Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Another Best Books of 2013 List

It’s list season again. Best songs. Best movies. Best vacation destinations. Best new restaurants. And of course, best books. Every year I’m thrilled to be reminded of the amazing creativity and focused discipline that results in more worthy books than I’ll ever be able to read.

These are my top 5 books of 2013. Each one captivated me from start to finish, and I couldn’t choose a favorite if someone forced me. I hope they inspire you to reflect on your best reads of 2013.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
(review from the National Book Award web site)

"Greedily" is the best way to describe how I read the historical novel The Good Lord Bird. I knew I should slow down and savor McBride’s phenomenal storytelling, but I couldn’t. The book starts with the sentence “I was born a colored man and don't you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years,” and only gets better. The narrator, Henry Shackleford, is a child slave rescued/kidnapped (there’s a fine line between the two in this story) by famed abolitionist John Brown after his father dies in a shootout. Dressed in an old sack that Brown assumes is a dress, Henry is too frightened to correct Brown when he thinks Henry is a girl. Thus begins Henry's——who is nicknamed Little Onion——new life as he accompanies the zealous, near lunatic Brown and his band of followers on Brown’s quest to end slavery. Funny, endearing, and often painful to read, The Good Lord Bird deserves all of the praise it has received.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
(review from the Guardian )

Characters who contentedly live outside of the norm appeal to me, and that’s probably why this book made my list. The Rosie Project won’t lead to meaty discussions or hours of reflection, but it’s funny and sweet and sometimes that is exactly what I want from a book. Don Tillman is a brilliant, logical genetics professor who lacks basic social skills and who is constantly perplexed by the behavior of others. Although he doesn’t acknowledge it, it’s obvious to all who know him that Don has a form of autism that limits his ability to engage in perceived normal ways. He’s never had much luck with the opposite sex, but when a neighbor casually comments that he’d make a good husband he embarks on what he calls the Wife Project to find a suitable spouse. In the midst of his search—which includes a questionnaire for prospective mates—Don meets Rosie, his behavioral opposite, who is looking for her biological father. Shifting from the Wife Project to help with her Father Project, Don is surprised by how much Rosie brings to his life, and the results are delightful to witness.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
(review from the New York Times Sunday Book Review)

In this slim, fairy-tale-like novel, a nameless middle-aged artist returns to where he grew up in Sussex to attend a funeral. Driving to the end of a once familiar lane unleashes memories of frightening and fantastical events from his seventh year—a lonely time when no one came to his birthday party and a boarder in his family’s home accidentally kills his beloved kitten. When the boarder is found dead in the family car, he’s shuffled away to a nearby farmhouse where he meets a mysterious group of women, including Lettie, a girl just a few years older, who strangely knew about what happened and why. The Hempstock women are guardians against terrible forces that threaten all things and the young protagonist gets caught in the battle to stop these forces. My favorite character is Lettie, who tells the narrator: "I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” Gaiman writes about the darkness of childhood—merging imagination, memory, and magic—like no other contemporary writer.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
(review from the Man Booker Prize site)

When I read about this book—an 800+ page complex murder mystery set in the gold mines of 19th-century New Zealand—my first thought was that it was probably 300 pages too long. But reading the book proved me wrong—Eleanor Catton didn’t need a better editor and she’s in full control of the book’s many tightly constructed plots. Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika, New Zealand from Edinburgh to make his fortune in gold. Not long off the ship he encounters twelve men (characters woven around signs of the Zodiac) convened in a hotel lobby discussing disturbing local events——their stories, secrets, and motivations unveil and intertwine in endlessly entertaining and unpredictable ways. The Victorian sensationalism, the astrological overlay, and the spiraling form would be too gimmicky with lesser writers, but with Catton’s skill it all works. A rich, atmospheric writer, Catton vividly depicts the locales and lives of gold seekers, prostitutes, power holders, and eccentric townspeople so engagingly that I missed them as soon as I closed the back cover.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

(review from the New York Times Sunday Book Review)
I eagerly awaited Donna Tartt’s third novel and as trite as it sounds, it was worth the wait. Thirteen-year-old Theo survives a Metropolitan Musuem bombing that kills his beloved mother. In the rubble, a dying man insists that Theo take his signet ring and a small Dutch masterpiece that was blown out of its frame—The Goldfinch. His grief and the items connected to it form the trajectory of his life. Theo goes to live with the Barbours, the wealthy family of a school friend, where his alienation and loss of identity grow. Following the dying man’s instructions on what to do with his ring, Theo is drawn into the world of the pretty red-haired girl who drew him away from his mother’s side at the museum that fateful day. His unreliable father eventually shows up and takes him to an isolated Las Vegas subdivision where he meets another motherless teen, the wild and captivating Boris, who becomes Theo’s strongest ally. Tartt masterfully conveys the voice and perspective of youth and I cheered for sorrowful Theo throughout this heartbreaking book.

