very negative attitudes toward school, and had visions of his dropping out. His twin sister, on the other hand, usually scored off the charts, reading above her grade level.

Both are now in college and doing well. But their attitudes toward reading and literature are quite different. My son spends a lot of his spare cash on books and loves reading—right now he enjoys fantasy, but also mysteries and nonfiction. The only books my daughter picks up are the textbooks for her classes. She is very inquisitive and is always poking around websites on topics that have caught her attention, and she loves documentary films. But she simply does not see reading as either an effective way to explore these topics or an interesting way to entertain herself.

Since the decoding process was so torturous for my son, why did he develop the taste for reading?

Of course questions like this cannot be completely answered, but in my son’s case I would like to think that part of the answer had to do with Junior Great Books®. When they were between the ages of four and six, I read most of the Read-Aloud and Series 2 selections to both my children. Discussions were obviously limited because there were only the three of us; but nevertheless they enjoyed “Daddy’s special stories” which they would often act out using Beanie Babies for the characters. Both quickly developed a facility for answering interpretive questions and supporting their ideas with reasoning and evidence. So as my son entered school and ran into the decoding wall, no matter how painful it was, he always understood that behind the decoding were these stories, these ideas that so delighted and intrigued him. Without that understanding, I don’t know if he would have found reading—and perhaps school and learning in general—worth the struggle.

Mike Wolfkiel is a Senior Training Instructor for the Great Books Foundation. He has an MA in philosophy and a BA in philosophy and religious studies from Marquette University. And to the delight of his crabgrass and the dismay of his tennis game, he spends his spare minutes trying to write fiction.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Helping Students Become Active Learners

by Mark Gillingham

Many good classrooms feature students engaged in group activities, but what makes one type of activity more beneficial than another? James Paul Gee, a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University, is concerned that many of the participants in these activities are ultimately inactive participants. Gee, who has written a lot about the importance of interactive learning environments, recently posted on his blog about the fallacy of “mindless progressivism,” the belief that participation in any form results in real student learning. Immersion in an interest-driven group is not enough, he says, to teach children the skills they need. He writes:
Learning to produce the knowledge or outcomes an interest-driven group is devoted to leads to higher-order and meta-level thinking skills. If only a few are producers and most are consumers, then a group is divided into a small number of “priests” (insiders with “special” knowledge and skills) and the “laity” (followers who use language, knowledge, and tools they do not understand deeply and cannot transform for specific contexts of use).
Gee calls for a pedagogy that helps learners become producers of their own learning, and he places special emphasis on well-designed learning environments that give all group members avenues for participation. Although as a learning environment it takes place on a much smaller scale, Great Books Shared InquiryTM discussion fits his description in many ways. In Shared Inquiry, readers ask questions in a systematic manner that promotes deeper reading, thoughtful discussion, listening, and other aspects of critical thinking.

Shared Inquiry makes learners into knowledge producers in every lesson. All students have access to multiple entry levels because contributions to the discussion can take many forms—everything from straightforward answers to the main question to new, related questions for the group to discuss. Collaboration is driven by a shared interest in the featured story. Participation begins long before a student asks her first question or offers his first bit of evidence. Listening is a key ingredient of Shared Inquiry—first to the story (a first reading is almost always done aloud), and then to peers. The ability to respond directly to other students and cross-apply textual evidence to different interpretations is essential for successful participation, so all students are encouraged to become active producers of knowledge.

In Shared Inquiry discussion, students are practicing critical thinking skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives: weighing evidence, articulating arguments, and considering multiple perspectives as they formulate their own opinions. Gee’s summary of the ultimate aim of education could easily be read as the goal of Shared Inquiry:
All learners are well prepared to be active, thoughtful, engaged members of the public sphere (this is the ultimate purpose of “public” education), which means an allegiance to argument and evidence over ideology and force and the ability to take and engage with multiple perspectives based on people’s diverse life experiences defined not just in terms of race, class, and gender, but also in terms of the myriad of differences that constitutes the uniqueness of each person and the multitude of different social and cultural allegiances all of us have.
Mark Gillingham is vice president of technology at the the Great Books Foundation. He works to develop ways to use technology, information, and research to forward the mission of the Foundation.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Memories of Great Books PART II

by Lee Pilgrim

(This is the second part of  Lee Pilgrim's memories of her Great Books experiences.)

As an adult I taught in public schools in gifted programs and developed curriculum for gifted learners. Great Books was a staple of the curriculum for gifted readers in the systems in which I taught, so I never had to go to bat for it. I was grateful for the materials and respect that the program had in those systems among administrators and teachers of the gifted. I always felt that the program should have been used for all students—to teach critical thinking, introduce readers to authentic literature, and help them read for comprehension.

My gifted students loved labeling questions. They would joyfully call out, "Literal—right there, in the text!" or "Evaluative—needs my experience or opinion!" and most importantly, once they had a label and some experience they could easily identify good interpretive questions on their own and lead discussion groups. I was a stickler for keeping to interpretive questions in our discussions, and students knew this.

This was my goal in the classroom. I wanted my students to be able not only to participate in Shared Inquiry, but to lead their peers in a meaningful analysis of a text. This would only be possible if students had verbal "handles" for their thought processes, so we spent an enormous amount of time at the start focusing on the process as well as the literature.

As much current research on learning and the brain has shown, language scaffolds learning and thought. I believe that the language of Shared Inquiry gives students strategies and a framework for discussing and analyzing a text with others. It also gives them labels for their text-related thought processes and, thus, metacognitive tools for reflecting on how they approach and comprehend what they read.

