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.