Sharon Crowley works in K–12 marketing at the Great Books Foundation. She has a well-worn library card, but still spends too much money on books.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Parkway Elementary School Principal Credits Junior Great Books for Vast Student Gains

In spring 2012, fifth-grade students at Parkway Elementary School in Virginia Beach achieved an unprecedented level of success on the reading portion of their Virginia Standards of Learning test: 100 percent received passing grades. To put this achievement into perspective, just under 80 percent passed the previous year.

What changed at Parkway to make such a leap possible? Principal Nanocie “Toni” Diggs gave credit to the school’s widespread implementation of Junior Great Books in 2011-2012.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I do give a lot of credit to Junior Great Books for our success last year.” Diggs noted that the use of Junior Great Books has changed the learning and teaching culture at Parkway. Where students once would have given “yes” or “no” answers, they now dig into texts to give reasons for the answers they provide. "The students can’t just give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response anymore . . . There has to be a ‘because,’ ” said Lisa Marler, a second-grade teacher at Parkway. Diggs also noted that this habit of probing more deeply for answers fits well with general problem solving and critical thinking—twenty-first century skills that students need to develop.

Junior Great Books has been used throughout the nation since it was first developed in 1962. The program is no stranger to Virginia Beach School District, having been used as a gifted resource for many years. Junior Great Books is well known for its outstanding literature and its unique method of learning, Shared Inquiry™—a Socratic discussion method in which teachers ask students questions about a text that are central to the text’s meaning, and that have more than one defensible answer.

After years of its use in gifted classrooms, however, reading specialist Grier Crosby proved that Junior Great Books could be valuable to other students as well when she teamed with the teacher of a fifth-grade inclusion class to bring the program to special-needs and regular-ability students. According to Diggs, “special-needs students who never passed a state assessment” passed in reading because of their involvement with Junior Great Books. “Their confidence rose, and these students were able to perform better in other subject areas because of the ‘I can do it’ attitude they developed,” she said.

The success in the inclusion class inspired Diggs to implement Junior Great Books for all students in grades 2–5. Students and teachers are excited that the program has become a permanent part of their curriculum. Diggs asked one fifth-grade girl if she likes Junior Great Books. “Oh yes,” the girl replied. “Why?” Diggs asked. “Because we all get to talk, and we get to talk to each other.” The student even volunteered, “We get to go back into the text and prove our answers.”

When students learn the habit of going back to texts to provide evidence for answers in Junior Great Books, they naturally transfer it to their studies in other subjects. “Students are proving their answers in social studies and science as well,” Diggs said. And teachers who have become accustomed to the deeper questioning used in Junior Great Books find themselves asking further questions in other subjects. “They might be studying the Civil War or Virginia history,” Diggs said. “Teachers will ask an initial question, get an answer from a student, and then probe deeper, asking ‘What makes you think that?’ And students are ready to go back to their books and find proof for their answers.”

Teachers at Parkway have discovered many benefits of the Junior Great Books program. Fifth-grade teacher Kimberly Alvers lauded the program because it “gives the quiet ones a voice.” Teachers qualify to implement Junior Great Books by taking the Foundation's core professional learning course which gives them a solid grounding in the Shared Inquiry method of learning. One thing they learn is how to help children who are normally reserved feel safe venturing their own opinions about the story everyone in the class has read. Over time, as the fifth-grade girl observed, students soon become involved in a conversation with each other, not just a question-and-answer session with the teacher.

Alvers also noted that Junior Great Books’ interpretive activities address the needs of different types of learners. “For example, the diverse writing prompts give students different approaches to express their opinions,” she said. Students are given the chance to practice expository and creative writing as they complete a Junior Great Books unit, and they are introduced to a variety of writing concepts and structures, including paragraphs, essays, letters, poems, and stories.