Several years ago, I moved back to Atlanta after forty years in another city. I began to attend my mother's Great Books group meetings at the Buckhead Ida Williams library. They have a strong group with a core of about eleven readers and an additional six to eight who weave in and out of the group throughout the year. The group is primarily female and at least half of them are in their eighties. This is my first time participating in an adult Great Books group, and it has been delightful. Discussions are lively and pertinent and reflect the enormous intellect and experience of the readers. This group, for instance, has often reread an entire series of books a decade after first reading and discussing it, bringing new interpretations and experience to the table.

Lee Pilgrim taught in public schools in Georgia at the elementary and middle school level in the regular and gifted resource classroom. Her experience includes assessment and evaluation for placement, program coordination, and curriculum writing for gifted programs. She has worked with the Future Problem Solving Program (FPSPI) at the state and international level for more than fifteen years as an evaluator, program director, and trainer.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Memories of Great Books PART I

by Lee Pilgrim

I am fifty-six years old and my first memories of Great Books programs are seeing the sets of books at our home in the early 1960s. My parents were in a Great Books group that at that time met at the downtown Atlanta library. Both of my parents were huge readers, high-level thinkers, and heavy debaters (their friends were flaming liberals and at the time, my parents were very conservative, so good discussion skills were imperative!). As a child, I remember overhearing many heated and far-reaching discussions about everything from civil rights to communism to atheism.

In retrospect, their group was extraordinary. I don't think it is common today to see friends whose political or social views are so different spending the kind of time together that this group did. Perhaps the tools that they were using in their Great Books discussions translated well into their other discussions in life and created an atmosphere of respect, a protective "rules of the game" structure that allowed them to have these diverse, fiery, outrageous disagreements with one another and remain fast friends. Maybe the literature in Great Books gave them common ground and language for expressing and analyzing their opposing ideas or supporting their views. Whatever it was, I believe it would be extraordinary in most social circles today.

I was introduced to Great Books as a reader when my mother and several of her Great Books buddies brought the program to our elementary school. I was in maybe sixth grade at the time. In elementary school I was in the post-Sputnik, accelerated "special" classes. "Special English" involved diagramming sentences, which I loved, but not much literature. The only memory that I have of literature of any kind in these first years of school is listening to a second-grade teacher read Charlotte's Web and The Secret Garden aloud after lunchtime. It was my favorite time of the school day. In our home, my parents shared the d'Aulaires' book of Greek myths, Grimm's fairy tales, Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, and stories of famous musical works such as Peer Gynt, but we never encountered these in school. Book discussion, or really any kind of interpretive reading, was just not part of the curriculum.

Perhaps this void was recognized by the adults who brought Junior Great Books to our school, or maybe it was just their personal enthusiasm for the program that motivated them. I think it was more likely the latter, because their obvious joy and engagement with the text and with us as new readers (interpreters) infused our meetings with a kind of passion that was recognized and remembered by the students who were involved. Several adult friends who participated in that program at the time later told me that it was the first time in their lives that an adult had interacted with them as though they had an adult mind, able to find meaning and grasp adult concepts in literature.

I believe that the Shared Inquiry method, practiced well (as it was by these adult leaders), was the true reason for this feeling of respect. When a leader presents to the group a genuine interpretive question, one that the reader cannot answer immediately or has no preconceptions about, there is an atmosphere of respect that doesn’t exist in other discussion formats. I believe that this feeling of respect for the thoughts of others and for the author's words is the power of the program.

I remember those wonderful, even a little awe-inspiring, hours we spent in the auditorium of our old WPA school, digging in to the deeper meanings of words and ideas in the kind of literature that most of us would not encounter again until our college years, if ever. We learned how to formulate interpretive questions and identify other types of questions, and we were required to read each selection twice in order to participate in a discussion. One adult friend told me that he will never forget having to sit out a discussion because he had only read the selection one time (we were so honest!), but he also said that it never happened to him again.

We cherished those times. When I meet other grammar-school friends who were involved in Great Books, they speak about the experience with the same kind of reverence for how it shaped their way of thinking and talking about a text, their understanding of how to approach a piece of literature, and their adult reading choices. The Shared Inquiry method that we encountered as adolescents—learning to formulate authentic questions that we did not have the "right answer" to, learning to withhold judgment as we worked with our peers to analyze a text and improve our comprehension—had a profound and powerful impact on us and certainly shaped our educational choices and interactions with other texts and thinkers. Aristophanes, David Hume, Joseph Conrad—these were some of the Junior Great Books authors of my elementary school years. I was a philosophy major in college, and there was nothing in my education, before or after Great Books, that prepared me for the kind of rigorous thinking, critical reading, and interpretive discussion that is fundamental in philosophy. In fact, my experience with Great Books was probably the primary reason for my interest in the ideas and literature of the great thinkers in the first place.

Lee Pilgrim taught in public schools in Georgia at the elementary and middle school level in the regular and gifted resource classroom. Her experience includes assessment and evaluation for placement, program coordination, and curriculum writing for gifted programs. She has worked with the Future Problem Solving Program (FPSPI) at the state and international level for more than fifteen years as an evaluator, program director, and trainer.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Issues in Education: Sufficient and Relevant Evidence

