Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why Partnerships Matter

As the Vice President for Alliances for the Great Books Foundation, I’m sometimes asked why we have partnerships. We’re a largely  self-supporting organization, why do we need alliances?

The answer is simple, and it’s an answer that is deeply embedded in our Shared Inquiry™ DNA—we partner with other organizations because we can do more if we work together.

The Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization, has a mission that resonates with many for-profit companies and organizations. We believe, for example, that teachers deserve the best possible support in both professional development and materials, that critical thinking is a basic skill, and that democracy depends on people being able to share their ideas with respect.

Over the years, the Foundation has formed many successful partnerships with for-profit educational and trade publishers, virtual schools, and corporations that share and support our vision for education. These partnerships provide a great service. They bring the Foundation crucial financial resources and increase the public’s awareness of our mission, brand, and programs. Most importantly, they help us bring Great Books programs to more students and more teachers from kindergarten through college and to more adult readers in all walks of life.

Grants from Ameritech and CME Group, for example, have established Great Books programs in more than forty Midwest schools. The programs have served some 14,000 students, most reading well below grade level. For adult readers, Penguin Books financed the Foundation’s creation of discussion guides for 45 Penguin titles—and promoted the Foundation’s selection of those books by placing a Great Books “Recommended for Discussion” seal on every cover. As a result, more than two million book covers in bookstores across the country have proclaimed the Foundation’s mission and the value of discussing great literature. Our ten-year collaboration with has introduced the Great Books Read-Aloud program to nearly 100,000 homeschooling families. Another longstanding alliance—with an educational publisher in Korea called Hansol Gyoyook—has brought Shared Inquiry to a million families in Seoul. And numerous national and regional collaborations with public TV and radio stations have publicized the Foundation’s message to millions of viewers and listeners throughout the country—that reading and discussing great literature enriches lives.

Corporations respond well to the Great Books message and record of success. Corporations value good works, stability, a national reputation, and the ability to reach specific markets. Now celebrating our 65th year, the Foundation has a long history of success providing programs that improve teaching and learning. Over many years, we’ve established deep and extensive relations with leading educators in hundreds of school districts. Our programs put us in direct contact with 5,000 to 10,000 teachers each year, and we reach many thousands more by print and online advertising, catalogs, online newsletters, and dozens of educational briefings and conferences. We have links to more than 800 book clubs. We have a solid reputation as a provider of high-quality educational materials and professional development, and our editorial credentials in selecting and recommending great literature—literature that’s worth talking about—is unmatched.

The Foundation values its partners, and we deeply appreciate their support for our mission. They help us publicize our cause, and they help us bring our programs to more people who need them.

That’s why, if you know of someone who’s a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a teller at a bank that has a corporate foundation, or anyone who works at a corporation that wants to give back to the community, send them to the Great Books Foundation. We’d love to share our success and reach more people, with the help of partners who share our goals.

Steve Craig is the Vice President for Alliances at the Great Books Foundation. He can be reached at 312-646-7162 or at

Monday, April 16, 2012

Notes from the Field

by Tom Kerschner

I was a new member of the Great Books Foundation’s sales department when I visited Jenson Academy on Chicago’s West Side in the spring of 1997. At the time my classroom experience was primarily with middle school students, and younger students were out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know what to expect. Fortunately, I was with an experienced Foundation training instructor and my only assignment for the day was to observe and learn.

We entered a second-grade classroom as students prepared to start a Shared Inquiry™ discussion of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” As the discussion progressed, most of the students shared that they thought Jack was a brave hero for defeating the giant, acquiring the golden goose and the magic harp, and saving his mother from poverty. But soon a girl raised her hand and said, “Sorry, but that's not what I think. Jack was a liar, a thief, and a murderer. Those things are wrong.” She cited exact page numbers from the story to support her opinion.

A boy raised his hand emphatically, eager to speak. “No! You don't get it.” he said. “When Jack lied to his mother, he was only trying to protect her from being scared. When Jack took the golden goose and the magic harp, he was sort of taking them back because it says the giant stole them in the first place. When Jack killed the giant, he was just protecting himself from an ogre that ate children.” Again, this seven-year-old cited page numbers and shared his interpretations to support his argument.

That spring a gang war had enveloped Chicago’s West Side and the school wasn’t spared the battle. A week before our visit gunshots had shattered the gym’s windows. Like the young protagonist in the folktale they discussed, these students understood poverty, the threat of violence, and the adult responsibilities kids living in single-parent homes often shoulder.

I was amazed by what I heard—seven-year-old children discussing morality. They asked and contemplated questions some adults avoid: Should morals be based on firm, unchanging standards? Or should they be fluid, based on specific situations? Many adults, even some news commentators, tend to espouse opinions with no supporting evidence, fail to listen during a discussion, and avoid addressing opposing ideas. Yet, right in front me was an example of a thoughtful discussion—one full of reason, respect, and cooperative learning. I knew the power of Shared Inquiry before I entered that classroom, but I had a deeper appreciation for its value when I left.

It’s been over 16 years since that day at Jenson Academy, but when people ask me about my work at the Great Books Foundation I still recall those second-grade students discussing “Jack and the Beanstalk.” The students didn’t know it, but I left their classroom feeling lucky to work for an organization that helps students learn to listen, think, and respect each other’s opinions.

Tom Kerschner is the Sales Director at the Great Books Foundation. When he isn't working, Tom spends a good deal of his time outdoors. He attended Illinois public schools kindergarten through high school and is currently looking forward to spending three weeks in Namibia with his dad.