Junior Great Books can even “give teachers a bit of a help in coping with their busy schedules,” Marler said. Alvers added, “The lesson plans are already there . . . All the techniques that we need to address—main idea, problem solving, critical thinking—are techniques already covered in the program’s lesson plans.” Indeed, every Junior Great Books unit includes detailed instructions for carrying out prereading, note-taking, vocabulary, discussion, and writing activities, as well as curriculum connections to other subjects.

Teachers can also continue to hone their Great Books skills as they implement the program. Kriko Michaels, a staff trainer for the Great Books Foundation, has been helping Parkway teachers master Shared Inquiry discussion and the directed note activity since they began their implementation. As Diggs put it, teachers “need praises and polishing, just as students do.” Michaels has been on hand to meet with teachers, model exemplary Shared Inquiry skills, and team-teach with Parkway faculty. “Kriko has a passion for the program, and it is evident in how he trains our teachers,” said Mackenzie Robinson, another fifth-grade teacher at Parkway.

The improvements in scores are a testament to the level of commitment from both the administration and the teachers,” Micheals said. “Like any skill, the facilitation of Shared Inquiry discussion must be honed by a committed practice. The test scores are proof that the teachers were able to impart the habits of mind of great critical thinkers. Students at Parkway are able to clearly articulate their thinking, cite evidence, and respond nimbly to counterarguments.”

It seems clear that Junior Great Books will be a fixture at Parkway Elementary School. Principal Diggs noted that this year at “literacy night,” dedicated to literacy practices in the classroom, teachers were given a choice of what to present to parents who attended. “Fifth-, fourth-, and third-grade teachers all chose to discuss and model several components of Junior Great Books,” she said. Teachers were happy to tell parents about the program that has served them and their students so well.

Friday, November 22, 2013

National Book Release Event! Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian

If you’re in the Chicago area please join us December 4 for a free event celebrating the national book release of Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian. Funded by generous grants from the NEH and the Chicago Mercantile exchange, Standing Down is an eloquent collection that speaks to the transition from military service to civilian life.

The event will take place at Chicago’s beautiful Pritzker Military Library and will include a panel discussion about war and literature. Several authors whose work appears in Standing Down—Benjamin Busch, Ed Hrivnak, and Edward Wood Jr.—will attend and talk about how their own military experiences shaped their writing. If you know or love a veteran, you should add Standing Down to your reading list and join us December 4!

Reserve your seat now or read more about Standing Down.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

To Honor Our Veterans—Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian

“Home: it was less of a place than an act of imagination now, a realm fundamentally disconnected from what life had become. The time difference was part of it—dawn in America was dusk in Iraq—but after nine months it was more than that. Soldiers had a hard time explaining Iraq to one another; how could they explain it to someone whose life had nothing to do with the pucker factor of climbing yet again into a Humvee?”
—“The Good Soldiers,” by David Finkel, in Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian
Since September 11, 2001, approximately 2.5 million American military personnel have been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, or both. More than a third of them were deployed more than once. Given these enormous numbers, many people are personally connected to a recently returned veteran. The connection may be close—a niece, a brother, a cousin, a spouse—or it may be more distant—a colleague’s daughter, a former student, a childhood friend. Even if you don’t personally know a veteran, they are important members of your community. And sadly, many of them struggle to reintegrate themselves into home environments that feel very different upon their return.

The challenges veterans face when transitioning to postwar civilian life are not unique to recent vets. Productively reintegrating into their communities, recovering from emotional and/or physical wounds, and relating to family and friends who haven’t experienced the reality of war have all been daunting "welcome home" tasks of soldiers for centuries. From the Civil War to both World Wars, from Korea to Vietnam—some things, it seems, never change.

It’s hard to know how to support our veterans. Is there a way to ease their transition? At the Great Books Foundation, we grappled with that question and wondered if reading and discussing literature could help. Could we provide an opportunity for vets to come together and reflect on their war experience? Could Shared Inquiry™ discussion help vets support each other and create a forum for friends and families to better understand the perspectives of their loved ones?

Our answer to these questions resulted in a powerful new anthology: Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian. With 44 selections ranging from Homer’s Iliad to personal accounts by vets who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, the collection is ideal for veterans, friends, and families, as well as readers interested in the meaning of war and military service. Standing Down was created for Talking Service, our new initiative to develop reading and discussion programs for veterans.

Talking Service features discussions focused on the stories, essays, personal accounts, and poetry in Standing Down; skilled discussion leaders who help participants speak up about their service experiences and the challenge of returning to civilian life; and convenient discussion sites at veteran’s service centers and other local community centers.