by Linda Barrett

Like many educators, I have been diligently studying the Common Core State Standards this summer, and I was delighted to find I could visit www.corestandards.org and download PDFs of the standards to a USB drive for reading on my Wi-Fi-free vacation. When it was too hot to be out in the sun, I would make use of my computer's highlighting and sticky-note features to create my own annotated version of the standards, before moving on to my other reading or listening to the radio.
As I sat in the shade trying to follow the various national and global issues that were playing themselves out this summer, the phrase "using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence" kept coming to mind. This phrase comes from the Common Core anchor standard that says that students should be able to “write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.” Time and again I found myself wishing the adults involved in topics I was following could be held to the same standard.
I would have appreciated more valid reasoning and evidence to support the arguments being presented, instead of the circular arguments and semantic games. How can one expect to understand the complexities of important questions like the role of the free press in a democracy or the global implications of the U.S. bond rating? How can we analyze where we stand on "substantive topics” without sufficient and relevant evidence?
Once I had engaged in my strenuous exercise for the day (moving from the bow of the sailboat to the stern) I would fall into one of those wonderful summer daydreams that can seem so realistic—in August. In this particular daydream I am hopeful that as we help students meeting the standards, we will not only better provide them with the college- and career-readiness skills that the Common Core State Standards were developed to address, but we will also be giving them the tools they need to engage in and evaluate the public discourse around the substantive topics of their day.
Now that it is September, I have to get to work planning what I can do this fall as I work with school administrators, teachers, and students to make this daydream more of a reality. I will explore these ideas further in future posts as I work with schools who are using Great Books programs to help their students meet the Common Core State Standards.
Linda Barrett is a senior training consultant for the Great Books Foundation. She teaches professional development courses in the Great Books Foundation’s Shared InquiryTM method of learning, which emphasizes the use of evidence to support ideas.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

reviewed by Deborah Bowles

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by science journalist Rebecca Skloot, is the amazing story of the origin of the HeLa cell, the world’s first immortal human cell. Weaving together biography, science, and the ethics of biomedical research, Skloot brings to life the African American woman whose visit to a hospital connected her, without her knowledge, to the most significant medical advances of the twentieth century.

Henrietta Lacks grew up on a Virginia tobacco farm and later migrated to Baltimore with her husband and five children. In 1951, when she was thirty, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital for what she called a knot in her womb. The knot was an aggressive cervical cancer, and she was soon hospitalized with no hope for recovery. The public wards of Johns Hopkins were filled with patients like Lacks, mostly black and unable to pay their medical bills. Perceived as powerless by doctors, these patients were often kept uninformed of treatments and procedures they received while hospitalized. It was also normal practice, and remains so today, for doctors to collect cells and tissue samples without patient consent. Before Lacks died, doctors removed samples of her cancerous tissue without her consent and without informing her family.

Lacks’s cells were astoundingly resilient—they not only lived outside of her body, but thrived and reproduced like no other human cells. Lacks’s cells, named HeLa after the first letters in her names, replicated themselves indefinitely in the lab and soon became a medical marvel. HeLa cells were initially given away to any doctor or lab that requested them, but they were eventually commercialized, resulting in millions of dollars of profits. HeLa cells have been used in vast amounts of medical research and were involved in creating the polio vaccine, chemotherapy drugs, and AIDS treatments. Shockingly, Lacks’s family knew nothing about the cells’ existence and their impact on modern medicine until Skloot contacted them while writing this book.

Skloot’s dedication to sharing Lacks’s story with the world is evident on every page. She first learned of the HeLa cell in a biology class and was intrigued by the mysterious female donor. She spent over a decade researching Lacks’s life and family and the trajectory of her cells. Lacks’s family—plagued by poverty and health problems—initially reacted to learning about HeLa with suspicion and anger. Rumors of poor African Americans kidnapped for research purposes and treated like guinea pigs at Johns Hopkins circulated throughout Baltimore for decades, and learning about HeLa confirmed their worst nightmares. As she conducted her research, Skloot worked, with sincerity and patience, to help them understand and appreciate Lacks’s contribution to medicine, but she didn’t try to convince them that it was right that no one informed them of HeLa’s immortal existence.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating book that gives due honor to the woman herself while raising many questions about the ethics of medical research. It remains normal practice for doctors to take cells and tissue samples without patient consent. Should doctors have that right? Should we be comfortable not knowing if or how our cells are used once they are taken from our bodies?  Is it ethical for hospitals to profit from selling a patient’s cells and not share those profits with the patient or the family? And if medical advances are only possible by keeping patients uninformed, are these questions still worth asking?

Deborah Bowles is a National Training Instructor for the Great Books Foundation. She has an MA in secondary education and a BS in business administration. She lives outside of Washington, D.C., and enjoys spending her free time reading and researching history.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Humanities and Democracy

by Mike Wolfkiel

In Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2010), Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at University of Chicago, attempts to provide a manifesto for American education. She is very concerned about the shrinking of the humanities curriculum. It is not just that students flock to schools of business, engineering, and preprofessional programs—programs concerned primarily with career and profit—but that these programs are increasingly driven by a sense that profit is all and that the humanities have little to offer.
Her argument is elegant and even at times profound. The awareness that other people are like us, with needs, struggles, and a history, is an achievement that calls for continual nourishment from the time it is developed in infancy. The best nourishment, she argues, is a strong foundation in the humanities. Democracy demands that voters be able to weigh the good of all its citizens. It depends on this grasp of a shared humanity along with an ability to think critically.

Reading Nussbaum’s book, I was continually reminded of the audacity of the American experiment in democracy. The noble ideals make it easy to forget that the democracies of ancient Greece and Rome were primarily affairs of wealthy, empowered males. The ars liberalis (rhetoric, grammar, and logic) were concerns of those who already were free, not those who could only aspire to freedom—which included most of the people in society. American democracy also has its roots in such elitism. One of its great triumphs, however, is that so far it has been characterized by a steady expansion of rights. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were dominated by wars, arguments, and social upheaval connected with extending rights and protections to marginalized groups of different kinds—slaves, women. Today, the status of illegal immigrants and the rights of those with differing sexual orientations are under debate.

Do we live in a time when American democracy turns its back on its ideals? While I doubt the humanities, by themselves, have the power to convert the forces of narcissism, especially when rooted in deep economic anxiety, into care and respect for others, I have to applaud Nussbaum for pointing out the threat to our democracy posed by an educational system that doesn’t value the humanities. Even if care for others won’t move us, perhaps the desire to avoid the fates of Greece and Rome will.

Mike Wolfkiel  is a Senior Training Instructor for the Great Books Foundation. He has an M.A. in philosophy and a B.A. in philosophy and religious studies from Marquette University. And to the delight of his crabgrass and the dismay of his tennis game, he spends his spare minutes trying to write fiction.

