Junior Great Books: A month of learning & reflection

I have been implementing the wonderful program, Junior Great Books with my group of Enrichment students for a little over a month.  I have had mixed experiences, though none related to the program itself.

Implementing the program has required me to do a lot of reflection on best practices and management issues as well as opened my eyes to some real problems with how my students are and have been receiving instruction during their short academic careers to this point.

The Challenges
The main challenges I am facing are: the lack of a classroom, the size of my group, specific behaviors in my group and the time window I have in which to teach.  I have a group of 17 students in grades 1 and 2, with a range of reading levels.  The only room available to me is a section of tiered rowed seats in our IMC (Library).  I don't have a place for my students to sit in circle or tables or desks to configure to best meet the needs of the program.  The library itself is too wide open to make discussion possible and there is not a table big enough for all of us. I also only have about 30 minutes with my students each day due to transition time (they all come to me from different classrooms and grade levels and I have to take them to lunch, which eats about 5 minutes at the start and end of each period).

I have tried my best to stay true to the program, taking the first day to just read through the story as if it were a bedtime story for pure enjoyment.  The stories are so engaging and well written that the students are always engrossed and attentive. We have also taken time to discuss the guiding questions in the margins of our books on the second day.  We have spent our afternoons (an extra 20 minute period tacked on at the end of the day by our region for 'intervention') creating VoiceThread projects about the stories with drawings done by the students.  We have also worked on the worksheets provided to delve deeper into vocabulary and concepts in the story.

The most challenging part of the program to teach, the Shared Inquiry discussions, has been, not surprisingly, difficult to run without a way for my students to sit in a circle, and with trying to engage 17 students in a discussion.  We have managed to have some great conversation, though it took some real patience on my part to pull the ideas out of them.  Many of my students have been, for lack of a better phrase, spoonfed for many years. They have been allowed to sit back and have the teacher do most of the work while they sat passively and received information*.  In addition, with the stress of mandated testing, many of our students are used to there being a 'right' and 'wrong' answer.  They often look at me with blank expressions, hoping that I will finally give away the 'answer.'   I have been very open about the program, explaining over and over that I don't have the answers, that we are looking for answers together.  I understand that this change in roles from me as the holder of information to them doing most of the work will not happen overnight.  I am open with them that we are learning something new together and I am not expecting everything to come together overnight.

You can see an example on the left of how my students struggle with thinking deeper about the stories in this worksheet filled out by a student. He simply chose a definition from the box and plugged it in under a question. I should add that the third question (which used a word not defined in the box) he did begin to answer with his own thoughts.

The last challenge I have had is something that comes naturally when you have 17 students from different grades and classes coming to you every morning. I have spent the last few weeks wrangling my group back together after a disjointed winter.  We have had to relearn some procedures (such as passing out books and cleaning up), and I have 2 students who struggle with the program's structure itself.  Many of my students complained a couple of weeks ago that 'we don't do anything.'  I explained the purpose of the program and I have explicitly mapped out how each day works and what we do on each day, but for a few of them just sitting and reading is not really doing anything.

After a few student conferences and re-explaining I think we are all on the same page (no pun intended) but I have two students who struggle with just staying in a seat or staying focused.  I have sat them next to me, but it is distracting to the other students. I have tried sitting them behind the other students so they are not distracting, but they tend to wander away from the group.  I also have a point sheet for them that they can use to keep track of their behaviors (being in their seat, participating, listening, etc...) and earn points toward our 'free time' on Friday afternoons.  This has worked so far for one of them, but what the other really needs is someone to sit next to him to keep him on task while I teach, but unfortunately that does not seem to be an option.

Another hurdle has been the overarching culture present in my school that goes against the underlying goals of the program. Many of my students tease each other, pick fights and are not used to Socratic discussion.  This has required me to spend time establishing class norms and expectations as well as addressing issues that my students bring from their different classrooms as well as addressing personality differences/conflicts before we could even tackle the program head on.

I haven't given up, and I am still pulling together ideas and trying new things. Teaching is a Science, after all.

Finding Solutions
I have found some solutions and have had some successes overcoming challenges.  During discussion I found that the best strategy was not to let them raise their hands or try to jump into the discussion, but rather to just call on someone out of the blue and then move on to someone else without anyone knowing who would be next.  Still, with 17 First and Second grade students, a deep discussion can be difficult to hold.  We managed, while reading Arap Sang and the Cranes, to decide that the Vultures were lazy, that the Cranes were nice and that Arap Sang was nice. We even managed to pull proof from the text, but ran out of time to really continue the discussion.  I celebrated with them that we had found answers to our question: "Why do the cranes help Arap Sang, while Vulture and Elephant do not?"

To solve the problem of such a large group discussion I have now broken the group into two groups so that I can work with a smaller group for discussion while the other group works on an independent project.  I also got a great idea from a Great Books trainer, Deb Bowles, who came to 'check in' on those of us at my school who are using the program.  She suggested that I have the other students not participating in the discussion play a kind of 'tic-tac-toe,' keeping track of how many times a boy speaks, or a girl, or how many times a word is said, etc....  I will definitely be trying it! It may even be a way to keep my fidgety students focused for all of our activities.

We have only been doing this program for a few weeks, with many interruptions due to testing, snow days and meetings I have had to attend for my role as Technology Teacher Leader.  I don't pretend to have become an expert, but I feel my students coming around and I also know that I am asking something of them that may have never been asked of them before, so it is bound to be quite a journey.

In some ways, we're in the same boat!

I look forward to seeing how my teaching improves and how my students' independence and confidence grows over the final weeks of the year.


*This refers more to the mandated curricula that has been forced on our school, though it is most likely a mixture of mandated, scripted programs and teaching style has contributed to the problem.


Save Trees: Don't print me!