Reactions to Talking Service and Standing Down have been incredibly positive at veterans centers in the Chicago area, and discussions are scheduled through the end of the year. Authors whose work appears in Standing Down (such as Ed Hrivnak) are also starting discussion groups in other parts of the country.

“The enthusiastic support of Talking Service by veterans themselves has been overwhelming and gratifying,” says Donald Whitfield, Director of Great Books Discussions and founder of the Talking Service program. “In many years of leading Shared Inquiry discussions, I have rarely had the privilege of being with such insightful and tough-minded individuals who engage with ideas as if their lives depended on it.”

Of all the outstanding anthologies the Foundation publishes, Standing Down is a personal favorite. When my father—an Air Force veteran— returned from Vietnam in 1973, vets were vilified and scorned on their return. I was too young to wonder about his distress, but now I can imagine how difficult it was for him. I thought about my dad’s experience when I read a 2011 Pew Research Center survey that found 44% of veterans surveyed who served in the ten years since the 2001 attacks acknowledged that reentry to civilian life was difficult for them. Standing Down and Talking Service are the Foundation’s efforts to acknowledge the struggles of all veterans and to hopefully lessen them.

The national book release for Standing Down will take place on December 4 at Chicago’s Pritzker Military Library. The event will include a panel of the book’s contributors, including Benjamin Busch, Ed Hrivnak, and Edward Wood Jr . The book release is open to the public, so we invite you to attend. You can register now or read more about the event.

There are numerous ways you can become involved with Talking Service, whether you are a veteran yourself, a veteran’s family member, or a concerned citizen who wants to support those who have served in the armed forces. For more information, visit or call 312-646-7167.

Talking Service is supported by generous grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Wounded Warrior Project, and the Plante-Moran Company. Standing Down was funded by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Sharon Crowley works in marketing at the Great Books Foundation.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Teaching More Nonfiction and Informational Texts

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) make a lot of new demands on
teachers—requiring teachers to provide more nonfiction and informational texts at all grade levels and to shift to a more facilitative style of teaching, and requiring students to use text-based answers to demonstrate comprehension are just a few of them. With new demands come increased pressure, and we know transitioning to CCSS isn’t easy for already busy teachers. We want to make the transition easier. Our new one-day course, Using Shared Inquiry™ with Nonfiction, prepares teachers for the new reading requirements by demonstrating how to use complex texts and improving their questioning strategies so they can make sure their students get the most out of reading nonfiction.

The new standards' strong emphasis on nonfiction is a dramatic shift for teachers. CCSS calls for a 50/50 split between informational and literary texts in kindergarten, gradually increasing to a 70/30 split in high school. Reaction to the focus on nonfiction varies, but we at the Foundation agree that reading nonfiction is important for all students. Nonfiction helps students better understand a topic, issue, or problem by providing information—facts, terminology, and definitions—that make the subject real. While fiction helps students understand the universality of human emotion and experience, nonfiction exposes them to the broader context of real world issues. Reading more informational texts and nonfiction may engage reluctant readers and boost their interest in reading. Students who are quick to label fiction boring may be drawn to books about subjects that interest them—and after reading a book about snakes, music, or American Indians they’re likely to find fiction that refers to these subjects more fascinating and relevant. We don’t perceive the new nonfiction mandate as a challenge to the importance of reading fiction—we see it as affirmation of the importance of providing students with a variety of texts to improve reading comprehension, and Shared Inquiry has long provided students with the reading strategies and skills CCSS now demands.

Educators accustomed to using Shared Inquiry with fiction may wonder how an inquiry-based method of learning works with nonfiction. The answer is simple: questioning engages students more closely with what they read, including nonfiction and informational texts. Quality nonfiction is much more than a resource of facts: quality nonfiction is an exploration and discovery of a new subject. When teachers use questioning strategies, students explore and discover on a deeper level. Complex texts that raise questions requiring students to read closely to answer them are particularly well suited for Shared Inquiry—texts such as historical documents, speeches, and first person accounts. Consider these questions about the Declaration of Independence: “Why do the colonists feel a need to proclaim to the world their reasons for declaring independence?” and “Why are the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies able to think of themselves as ‘one people’?” (from The Will of the People: Readings in American Democracy). Asking students questions like these about nonfiction and informational texts takes them from simply learning and filing away new facts to examining and reflecting on issues behind the facts.