The views expressed in the posts and comments on this blog are the authors' personal opinions and do not represent the views of the Great Books Foundation.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Game of Shared Inquiry Discussion

I recently participated in a discussion of David Perkins's Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education (2010). Perkins thinks about learning as a type of game in which players are engaged in thoughtful concentration over a period of time, in episodes, and in varying contexts. Perkins's favorite game metaphor is baseball. From it he derives his first principal: both experienced and inexperienced players can play something like the "whole" official game. Novice and young players have junior versions with shorter base paths and fewer innings, sometimes hitting balls off of tees rather than a skilled pitcher. Having a version of the whole game that even a novice can play is key to Perkins's other six game-related principals (make the game worth playing, work on the hard parts, play out of town, uncover the hidden game, learn from the team and other teams, and learn the game of learning). Perkins argues that teachers can create junior versions of complex skills such as reading to increase student engagement and success.

I work for the Great Books Foundation, and the whole game is reading high-quality literature and engaging in Shared InquiryTM discussion. The full version of the game is reading and understanding challenging texts and discussing them thoroughly. But we offer even beginning readers a version of the game that retains the essential elements of the whole game and uses texts that are more appealing and easier to read for the young or novice reader. At all levels, though, we suggest "rules of the game" that limit grandstanding and provide a field of play that has boundaries--keeping the discussion within the boundaries of a text, for example.

In the game of Shared Inquiry, a focus question is posed by a discussion leader. The question is intriguing and has more than one good answer. Each reader gets a chance to speak. Each response must stay "in bounds," and others can agree or disagree with that response--while also staying in bounds. In this game, readers get to hear other viewpoints, strategies, and arguments, and can hone their own skills. There is much rereading because answers to questions must be found somewhere in the text. It's a very rich game, and the novice version looks a lot like the whole version.

Discussing Making Learning Whole with a group of diverse teachers helped give me renewed confidence that Shared Inquiry stands up to general principles of learning.

Mark Gillingham is vice president of technology at the the Great Books Foundation. He works to develop ways to use technology, information, and research to forward the mission of the Foundation.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Our History

Mortimer Adler, 1952

“If democracy is going to function as it should, the man-in-the-street is going to have to think better.” - Robert Maynard Hutchins

“There is no List with a capital L. The great books are simply the books which deal most incisively, most eloquently, most universally, and most timelessly with man and his world.” - Milton Mayer

A couple of years ago, we completed a major redesign of our website. During this project, we spent some time organizing the history of our organization. The complete page can be found in the "About Us" section on our home page. We thought it might be interesting to provide a summarized version for our blog readers.

It all began with two University of Chicago educators, Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. In 1947, Hutchins and Adler established our nonprofit organization, the Great Books Foundation, to promote lifelong education through the reading and discussion of the world’s great literature. Their aim was to encourage Americans from all walks of life to participate in a “Great Conversation” with the authors of some of the most significant works in the Western tradition. To reach the widest possible audience, the Foundation published inexpensive paperback editions of its recommended readings, many of which were out of print or available only in expensive editions. By December 1949, an estimated 50,000 people in thousands of book discussion groups were meeting regularly in public libraries, homes, churches, and synagogues.

Extending the Great Books program to younger readers was a natural outgrowth of the mission of reading for all, and within a few years, Great Books programs cropped up in high schools and even elementary schools. Following successful pilots in Detroit and elsewhere, the Foundation launched the Junior Great Books program in 1962, offering five boxed sets of paperback books for grades 5-9.

Today, more than one million students participate in Junior Great Books programs in thousands of schools, and recent new editions of the program—Junior Great Books Series 3–5 in 2007 and the new Great Books Roundtable for grades 6-8 in 2010—reach an expanding circle of students and teachers. At the same time, the Foundation continues its support for hundreds of adult groups across America as well. The Foundation’s anthologies have for many years embraced literature beyond the Western tradition, including many more women authors, a wide range of international writings, and even graphic fiction. Increasingly, the Foundation’s titles are being used in college courses across the country.
After almost seventy years, the Great Books Foundation continues to build upon the founders’ insistence on timeless literature and the benefits of discussion!

“Reading one great book makes reading another easier, and the more we read through the great books or in them, the easier reading them well becomes. They gradually draw us into the great conversation they have created and thereby increase our power to converse with them, as well as our power to conduct the dialogue that must go on in our own minds whenever we are engaged in a genuine learning.” - Mortimer Adler

Read the complete history of the Great Books Foundation on our website.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Teaching the Snake Children by Mark Gillingham

A friend of mine who taught eighth grade for years called adolescents "hormonally impaired." She meant this with love, respect, and understanding. She had one student, though, who presented even more challenges—he would forget his shoes but bring a snake to school. What if all of your students were "snake children" who needed special attention? One might find it challenging to teach an entire class of snake children in a regular run-of-the-mill classroom or school. You'd need something like the Beaver Island Lighthouse School, a residential high school on a sparsely populated island in Lake Michigan.

I was honored to attend the graduation/completion ceremony
of the Beaver Island Lighthouse School, where some students graduated with a high school diploma and others completed YouthBuild (a work-experience program). Still other students completed the school's residential program without either of these other distinctions. My wife, Beth Urech, and I are supporters of the school. At the ceremony, we presented the first 10-10-10 Scholarship Fund Award and two books published by the Great Books Foundation. The award and books went to the valedictorian, Katie Daugherty, who will be attending Northwestern Michigan College.

