Charles County, Maryland

Group of elementary school pupils in class

Using Shared Inquiry and Junior Great Books for Fiction and Nonfiction at All Levels

Great Books trainer Michael Elsey recently met over Zoom with two experienced educators at Charles County Public Schools in Maryland: Ann Taylor, content specialist for gifted and differentiated services, and Kristen Modes, gifted resource director. Taylor works with teachers and students at the middle and high school levels, while Modes works in the district’s elementary schools.

Charles County has been using the Junior Great Books® program for more than 20 years. The district primarily uses the program for its gifted students but has recognized its value for all students, including at-risk students, and has made it available to any teacher who wants to implement it.

Regardless of which student population is being served, Taylor sees enormous benefits for students and teachers. “Junior Great Books is a research-based product that advances students in their ways of thinking, understanding text, and understanding an author’s purpose,” Taylor says. “It increases teacher capacity—their ability to understand what students need—and enables them to pull tools out, like questioning skills they learn in Shared Inquiry training, to meet the needs of the moment.”

Modes agrees. “Not only does Junior Great Books offer our county the ability to attain standards that we want our students to meet but it allows students the opportunity to meet grade-level standards and beyond,” she says. “We want them to be challenged and to go beyond the grade-level standards.”

Taylor and Modes say that the Junior Great Books Shared Inquiry™ method that teachers use is key. Shared Inquiry puts the focus on a collaborative process of thinking where teachers and students work together. The goal is to create a community of learners where every student is supported and challenged to find their own voice, develop deep understanding, and engage in respectful, civil discourse while learning from each other.

“I do believe the Shared Inquiry process is the best,” Modes says. “It’s not only great for teachers, but it’s the students learning how to have discussions with each other. Teachers learn that they are just the facilitator, there to pose questions and keep the conversation flowing. Teachers come to me and say, ‘I could tell this child has been doing Shared Inquiry since first grade, because they’re in third grade now and they have discussions with each other. I don’t really need to be there because they don’t even look at me!’”

Taylor agrees. “I can really see it in middle school,” she says. “You can tell which students have participated in Junior Great Books. It’s a program that extends through the grade levels and progresses. When teachers use it consistently, a foundation is laid, and the students benefit from it.”

Each summer, Taylor and Modes team up to offer Shared Inquiry training to all teachers in their district who have not yet been trained.

“We have had an overwhelming response,” Taylor says. “In Great Books training, teachers really get to see what good questioning is all about and how to get students to think divergently while maintaining focus on the text being discussed. Shared Inquiry is different from a Socratic seminar in that it really teaches the teachers how to focus, and stay focused, on the text. Also, it teaches how to ask a question from a question, as well as how not to be the leader but to be the facilitator.”

Each believes so strongly in the Shared Inquiry method and Junior Great Books that they regularly reach out to resource teachers who are reluctant to adopt it.

“We say, ‘Okay, how can we help you do this in your classroom?’” Taylor says. “If you’re a little nervous about doing it for the first time, we’re here to help you!”

“We’ve gone in and personally modeled the program, working as co-teachers, so that teachers new to our gifted or enrichment programs can see how it’s done,” Modes says.

For Charles County, as with most districts across the nation, this past pandemic year has made virtual learning a must-do rather than a can-do teaching method. With that in mind, Charles County offered their teachers Shared Inquiry training fully online, with additional self-paced asynchronous modules, and found the experience successful.

Taylor says that going forward, she thinks she’s going to be recommending online training to teachers. She finds the online format to be more flexible and accommodating for teachers who live farther from school campuses or who benefit from taking training during off-school hours.

Both agree that the Shared Inquiry method works just as well with nonfiction as it does with fiction. Modes says that Junior Great Books Nonfiction Inquiry, available for grades 2–5, “has been a godsend.”

“Our county has put a lot more emphasis on nonfiction because in the past, our county has not done the best with nonfiction,” Modes says. “The nonfiction that Great Books has recently published does much more than just check the box. It is so relevant to our kids. They love the stories . . . it is just such great nonfiction. With a lot of other nonfiction, it’s just really dry. The relevancy of the nonfiction Junior Great Books has provided makes it so worthwhile. The kids love it. And if the kids love it, they’re engaged, and they’re getting what they need out of it.”

Taylor has used nonfiction in the Foundation’s previous middle school offering, Great Books Roundtable, to good effect, noting in particular that “a big part of the Common Core State Standards has to do with narratives, and I think the nonfiction really lends itself to giving examples to students of how a narrative can be written. They can understand that a narrative isn’t ‘First I did this, then I did this, then I did this.’ A good nonfiction piece shows how to bring out literary elements in a narrative form and is not so cut and dried.”

Director of Digital Media, Senior Trainer, and President of International Training/China Michael Elsey has over 30 years of experience as both a professional development coach and media creator. He has conducted numerous workshops on the Shared Inquiry method with a wide range of teacher and student populations throughout the country and abroad. Michael holds an MFA in film from Columbia College Chicago and an MA in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. In his precious spare time, he is working on his second novel.