Using Shared Inquiry with Nonfiction will benefit teachers familiar with Shared Inquiry and those new to the method. The course demonstrates how to adopt an inquiry stance with nonfiction and informational texts, how to use questions to explore the meaning of the content to which the text refers, and how to link related texts to differentiate for various students and foster cross-curricular connections.

For example, If You Lived at the Time of the American Revolution (a book in our Grade 4 Nonfiction Library), introduces rich content issues—such as freedom and equality—to students learning about the significance of the Declaration of Independence in their social studies class. This is an example of a book that can help address questions students raise during a sharing questions activity about the Declaration. Even fourth grade students can formulate and answer their own questions about complex issues such as freedom and equality. And developing those strategies early on can improve their reading comprehension and critical thinking skills across the curriculum. Using Shared Inquiry with Nonfiction will demonstrate how to make questioning a part of all instruction and will show how Shared Inquiry requires students to provide text-based answers.

We know the increased focus on nonfiction and informational texts may feel daunting, but we’re confident that Using Shared Inquiry with Nonfiction will make implementing CCSS easier. Educational trends come and go, but improving students’ essential literacy
skills—reading comprehension, writing, and critical thinking—remain a primary focus year after year. Shared Inquiry has been improving those essential skills since 1962 and CCSS provides a new opportunity for teachers and students to realize its benefits across the curriculum.

Contact a Great Books sales representative to host a Using Shared Inquiry with Nonfiction course in your district or to find a course near you.

Sharon Crowley works in K–12 marketing at the Great Books Foundation.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Does Writing Improve Reading?

Successful authors often encourage young writers to read more to develop their craft. When William Faulkner visited a University of Mississippi creative writing class a student asked him, “What is the best training for writing? Courses in writing? Or what?” Faulkner replied, “Read, read, read! Read everythingtrash, classics, good and bad; and see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing. Read! You’ll absorb it. Write. If it is good you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”1 

Research supports Faulkner’s advice, and it doesn’t only apply to aspiring undergraduate writers. When children read extensively they become better writers. As creatures of imitation, it makes sense. Reading well-crafted sentences helps us learn to compose well-crafted sentences ourselves. So reading more improves writing, but is the opposite also truecan writing improve reading?

The answer is yes. Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading, a Carnegie Corporation report released by the Alliance for Excellent Education, concludes, “The evidence is clear: writing can be a vehicle for improving reading. In particular, having students write about a text they are reading enhances how well they comprehend it. . . findings show that having students write about texts they read, explicitly teaching writing skills and processes, and having students write more do improve reading skills and comprehension.”

I knowthere are endless reports about education and instructional practices. It’s hard to deduce which  findings are useful to teachers. However, Writing to Read stands out because it summarizes high-quality research using the powerful statistical method of meta-analysis. The method allowed researchers to determine the consistency and the strength of an instructional practice, and to identify effective instructional writing practices that improve the reading abilities of students. By identifying which writing practices positively impact reading, the report helps teachers implement the best practices in their classrooms.

Writing to Read concludes that the most important practice is to have students write about texts they read. In fact, the report states, “Writing about a text proved to be better than just reading it, reading and rereading it, reading and studying it, reading and discussing it, and receiving reading instruction.”

The findings don’t surprise usstudents write about what they read in all Great Books programs. Great Books writing instruction aligns with the report’s findings even more specificallyWriting to Read found that student comprehension improves when they respond to a text in writing (writing personal reactions, analyzing the text); when they answer questions about a text in writing; when they create and answer written questions about texts; and when they write notes about a text. Students do all of these things in Great Books writing activities.

In each Great Books unit (Junior Great Books Series 3–5 and Great Books Roundtable 6–8), student writing is connected with the stories they read. Students learn how to write well-organized expository, creative, and interpretative essays; they write notes, responses to, and questions about each story; they use modeling, guided practice, webs, and templates to organize their thoughts; they edit and revise their writing with the help of peer reviews and rubrics; they even respond to other students’ ideas in writing. All writing activities are linked to the story, repeatedly bringing students back to the text and engaging them with it in a variety of ways.

Confirmation of the interconnectedness of reading and writing is nothing new. But evidence that writing improves readingspecifically that writing about texts improves students’ comprehensionis relatively new and is certainly worth remembering when planning curriculum.

While Faulkner’s advice to “Read, read, read!” still holds, now we know students should also write, write, write about what they read.