The Beaver Island Lighthouse School is a residential high school for kids that are failing in their traditional schools. The twenty-five students and five teachers live together on the island for seventeen days before getting a four-day break. The students and teachers eat, sleep, work, and learn together. Life at the camplike school can be as much fun as a day at the beach or as challenging as life as a runaway teen. This extraordinary school is enough to make a difference for many of the students, but not for all. Even in this caring but intense school, there are dropouts among the snake children. Not all of them are ready to enter the world of adulthood. Most of the students make great progress and are like Taylor, who said to his Beaver Island teachers: "They told me I would never graduate. I did! You changed my life."
Mark Gillingham is vice president of technology at the the Great Books Foundation. He works to develop ways to use technology, information, and research to forward the mission of the Foundation.

Monday, June 13, 2011

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, by Professor X.

Viking, 288 pages, $25.95

Reviewed by Nancy Carr.

It’s now rare for a book to be published anonymously, but it’s clear why Professor X feels the need to cloak his identity. In the Basement of the Ivory Tower is an expansion of his June 2008 article for the Atlantic, in which he described his travails as an adjunct English instructor at a “college of last resort.” His article generated a torrent of comments, many of them angry rebuttals of his claims about student capacity or attacks on his teaching methods. (He devotes a portion of one chapter, “Do Your Job, Professor!,” to discussing some of these comments.) While it’s possible to question some of Professor X’s conclusions, his basic points about many college students’ lack of preparation and many colleges’ financial incentives for admitting them anyway are indisputable, making his book essential reading for anyone interested in American education today.

Professor X is blunt about his primary motive for working as an adjunct instructor: he needs the money. Having taken on a mortgage that is more than he can afford, he supplements his full-time government job with evening English classes for a small private college and a two-year community college (he gives both fictitious names). He notes that both institutions are “desperate” for adjunct instructors and that his MFA in creative writing is considered sufficient qualification for the job. Once in the classroom, Professor X discovers that he is “trying to wring college-level prose from students whose skills may just graze the lower reaches of high school.” He succinctly explains the dilemma he and other instructors at open-enrollment colleges face:

Colleges wish to maintain strict academic standards while admitting everyone who wants to get in, a pool that includes a great many questionable learners. The result is a system rife with contradiction. The conflict between open admissions and basic standards can never be reconciled. Something has got to give.

Professor X recognizes the unpopularity of this conclusion, noting that it seems “Dickensian” to say that some students should not go to college, or that some professions should not require it. But his descriptions of the college experience his students actually have—and what it costs—amply demonstrate the need to face squarely the questions of who should go to college and why.

Many students attending nonselective colleges graduate with crippling debt loads, and many never finish degrees, as Professor X points out. Increasingly classes are taught by adjunct instructors who are paid a flat fee per course, with no benefits and no possibility of tenure. “We are paid by the college to perform the dirty work that no one else wants to do, the wrenching, draining, sorrowful business of teaching and failing the unprepared who often don’t even know they are unprepared.” He can’t stay angry at his students for not turning in papers or for turning in papers that are almost unreadable, because he feels too sorry for them: they are caught in a system that they didn’t create and are navigating with difficulty. It is chiefly the colleges he blames for creating a myth of universal opportunity that draws students into classes they may not be able to pass and into degree programs they may not be able to complete.

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower is a far from perfect book; too often it reads like the expansion of an article that it is, with repetition and digression padding his essential points. Some readers will be impatient with Professor X’s descriptions of his family’s economic woes, but he makes a persuasive case that buying into the housing bubble was much like buying into the “college bubble” currently being embraced by educational institutions and their students. When Professor X describes actual classroom interactions, the book is riveting. Actual samples of student writing would help the book immeasurably, since it’s hard to evaluate his reactions to students’ work without getting to see any of that work. It’s understandable that he wants to preserve his students’ privacy, but the absence of concrete examples weakens his argument.

The most dispiriting encounter Professor X relates concerns a student who has turned in a paper obviously lifted verbatim from an online source. When he confronts the student, the clearly angry student paces the room and repeatedly says how “disappointed” he is. Finally, he explains that he did buy the paper, but “I bought it off a friend of mine. I paid him to write it for me. But I didn’t pay for some old piece of junk that was out there, floating around on the Internet.” How is an instructor to help such students, who lack any understanding of the demands and rewards of real academic work? This question thrums beneath every sentence of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.

This book will undoubtedly enrage some institutions of higher learning and spur refutations from instructors who have found effective ways of reaching college students who arrive with educational deficits. But In the Basement of the Ivory Tower establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that the current mantra of “college for everyone” is dangerously misguided. Ideally, the book will spur a substantive discussion not only of American higher education’s aims and practices, but also of the academic preparation of many American high school students. Though Professor X doesn’t explicitly say so, perhaps it’s because a high school diploma has so little value as a demonstration of competence that employers now push so hard for some college credit from prospective employees, even for jobs that historically have not required a college education.

Nancy Carr is a senior editor at the the Great Books Foundation, working primarily on choosing reading selections and writing teacher's materials for grades K–8. She also leads literature discussion seminars for adults, independently and with the Classical Pursuits travel learning program.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Printers Row 2011: June 4 and 5, 2011

GBF is looking forward to Printers Row Lit Fest this weekend in Chicago. Printers Row is hosted by the Chicago Tribune and is an outdoor festival located on Chicago’s historic Printers Row, in the streets around Dearborn and Polk. At the festival, you can listen to authors speak about and read their work; browse through new, used, and antiquarian books from publishers and booksellers; and attend poetry readings, children’s activities, cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, and more.

We won't have our own table like in year's past, but check out events with these Great Books/Common Review editors and contributors:


10:30 a.m. “Adoption Nation” with Jane Katch and the 2011 Common Review Short Story Prize guest judge Gina Frangello (author of Slut Lullabies), moderated by Amy Alessio at the University Center in the Loop Room (free tickets required).

2:30 p.m. “Desperate Characters in the Short Story,” with Gina Frangello,
Bonnie Jo Campbell, Christine Sneed, and Melissa Fraterrigo, moderated by Donna Seaman at the Center Stage.

