Elyria City School District

Junior Great Books Shared Inquiry process gives all students a chance to make their voices heard

Amy Keir with a favorite book

Amy Keir with a favorite book

Amy Keir, K–12 teaching and learning coordinator for the Elyria City School District in Elyria, Ohio, greatly expanded the use of Junior Great Books® in her district in 2018, using a Striving Readers grant to make the program part of its primary instruction for fourth through ninth graders. “We have written it into curriculum maps in a very mindful way to ensure that it’s part of teachers’ curriculum,” Keir says. “It is something that we feel is non-negotiable, that we need to be doing with our students.”

The Striving Readers grant grew out of the district’s earlier use of Junior Great Books with gifted students at younger grade levels. The program is still available to those students, but it is now part of Tier 1 instruction for all fourth through ninth graders. Keir was key in writing the grant application and making the program available to so many more students in Elyria.

Why did Keir work to make Junior Great Books integral to her district’s English language arts curriculum? She says that she has found it gives all students a chance to make their voices heard.

We now have a more structured setting for face-to-face discussion.

Middle school ELA teacher using Great Books/Shared Inquiry in Tier 1 instruction

“Junior Great Books provides multiple entry points for kids to show what they know through discourse,” Keir says. “As far as I’m concerned, it is an equity piece in our curriculum, as we talk about equity. Because the kids really feel as though . . . once they understand what’s expected of them, they learn that they have something to offer, in a very safe environment.

“I feel like Junior Great Books is one of the greatest investments that we can provide our kids for lifelong learning. As students get more practice participating, they learn how to have very respectable conversations, and they learn how to understand others’ viewpoints. And my goodness, this past year has certainly been evidence as to why that needs to be the case on any number of political, social, and even health levels that kids are experiencing today.” Keir observes that many of the children in her district “have not had these types of conversations at home. We certainly have a duty to offer it to kids.”

Keir says that the district has “done a really fine job at our primary grade levels teaching kids how to read.” The fact that the Striving Readers grant is helping older students read for deeper comprehension, think critically, and express themselves through the Shared Inquiry™ process is a big bonus. “We have made a commitment to use this program in a very pure fashion for kids to gain these lifelong skills,” Keir says.

By “pure fashion,” Keir means that all of the district’s ELA teachers in grades four through nine conduct at least two Shared Inquiry units per quarter, working through prereading activities, first reading followed by sharing initial questions, second reading activities with note-taking, Shared Inquiry discussion, and post-discussion writing. Each unit is a complete treatment of a text, with all of these important elements surrounding the key piece: Shared Inquiry discussion. As they become more familiar with Junior Great Books, many teachers conduct additional units throughout the school year.

Keir makes special mention of the Great Books Foundation’s support through professional development. Every year, she includes initial Shared Inquiry training in her budget for teachers new to Junior Great Books. She also makes sure the district can provide funding for coaching and on-site consultation.

Great Books trainer in consult with teacher for Shared Inquiry DiscussionKeir has a special relationship with Great Books staff trainer Denise Ahlquist, who has provided almost all of Elyria’s training support for the last three years and counting. “Denise is some kind of wonderful,” Keir comments. “And I say that with all respect, because we do a lot of teacher training, and I don’t put anything in front of teachers that we don’t train and support through coaching. . . . The ongoing coaching provided by Great Books helps us make sure we are implementing Junior Great Books in its pure form.”

“I think coaching is very effective,” she continues. Keir is so familiar with the program that she sometimes feels she could provide support herself, but she ultimately decides “it’s important to have someone who knows the program and does it every single day.” This brings Ahlquist to Elyria for regular visits.

In addition to initial training and coaching support for teachers, Keir invites school principals to take the Great Books Shared Inquiry Essentials training so they know what to look for when they conduct evaluations. Teachers are so proud of the work they do with Shared Inquiry that they often invite principals to evaluate their classroom work while they are conducting Junior Great Books units.

The distinctive part of Great Books professional development “is that it’s trained in the same manner that you’re actually using the program,” Keir says. She notes that the pandemic, despite creating vast problems, also created a unique opportunity for Elyria’s Junior Great Books teachers. “It has been a great thing for teachers to interact with Denise virtually,” she says. She observes that Ahlquist took the time to instruct teachers in “this is how I would do it virtually” sessions so they could continue to use Junior Great Books to best effect as students were learning remotely.

In addition, the district took advantage of the remote learning setup to invite Ahlquist into the district’s grade-level meetings this year. “It was awesome,” Keir says, “because they are now with their grade-level colleagues, and they’re saying, ‘Okay, what’s working and what’s not working, and how did you do this?’”

Keir plans to continue the successful use of Junior Great Books in Elyria City schools, using the training, coaching, and classroom materials that have given so many of the district’s students a chance to express themselves through discourse. She has learned through this difficult time that Great Books provides the learning and support students and teachers need whether in person, hybrid, or online.