1. Conversations with William Faulkner, edited by Thomas Inge

Sharon Crowley works in K–12 marketing at the Great Books Foundation.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Symphony in the Classroom: A Newcomer's Guide to Peter and the Wolf

In 1936, Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev was presented with an unusual challenge. He was asked by the Children's Musical Theater in Moscow to produce a piece of music especially for children, something that could spark their interest and inspire a lasting love for music beginning in the very first years of school. He accepted the offer, and in a matter of weeks he created one of the most well known pieces of music for children, Peter and the Wolf. As teachers and musicians, we still face the same challenge today: How can we get students to engage with music? How can we get them to listen actively in a way that promotes constructive learning in addition to enjoyment? Prokofiev created an introductory lesson plan, and he embedded it directly into his composition. To answer these questions, we need only to follow his example.

Using only instrumental music and the voice of a narrator, Prokofiev retells a classic Russian folk tale. "Peter and the Wolf" is the story of a young boy who ventures out into the forest to capture a wolf, befriending many other animals along the way. The instruments "act out" each character in this twenty-five-minute symphony conveying all of the events of the story solely with the use of sound. Part of the fun for teachers is deciding which recording to use in the classroom, many of which are voiced by celebrities. Some noteworthy versions include the voices of Sting, David Bowie, David Attenborough, and, my personal favorite, Sir Patrick Stewart, among others. The narrator is one of the things that make this piece unique, because it shows that the composer laid out a welcoming foundation for students that he maintained throughout the symphony.

One of the central ideas of Peter and the Wolf  is that a character's voice can be represented in myriad ways, following any whim of the imagination. The use of symbolism is woven into countless literary classics that kids will read as they grow up, and having exposure to these characters at a young age lays a wonderful foundation for learning about more abstract ideas like metaphors later on. Have the students talk about what various animals sound like, or have them create noises in the classroom and try to relate those sounds to nature. Wrinkling paper could be the sound of leaves, or falling pencils could be the sound of raindrops. If you have the resources, this is also the perfect time to bring in a few small instruments to let the students experiment and get acquainted with what the instruments look like. Even showing them pictures of the instruments will give them a much-needed mental image to hold on to while listening. They may be amused to know that a fully assembled bassoon is almost as tall as a grown woman, and certainly taller than the average elementary school student. These preparation activities allow the children to feel more comfortable with something they've never heard before and are a perfect complement to other activities that can be done while the music is playing.

During the story, each character appears several times, represented by its specific instrument. The students can be divided into small groups representing each character; each group should listen for their parts. Another option is to give each group a different scene from the story to draw. For example: "Suddenly, something caught Peter's attention. He noticed a cat crawling through the grass." The students can listen for this event in the music and add their pictures to a story board as the music is playing. The class can use what they hear in the music to create their own group illustration of the story. Or, it might be more fitting with older students to discuss the moral intention of the story instead. Is this a story about a boy who disobeyed his grandfather, or is it about a boy who acted bravely to save the forest animals?

Peter and the Wolf presents endless possibilities for children of all ages to discover and indulge in the fantasy of music. The instrumental backdrop provides a rich landscape of sounds to spark the imagination, while a friendly narrative voice welcomes the listener into a new world for the first time. This children's symphony is one of the great works of classical music, but it is not the only option for integrating music into the classroom. Students could choose songs that they feel represent the current reading assignment and present their reasoning to the class. They could also analyze song lyrics as if they were poetry. There are endless ways to get students involved with music on a more personal level, and I enthusiastically invite you to add them here. Have you taught Peter and the Wolf  in your classroom? What are some other ways that we can use music to strengthen our lesson plans and spark the imaginations of our students?

Jamie Spagnola is a Customer Service Representative at the Great Books Foundation. She also holds a BA in music from the Bower School of Music at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Question from the Classroom

Is it ever okay to ask my students evaluative questions?

Shared Inquiry™ focuses on interpretive questions—questions that invite students to explore the meaning of a selection through close reading and thoughtful exchange of ideas about the text itself. Interpretation begins with the questions that we ask ourselves as we read. Why does a character act in a certain way? Why does the author include a particular detail? Why do things turn out as they do? What does a certain word mean in context? As we develop answers to such questions, we get a better sense of how the parts of the selection fit together and what the text means.

