Creating a Successful Great Books Volunteer Program

Starting a Great Books volunteer program is not difficult, but it does take some planning, organization, and oversight. The Great Books Foundation offers the following suggestions:

Keep discussion groups small. Small groups of 8 to 12 participants help ensure that everyone has a chance to speak and help the leader conduct a more in-depth, well-paced discussion.

If possible, hold discussions during regular school hours. Programs that are held during school time do not require special transportation arrangements for students. Many Great Books volunteer programs are held during lunch breaks. Before- and after-school programs are also popular.

Meet once a week for 6 to 10 weeks. This gives students enough time to read a selection twice and think about it before the discussion; it also gives busy volunteers sufficient time to prepare. A longer program (8 to 10 weeks) allows students and leaders to get to know each other and develop their listening and critical thinking skills. It may take a few meetings for everyone to become comfortable with the Shared Inquiry approach.

Allow students to write in their books. Making notes while reading helps students develop skills that will benefit them in high school and college. It also encourages careful reading and helps students support their ideas with evidence. If students are unable to write in their books, sticky notes are a good alternative.

Secure the support of the principal and teachers. Administrators and teachers can recommend the program to students and parents, ensure student attendance, set appropriate standards of behavior, and help avoid scheduling conflicts. Make sure that teachers and administrators know that Great Books programs are designed to complement the classroom curriculum by meeting common objectives in reading comprehension, critical thinking, and writing.

Secure the support of parents. Parental support is also a crucial ingredient in developing a strong program. Parents will make up your largest pool of potential volunteer discussion leaders. They can also assist the Great Books coordinator by making sure their children are prepared for discussion and by helping to raise funds to cover the cost of materials or training. Send a letter home to parents or guardians explaining the program and suggesting ways that they can help (download the Volunteer Sample Forms PDF for examples).