2:30 p.m. “The Best of the Encyclopedia Show,” hosted by Robbie Q. Telfer and Shanny Jean Maney, featuring, among others, Great Books K-12 editor, Rachel Claff, reciting her poem, “How To Paint a Ceiling” (published on this blog) from the Encyclopedia Show: Creation Myths, which was tied into Great Books Chicago 2011. This event is at the Arts & Poetry Stage.


10:00 a.m. The Common Review editor, Danny Postel, will appear with Ahmad Sadri to talk about the book edited by Postel and Nader Hashemi, The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran's Future at the University Center in the Loop Room.

2:00 p.m. "Three Cartoonists in Conversation": The Common Review frequent illustrator, Onsmith, will appear with Ivan Brunetti and Chris "Elio" Eliopoulos at the Center Stage.

Also, I know some GBF colleages and I will be roaming around the festival, going to panels and buying way too many books.

For more information on Printers Row, such as participant bios, maps and directions, and FAQs, please visit the Chicago Tribune website.

Hope to see you there!

- Lindsay Tigue

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Short Story Month: Nam Le's The Boat

Since May is Short Story Month, we are posting some excerpts of book reviews of short story collections that originally appeared in print in The Common Review. Today's review is of Nam Le's collection, The Boat, published by Knopf (May 2008). This review originally appeared in The Common Review 7:2, Fall 2008.

Review by Penelope Mesic

In "Meeting Elise," the third of seven stories in the masterful debut collection The Boat by Nam Le, a successful New York painter named Henry Luff struggles with the painful onset of cancer, the death of his young muse/mistress/model Olivia, and the nervous anticipation of meeting his daughter, Elise, a virtuoso cellist raised since infancy in Russia by Luff's embittered ex-wife. Funny, cynical, and largely friendless, Henry describes the genuinely kind owner of the gallery who represents him as having "eyes so earnest he looks like a cross between a TV evangelist and a cow." Yet Henry adds, "He only wants what's best for me, he says, and in that precise moment I realize it's true. He's the only one." In other words, Nam catches Henry at his moment of greatest need, when the odds are overwhelmingly against him and when the character himself is keenly aware that his resources--mental, emotional, practical--are completely unequal to his circumstances.

This is, in fact, the archetypal pattern of the stories in this collection, in which Le's characters are as powerless as figures in the philosophy of Epictetus but nowhere near as stoical. "Halflead Bay," set in an Australian fishing village, catches the adolescent Jamie when he has let himself be seen kissing the girlfriend of the town bully, who is known for having beaten an Asian immigrant woman to death. In "Cartagena," the Columbian narrator is a novice hit man who, having assassinated 14 people in the past four months, is now ordered to kill a childhood friend.

If they are lucky enough to survive or prosper, Le's characters do so with the knowledge that it is not by their own efforts but by chance. This sounds dispiriting, but the telling of it isn't. The exhilarating accuracy of Le's observations amounts to a steady pulse of vitality. To notice so keenly amounts to pleasure in life and justifies his audacious global reach, with stories set in North and South America, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East.

The characters, too are uneasily aware of crisscrossing a world they understand poorly. In "Tehran Calling," Sarah, a 35-year-old attorney from Portland, visits her old friend Parvin in Iran. Arriving during the holy week of Ashura, she instantly realizes that her ignorance, particularly of what social behaviors might be construed as wanton or unchaste, carries a grave risk. In the United States, her friend Parvin was a joker, a free spirit who dyed her hair purple; in Iran her unconventionality has deepened to political dissent and advocacy of women's rights. Sarah fears that Parvin regards her lack of commitment as a shortcoming, her life as easy and purposeless. But how could Sarah show mastery in a place she scarcely understands?

There have been few short story writers since Nabokov with such an economical aptitude for zeroing in on what is memorable and definitive. In "Halflead Bay," when an artist with multiple sclerosis falls, pulling down her easel, they lie "as though she'd ben dancing with it and they'd tripped over together." In "The Boat," Mai, about to leave Vietnam, searches for one last glimpse of her mother's face, "but the street, like a wound, had closed over the space where it had been."

No one can be this good, this young, without some display of bravado. There is a cheeky self-awareness in the opening story, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice." (The title lists things Faulkner regarded as worth writing about, germane because the young narrator of Vietnamese birth--whom we are given every reason to regard as the author himself--attends the Iowa Writer's Workshop.) Slyly, the narrator mentions a fellow writing student's comment: "That's why I don't mind your work, Nam. . .Because you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time. . .but instead, you choose to write about. . .Colombian assassins. . .and New York painters." The joke, of course, is that the last story in Le's collection is indeed about Vietnamese boat people, yet by the time we arrive at it, it is far from predictable or standard fare.

As "Love and Honor" begins the narrator's father arrives after 33 hours of air travel and immediately sets to work washing his son's dirty dishes, a gesture annoyingly reproachful or shamingly affectionate--or both. The son responds by hiding his booze and the photograph of his girlfriend. But under this bright mosaic of surface details--the conventions of a child trying to escape a controlling parent--are feelings so strong and so binding that it is useless even to say whether they amount to love or hate, only that they relate to a tragedy in the father's past that has mortgaged the son's future.

A similar sense that one's life belongs to another informs "The Boat." Sixteen-year-old Mai, adrift for 13 days in a broken-down trawler with 200 other Vietnamese refugees, forms a bond with a sickly and impassive little boy. Dozens die of thirst and illness. Mai sees "how necessary it was to stay on the surface of things. Because beneath the surface was either dread or delirium."

Le inhabits this nightmarish world as straightforwardly as he does the New York of cello concerts. After all, the artist Henry Luff, too, is almost certainly a goner, and in a way, equally adrift. The stories in The Boat sometimes end with separation or death, yet Le leaves us with the conviction that this is what writing is for: to record the connections between people that even death cannot undo.