Evaluative questions, on the other hand, ask students to judge an author's creation in light of their own life experiences, values, and beliefs; to decide, for example, whether they agree with the author's ideas or approve of a character's actions. In Shared Inquiry discussion, students are encouraged to defer judgment about the selection until they have completed their work of interpretation. If evaluative questions are introduced prematurely, they are likely to invite digression and elicit only personal opinions having little to do with the selection itself.

However, asking students to think briefly about their own attitudes toward a character or situation in a story can sometimes be an effective way of involving them more deeply in the interpretive process. For example, if students participating in a Shared Inquiry discussion of Langston Hughes's "Thank You, M'am" (Series 4, Book One) have trouble responding to the question Why does Mrs. Jones give Roger money for the blue suede shoes?, a skilled leader might ask, Can you describe a situation where you might help someone who tried to steal from you? After collecting a number of different answers, the leader could then lead discussion back to the original question, Why does Mrs. Jones give Roger money?

Interpreting a work of literature draws on students' personal feelings and perspectives in many ways, and the interpretive activities in Junior Great Books® are designed to help students make the best possible use of these connections in exploring the selection at hand.

For example, the Prereading activity for "Thank You, M'am" asks students to share their thoughts about being taught right from wrong. To help students think about how people learn good behavior, the leader asks them to recall someone who taught them right from wrong, or a time when they taught someone right from wrong.  After engaging in this personal reflection, students will be in a much better position to interpret the dynamic between Mrs. Jones and Roger and discuss why she gives him money for the shoes.

After Shared Inquiry discussion, the expository and creative writing activities give students further opportunities to express their thinking about a story. Students are called upon to use their own knowledge and experience to extend their thinking about a text, to relate it more concretely to their own lives, and to take full advantage of shared inquiry's potential for helping them improve their language arts skills.

The creative writing activity for "Thank You M'am" asks students to write a letter from one character to the other. The activity teaches them how to write an informal letter using a graphic organizer for ideas, and enables them to further develop their interpretation of the characters' actions.

Consider this question, Does a person need to be caught doing something wrong—like Roger— before he/she can learn right from wrong? Students will be prepared to address the issues in this evaluative question only after coming to an understanding of what Roger learns in "Thank You, M'am." In Shared Inquiry discussion, concentrate on interpretive questions, referring to the facts of the work for evidence and reserving evaluation for a time when interpretation is complete.

Michael Elsey is the Vice President of New Media at the Great Books Foundation. He has a long history as a Senior Trainer for the Foundation and in his new role is eager to explore the wonders of technology to enhance and expand the experience of Shared Inquiry discussion.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Remembering Diane Wolkstein (1942–2013)

One of the highlights of my eight years of working for the Great Books Foundation was this past June, when I arranged for author and storyteller Diane Wolkstein to visit our office.

Diane's work is a perennial favorite at the Foundation, with three of her stories appearing in Junior Great Books anthologies: "Mother of the Waters" (Junior Great Books Read-Aloud, Pegasus Series), "The Banza" (Junior Great Books Series 3, Book One), and "White Wave" (Junior Great Books Series 3, Book Two).

Her visit came about as a result of a phone call some months earlier, in which I was requesting permission from Diane to reprint a story of hers yet again in one of our upcoming projects. As we spoke about the terms of the agreement, we got to talking about storytelling, about how wonderful it can be for children to hear a story told well, how it will stay with them all their lives. Diane sent me a link to her website, where I learned that I was speaking with the woman who had at one time been given the title of New York City's Official Storyteller! I called her back and asked her how it was that we'd never had her record her stories for the audio CD that accompanies our anthologies. I could almost picture her smile as she told me that she didn't know why, but that she'd be delighted to visit us sometime and record them.

It was an absolute privilege to have Diane visit us. Over lunch, we had a wonderful time listening to her anecdotes, stories, and adventures from around the world. She gave an amazing rendition of both "The Banza" and "Mother of the Waters" in our recording studio, as well as a fascinating interview on the nature of storytelling for our website. 

We at the Great Books Foundation were deeply saddened to hear of her death last week and are honored to have had the chance to collaborate with her.

Patrick Hurley is Production and Permissions Coordinator for the Great Books Foundation. He also writes speculative fiction, and his work can be found in the magazine Big Pulp as well as in various e-zines and podcasts. When not training for marathons, he is at work on his first novel.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book to Movie: The Life of Pi

I'm usually disappointed when I learn that a favorite book or story is being made into a movie. Even though I often enjoy film versions of great tales, I assume that what I love about a book will be lost in adaptation. When I heard that Yann Martel's Man Booker Prize–winning Life of Pi was being adapted into a film, I didn't think anyone could bring such a beautiful book to the screen without abandoning what made it beautiful. What a shame, I thought, not every good book makes an equally good movie.

