Those of you who have been following this blog may remember that I have been teaching a group of about 17 bright, young students (1st and 2nd graders) in an Enrichment group 5 days a week for 45 minutes.  This group is proficient/advanced in reading and tested out of our scripted Corrective Reading program that the rest of the students in their grade participate in. When I was assigned this group I was given no materials, no curriculum and no guidance as to what I was supposed to be teaching these bright minds.

It was kind of exciting.

Over the last few months we have created a podcast, written Storybird stories and are almost finished with a VoiceThread. Since no one was telling me what to teach, and it was an Enrichment group,  I figured, “What could be more enriching than creating authentic assignments for them?”

Then, a few weeks ago I got a message from  my principal telling me that the following day (nothing like last minute!) I would be attending a training on a new program for my Enrichment group.

“Great. Now they’re giving me a scripted program,” I thought.

I hopped on the subway the next morning to William Penn High School (at least it was easy to get to) to attend the training. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the feeling I had as I walked in the room and found a seat.  “Let’s just get this over with. At least I have my laptop, so I can get some things done.”

Boy was I wrong.

Turns out, the program, Junior Great Books was exactly the opposite of what I expected.  I was so engaged and busy I didn’t have time to even look at my laptop, which sat closed in front of me. The presenter/trainer engaged us in a 45 minute Shared Inquiry discussion about–no joke–Jack and the Beanstalk.

Junior Great Books, part of the Great Books Foundation‘s reading program, provides kids with real, un-watered down literature.  It provides them a chance to read the story numerous times, each time delving deeper into the story. It also provides them with a chance to discuss the book focused around an Inquiry question created by the teacher. (Ours was “Why was Jack not content after his second time up the beanstalk?”) During the discussion, the teacher can only ask questions. There is no “good idea, Jimmy,” or “Good point, Susan.” It’s a true Socratic discussion with the teacher as the discussion leader.

There are 5 Sessions per week/per story:

  1. First reading followed by sharing of questions and reactions.
  2. Second reading with discussion questions that are written in the margins of the book.
  3. An activity based on the book (could be writing, art or kinesthetic activity)
  4. Shared Inquiry discussion with teacher as discussion leader
  5. Creative activity based on the story, but going in any direction the students want 

    Here is a sample Shared Inquiry discussion:

    (it’s with 7th graders, but the model is the same for my age group as well)

    Harrison Bergeron Discussion from The Great Books Foundation on Vimeo.

    I introduced our first story, The Happy Lion, to my students on Tuesday. It is definitely a challenging read for my 1st graders, so I gave the option for all students to either read along in their books or listen with their book closed like a bedtime story. One of my 1st graders curled up in his chair to listen!  After reviewing some new vocabulary (like Bonjour and Au revoir), we got started. I told them that this was the first time we were hearing the story, so I would not be asking them questions or answering questions; we would just read it to enjoy the story. I told them that I would take questions at the end.

    (If you want to hear the story, you can listen to me read it here)

    After a nice, quiet, yet engaged read aloud I asked if there were any questions. A couple of questions were about vocabulary words like hubbub and swished. Then the most amazing thing happened. My students, unprompted, asked inquiry questions.  First came: “Why did the people all say, ‘Hi’ to the lion, but when the lion said, ‘Hi,’ they all ran away?” Then: “Why does the lion say ‘so this is what people must act like when they’re not at the zoo?‘” I couldn’t believe how sophisticated these questions were. These are 1st and 2nd graders!  We put the questions up on the board to keep them in mind for our later readings of the story.

    All I could think was: “So THIS is what teaching reading should look like!

    I’m saddened that only my group of students gets to experience this wonderful program that will definitely pique their interest in reading, engage them with wonderful stories and build their critical thinking and discussing skills. Their peers are stuck reciting phonics and tracking words. What will happen, I wonder, to those students’ love of reading and ability to think deeply about what they are reading?


    1. Irene Tortolini


      I agree with you! Junior Great books IS an amazing program. I also am saddened as you are by scripted phonics programs which merely promote decoding instead of fueling a LOVE of reading and higher, critical thinking. And I'm finding that this isolated scripted teaching is not transferring over to their reading and writing (not to mention that it is purely rote memorization with no higher level thinking involved).

      There are other ways to teach decoding. Encoding or writing was always how I taught it before. They got the meaning out of what letters-sounds were while also fueling their creative thinking. The scripted programs are taking this precious writing time away from writing and read-alouds! I teach struggling readers in 1st grade and know that there is a better way. We just have to get creative and work around these scripted programs somehow! We can find a way if we continue to share. Thanks for all that you do!

    2. Reply

      I completely agree, Irene. As I sit here grading essays, it is literally in my face how poorly our students write. Writing forces them, as you say, to make connections between sounds and letters in a concrete way.

      Sadly, these scripted programs are purchased by the district through contracts and deals with companies that rarely think of anything except making money. Even worse is that we are observed to make sure that we are implementing the program according to the rules, so there is no room for creativity!

      I'm glad to hear that you have been successful and keep doing what you do!

    3. Dan Lindstrom


      Mary Beth,

      I work in marketing at the Great Books Foundation. Do you mind if I use some of what you say here in an email to Pennsylvania educators? As you know, we're a very small nonprofit, and we need the eloquent testimony of people like you to help us give more kids the opportunity to read the best stories, discuss them, and activate their critical thinking in a way almost no other program does. Thanks for considering my request, and thanks for the blog . . . as you say, THIS is what teaching reading should look like!

    4. Joanne


      This is an amazing program. I’ve been teaching it for the past six years.

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