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.