Reading is a private experience. A stranger's words combine with our imagination to create images and perceptions that exist solely in our heads. Sure, we talk about the books we read with friends, and our reactions to them are often similar—but the way a story looks and sounds in our mind is individual. Each of us hears the cadence of a character's voice, sees the shifts of emotion on characters' faces, and senses the atmosphere of a described location in different ways. When a book is brought to the screen, not only is there the chance that what we see will be far different than what we envisioned and felt reading the book, there's also the risk that the movie will provide so much less of everything compared to our reading that we will lose some of what the text gave us. It's similar to reconnecting with a friend from childhood as an adult. If we like the person, it's wonderful, and we're delighted to see them again. But if the grown-up version of our friend disappoints us, our fond childhood memories are now tainted by the reality of an adult we can't wait to escape.

With this risk in mind I saw Life of Pi. If you're unfamiliar with the book here's a simple synopsis: It's about an inquisitive Indian boy, Piscine (Pi) Patel, whose father decides to sell the family's small zoo and move the family and animals to Canada. After a storm sinks their ship, Pi is left sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. There's much more to it, as Life of Pi is a story of stories within stories, but I won't go into the layers of the book. In the end the reader is left wondering which stories to believe and why he or she might want to believe them. Given that most of the book chronicles the 227 days that Pi has no one to talk to but a tiger, and that it contains more reflection than action, I assumed the work was unfilmable. But thanks to the incredible talents of director Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee, I was wrong.

The movie is gorgeous, epic, and as captivating as the novel. Lee's a sensuous storyteller (he also directed the lush Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, and Sense and Sensibility) and the vast setting of a seemingly endless ocean and sky allows him to adopt a wide range of sweeping, magnificent views. In all of them sit Pi and Richard Parker, two small, powerful forces of nature at the mercy of larger forces. Both boy and animal must adapt quickly to their confining circumstances to survive. Using CGI and a rotation of real tigers, Lee brings Richard Parker to glorious, believable life without Hollywood overkill. Life of Pi is not a Disney-like story and, thankfully, the film isn't Disney-like either. Animals aren't portrayed with human qualities, and the human connection to animals and nature isn't sentimentalized or depicted as if humans can control either. Lee also uses 3D to extraordinary effect; —he doesn't employ it to surprise the audience, but only to enhance the depth and color of the glorious natural world. Screenwriter David Magee is equally responsible for the film's success. Magee and Lee worked on the script for over three and a half years, writing 170 drafts. Each received an Oscar nomination for his work on the film, a confirmation that their dedication to the material was worth it.

Life of Pi is the type of film adaptation all readers hope for—it enhances the experience of reading the book and creates an even greater appreciation of the author's work. I couldn't stop talking about and reflecting on the book when I read it in 2001, and seeing the movie years later brought me back to the same place with equal intensity. While I marveled at Martel's stunning, descriptive writing and his creativity in weaving stories together as I read the book, seeing Lee's eloquent interpretation onscreen somehow magnified my impression of Martel's talent. And last week I experienced the best possible outcome of a book-to-film adaptation—a young friend who saw the movie, but hadn't read the book, asked to borrow my copy of Life of Pi. I look forward to talking about the book, yet again, with her soon.

Sharon Crowley works in K–12 marketing at the Great Books Foundation.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Online Learning


Great Books webinars give you what you need to know now. From learning new instructional strategies to improving your skills leading Shared Inquiry™ discussions, our 90-minute interactive webinars make it easy to gain insights and collaborate with colleagues across the country.
Currently Scheduled Webinars
February 5, 2013Close Reading for Informational Texts3:00 PM to 4:00 PM (Central Time)
February 20, 2013The Power of Student Questions3:00 PM to 4:00 PM (Central Time)
February, 21 2013Shared Inquiry Review3:00 PM to 4:00 PM (Central Time)
March, 11 2013Shared Inquiry Review3:00 PM to 4:00 PM (Central Time)
March 14, 2013The Power of Student Questions3:00 PM to 4:00 PM (Central Time)
April, 18 2013The Power of Student Questions3:00 PM to 4:00 PM (Central Time)
April 19, 2013Shared Inquiry Review3:00 PM to 4:00 PM (Central Time)
Need another date? Click here.