Penelope Mesic has written criticism and commentary for periodicals as diverse as Poetry and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. She lives on an island with gratifyingly poor television reception.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Short Story Month: Tom Bissell's God Lives in St. Petersburg: Short Stories

Since May is Short Story Month, we are posting some excerpts of book reviews of short story collections that originally appeared in print in The Common Review. Today's review is of Tom Bissell's collection, God Lives in St. Petersburg: Short Stories, published by Pantheon (January 2005). This review originally appeared in The Common Review 4:2, Fall 2005.

Review by Andrew Benedict-Nelson

In Bissell's God Lives in St. Petersburg, we learn that a picture of Ernest Hemingway adorns every English classroom in the nations of the former Soviet Union. Along with Jack London and Paul Robeson, Hemingway represented a model American for Soviet youth. But for most Americans, Hemingway represents the ideal expatriate, the artist who has forsaken his homeland for the pursuit of truth and the occasional marlin.

Yet as the stories in Bissell's book show us, today's aspiring expats (no matter how earnest) have become absurd in a world of unchallenged American power. These six tales follow Americans in Central Asia, specifically the region's former Soviet republics and Afghanistan. Each story's principal character goes abroad looking for something--an escape from the death of a loved one, aid for an ailing marriage, academic prestige--only to find one's personal assumptions challenged far from home. Each character also loses something precious while retaining a cumbersome American-ness.

Many of the observations of these stories (and an earlier memoir) are based on Bissell's experience as an English teacher in Uzbekistan. As a result, the book is more about what it means to be American overseas than what it means to be Tajik or Kyrgyz at home. This does represent neglect on the author's part, but honesty. Books that purport to portray the authentic culture or genuine plight of another people often wind up as patronizing or just plain wrong. Bissell's book is neither. Indeed, he has quite accurately drawn the many wrinkles in America's present, ambivalent face to the world.

For instance, in the title story (which won the Pushcart Prize), a young missionary named Timothy discovers how much of his identity, both religious and sexual, depended on familiar surroundings. In the United States, the presence of God had been a "glowing cylinder." In Uzbekistan, that presence has become distant radio static. Meanwhile, his students in an English class, cynical about the discredited rumor of a man named Khristos, seem to care more about Timothy's relationship to the American embassy than to the divine.

It's no surprise that this story, like most in the collection, ends up badly for its main character. But Bissell does not appear to have an anti-American axe to grind. Each of his characters decays in a uniquely beautiful way, independent of birthplace. Through Bissell's dexterous narrative style, not unlike Hemingway's, we discover that we Americans can still get good and lost just about anywhere.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson
serves as Digital Agitator with The Insight
Labs, a Chicago-based initiative that brings together creative minds
from the private sector with leaders from non-profit and government to
solve seemingly intractable challenges. His work has appeared in the
Times Literary Supplement, Bookmarks Magazine, Another Chicago
Magazine, and other venues.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Short Story Month: Tobias Wolff's Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories

Since May is Short Story Month, we are posting some excerpts of book reviews of short story collections that originally appeared in print in The Common Review. Today's review is of Tobias Wolff's collection, Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories, published by Knopf (March 2008). This review originally appeared in The Common Review 7:2, Fall 2008.

Review by Annie Tully

For aficionados of the short story--in particular the American short story of the last 50 years--Tobias Wolff's mustachioed face is surely carved into an imaginary Mount Rushmore of short fiction masters, along with Raymond Carver and perhaps Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, or Annie Proulx. (If there's room for T. C. Boyle, Stephen Dixon, Jayne Anne Phillips, and many others, it might have to be a rather large memorial for an art form so distinctly American.) Wolff is indeed an American master of the form, and his skill is again on display in a hefty collection of work, Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories, a collection of 21 older stories and ten more recent, all ripe with Wolff's trademarks--characters at self-imposed crossroads, clear and direct prose, settings of small towns, apartment buildings, army barracks, and leafy universities. For those unfamiliar with Wolff or familiar only with his memoirs (This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army were enormous hits) or an occasional story from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, this book delivers a good dose of what its storyteller is capable of doing. It's a cohesive gathering of tales with common threads and a distinct style running clear throughout.

The most common trait of that style is Wolff's fascination with very commonplace occurrences and the minute decisions and thoughts that happen to his everyman characters. The protagonists here range from academics to soldiers to adolescent boys, and the events in which Wolff situates them display the same variety. Yet what seems to fascinate Wolff as a writer--and will fascinate his readers as well upon reading this collection--is the way in which a character's smallest action, memory, or train of thought will wrap around a less significant plot line as if it's the grandest revelation of all time. And for his characters, many of whom are at turning points in their lives, these small moments are that enormous.

. . .

There is a sleepy introspection common to all Wolff's protagonists. Whether an unhappy wife or a middle-aged man who learns of the death of his first love, Wolff's characters often live fully inside their minds in order to take themselves out of what is happening around them. We see this in the young man in "The Liar," who tells extraordinary, unprovoked tales after the death of his father, and whose mother tells him, "You don't have to make all these things up, James. They'll happen anyway." We see it again with a young boy in "Flyboys," when he describes sneaking into his friend's family study to look at family photos, a ritual of sorts. "You could see it in the pictures that they took it all in stride, the big spreads behind them, the boats and cars, and their relaxed, handsome, families, who, it was clear, did not get laid off, or come down with migraines, or lock each other out of the house. I pondered each picture as if it were a door I might enter."

Fibbers and storytellers populate Wolff's world, characters who must lie to carry on with living. In "The Other Miller," a soldier who has enlisted only to upset his mother talks about her to a fellow soldier: "'It's just that I didn't know her all that well,' Miller says and after this monstrous lie a feeling of weightlessness comes over him." Due either to boredom, self-loathing, or unhappiness with how their lives are going or have turned out, Wolff's characters dream.

