Choosing K-12 Literature for Great Books Programs

I always say that the best part of being the K-12 editorial director at Great Books is that I get to read for a living. Having grown up with my nose pretty permanently stuck in a book, it’s a dream to spend much of my professional life choosing just the right texts for Junior Great Books.

But what are we looking for, exactly? Here are the main criteria the Great Books editors use when choosing selections.

Texts should support interpretive discussion.
Because Shared Inquiry™ asks readers to dive into a text in a search for multiple meanings, the text must be “deep” enough to sustain that dive. We look for selections that prompt us to ask “why”; ones that continue to surprise and intrigue us, read after read after read.

To test a selection for inclusion in our program, we first determine if we have questions about it. Then we see if those questions have multiple answers that can be supported by evidence. Our own curiosity and the liveliness of our own discussion are often good indicators of a winner.


Illustration by Brian Floca for “The Special Powers of Blossom Culp” in Junior Great Books Series 5, Book One.

Texts should raise genuine questions for students and adults.
When the editors have meaningful questions about a selection, that usually means the text will be interesting and engaging to other adults. And when adults model curiosity about a text, it reinforces for students the notion that asking questions about what you read is a valuable and exciting process. It also lets them know that teachers and students are going to work together in the search for meaning.

Texts should be limited in length.
The sequence of Shared Inquiry activities asks for close examination and analysis of a text over several sessions. Short pieces like stories, poems, and essays are ideal for classroom use, since they help students maintain focus and energy when asked to return to the text multiple times. A short text also gives students a better shot at locating specific textual evidence to support ideas.

Texts should be age appropriate—but not too simplistic.
We strive to find literature that is grade-appropriate and reflects issues that students encounter in their daily lives. We also seek out literature that introduces ideas and concepts that will expand and challenge students’ thinking about the world and their place in it.


Illustration for “Crow Call” in Junior Great Books Series 4, Book One.

Texts should reflect the real world’s diversity.
This is often the most difficult part of choosing our selections: assembling each anthology so that it reflects our multicultural, multifaceted world. We have long meetings where we deliberate, disagree, deconstruct, reassemble, and eventually find a balance of settings, cultures, protagonists, and topics. (On the plus side, these meetings help us hone our own civil discussion skills!)

No matter how difficult the process, it’s ultimately exciting and rewarding to channel our passion for great literature into the books we make for students. It’s our hope that students and teachers are similarly excited to read that literature. I welcome your comments and questions about any of our selections at Rachel Claff.

This article first appeared in the DC Public Schools Great Books newsletter, September 2014.

  1. George Adams says:

    I am currently interested in how I might use your Great Books Roundtable for my students in grades 6-8. My student population consist of 40% of boys and girls reading below grade level. I am searching for strategies to combat this trend and groom them to becoming life long readers, how can you assist me in this pursuit?

    1. Sharon Crowley says:

      Thanks for your interest in Great Books Roundtable! We’re confident GBR would be an ideal addition to your classroom & look forward to helping you implement successful strategies to improve your students’ reading levels. You’ll hear from one of our New York educational consultants soon–watch your in-box for an email that ends with!

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