Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tearing Apart a Book in Junior Great Books

Reprinted with permission of the author, Jenny Voelker.

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.

Jenny Voelker went to Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She practiced corporate law at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and Davis & Gilbert in New York City. After having children, thanks to her hardworking husband, she was able to stay home with them. She currently lives in Darien, CT where she is part of a wonderful network of involved mothers who try to do their best for their children and to grow and reinvent themselves at the same time. You can read more about her and her blog posts at She can be reached at

1 comment:

  1. I think this is a great idea, and I'm interested in promoting this here in Toronto (as the Great Books Foundation knows). HOWEVER, one confronts the educational bureaucracy immediately, and infinite process/frustration is the likely result). I suggest a better way to "start" with something like this is to figure out a way to "start small," so that there is "community buy-in", and then, if appropriate, that can be taken to the "school system" for more general implementation. Always substance - getting something done/started - over process - thinking in big grandiose terms, but nothing gets done.

    Any comments/ideas/reactions/experiences on this?