This is not to say that Wolff's plots are lacking. There is wonderful variety to the events of these stories and each tale is told with a craftsman's fine touch. Yet plot takes a back seat to character and thought. And underneath each plot, no matter how commonplace or eventful and no matter what the outcome, the hearts of his stories reveal a depth and an empathy that are joyous. If we don't get around to carving Wolff's face into a mountain, at least we have this collection to cherish.

Annie Tully creates public programs in literature and the arts in Chicago. She has written reviews for Booklist, the Chicago Sun-Times, and Bookslut.com.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Short Story Month: Paul Yoon's Once the Shore

Since May is Short Story Month, we are posting some excerpts of book reviews of short story collections that originally appeared in print in The Common Review. Today's review is of Paul Yoon's debut collection, Once the Shore, published by Sarabande Books. This review originally appeared in The Common Review 8:2, Fall 2009.

Review by Lindsay Tigue

In his debut collection, Paul Yoon elegantly links a group of stories set on the fictional island of Solla, off the coast of South Korea. His prose is lovely and direct, constantly pointing to the missing or lonely center of his characters' lives.

The title story grounds the collection in loss and connection. A few months after her husband's death, an American woman visits the island where her husband had taken a brief wartime furlough many years before. She takes up residence in a local hotel, and meets a young waiter nicknamed Jim, who is trying to comprehend his brother's recent death that occurred when an American submarine accidentally destroyed a fishing boat. In their separate griefs the widow and the waiter form an off-balance connection. The widow speaks wistfully of her relationship with her husband. More restrained, Jim refuses the terms of his brother's death. The submarine incident is major news at the hotel and on the island, but Jim is able to ignore it, convincing himself that "once escaped from mouths, [the event] was no longer his, now fanned across the air in the realm of static."

Other stories also show various responses to loss. In "Among the Wreckage," a husband and wife set out to find their son who has been accidentally killed by a U.S. test bombing. As they set out toward the disaster site, the husband, Bey, feels the weight of his family's life. Watching his wife soothe her chapped lips with tea, "he saw how she had aged, as if she were shrinking each and every day. He was too--perhaps they would be whittled to the size of a pocket. He thought of death in this way. A diminishing." Yet Bey also views this trip as a means of retrieving what they have lost.

Yoon's characters exist in their own orbits of isolation. In "Faces to the Fire," a solitary shopkeeper, Sojin, finds her world temporarily altered after her childhood love, Kori, briefly returns to town after fifteen years' absence. Sojin reflects on this passage of time, in which tourism has brought significant change. She also considers being left behind, whether by death or life beyond Solla Island and thinks "perhaps there had never been a choice and the town, this island, had kept her. She had been willing. Still was." Sojin recognizes and accepts her solitude.

Throughout this collection the experience of wartime occupation and then tourism weigh heavily on the island inhabitants. Both World War Two and the Korean War repeatedly intrude. In "And We Will Be Here," Miya, the protagonist, imagines a boy who, at the end speaks to her about war. "'Hey Miss,' the boy said. 'War's ending.' He tapped his earlobe. 'Listen.'" Until that moment in the story, the war details were there, but somehow only as a force in the background. At the end, war rumbles back into the center.

Once the Shore is a masterfully-written collection, and best rewards the patient reader. Yoon's stories take time to develop, but carry notes of grace and hope. In "Once the Shore" there is the hint of solace in the way the widow and Jim grieve separately yet together, while "And We Will Be Here," despite its ambivalence, finishes on the promise of war's end.

Monday, May 16, 2011

From the Field by Fred

Fred Hang is a senior training instructor for the Great Books Foundation. His missives from the field will draw from his considerable expertise in the Shared Inquiry™ method of learning and his work in thousands of classrooms.

“Why do you teach?” This is the question I typically ask participants when I begin my Great Books professional development courses. After the teachers introduce themselves, I try to discover what first led them to teaching and what keeps them returning to the classroom.

The answers I hear most often include: “I enjoy kids.” “I like to see the light bulb go on.” “I had a teacher who impacted me when I was in school and I want to do the same.” “It is never boring.” “It forces me to keep on learning.” “It’s fun.” “I want to make an impact on the future.” “It is so satisfying to see a student grow and develop.” “It’s a mission, a calling—I can’t imagine doing anything else.” (It is funny how rarely “salary” comes up as an answer!)

I continue to be impressed by the level of commitment and passion teachers bring to their work. However, with all of the regulations, local and national standards, and other requirements that teachers must adhere to (not to mention the bureaucratic hoops they must often jump through), it amazes me that they get any genuine teaching done.

By genuine teaching I mean those times when the teachers and students become one in the search for meaning and understanding—when the teacher’s questions do not have a correct answer in a teacher’s guide or in the back of her mind, and when the goal is not to teach to the next test or to have students correctly guess the “right” answer. These are moments of true “shared inquiry.”

There will always be a great deal that teachers must pass on to their students, facts and information that they need to know. Teaching our students what to think is a vital part of an educator’s role. However, today more than ever it is also essential to include ample opportunities to teach them how to think. It is a sad fact that many students are not taught how to think until they get to late middle school or high school—and sometimes even to college. By this time some very bad habits of thought have been ingrained.

Teachers who have been trained in and regularly use the Shared Inquiry method of learning have told me time and again that it not only revitalizes their teaching but reconnects them with why they chose teaching in the first place. They tell me that there is a lot less empty talk and more thought going on in their classrooms. They know this because discussions are marked with moments of silent reflection as well as outbursts of passionate opinion. Students speak directly to one another instead of reporting their idea only to the teacher. Answers are supported with evidence from the text, not worded to please the teacher. As one teacher put it, “Shared Inquiry wakes up our minds in the morning and keeps us alert to each other all day.”