Brienne Cundiff, an educator in Crown Point, Indiana, has 19 years of elementary teaching experience, and has used Junior Great Books® as a classroom teacher with first-, third-, and fourth-grade students. She recently began serving as one of the high ability teachers in her district, the Crown Point Community School Corporation. She currently works with K–2 students who are identified as needing enrichment and tests and places students in grades 3–5 for the district’s high ability program.

We asked Ms. Cundiff to share her experiences with Junior Great Books and Shared Inquiry™ as this month’s guest speaker.

What have been your experiences using JGB with students? What grade levels have you worked with?

I’ve used Junior Great Books in a variety of ways throughout my career as an educator. I have used the JGB curriculum as a classroom teacher with first-, third-, and fourth-grade students, and in whole group and small group settings. In the small group setting, I was able to differentiate within my reading block by using the stories weekly with my top-tiered students. This allowed me to provide more challenging and engaging texts while also promoting collaboration. As a first- grade and fourth-grade teacher, I worked with my grade level teams to provide enrichment for all of the highly-abled students at that grade level. Students from all classes traveled to my classroom each week during reading block to receive instruction with the JGB stories.

I’m now serving as one of the high ability teachers within my district. I work with students who have been identified as high ability in the upper grades, as well as those identified as needing enrichment in kindergarten through second grade. I’m using the stories weekly with my first- and second-grade students during my enrichment time with them. Each week, I introduce a new JGB story and the corresponding activities. We wrap up each story with a Shared Inquiry discussion. I give students a focus question which is the focal point of discussion. After discussion, they complete a rubric as a means for evaluating their levels of participation, critical thinking, and citing of evidence.

My experiences with using the JGB curriculum have been nothing less than amazing! I have observed the growth of my students in every grade level where I’ve used the curriculum. Furthermore, the excitement and high levels of engagement that can be observed during these lessons are unmatched. Students love the nature of the stories and the themes that are found in them. The stories build suspense and leave room for the students to make inferences. This curriculum is my favorite to use with students of all ages!

My experiences with using the JGB curriculum have been nothing less than amazing! I have observed the growth of my students in every grade level where I’ve used the curriculum.

In working with first graders, how have you seen them respond to JGB? What do you see them doing and learning?

In working with primary students, I have seen them respond with great enthusiasm. Students who are stronger readers feel challenged and encouraged by the stories because of the opportunity to read texts that are more closely correlated to their reading levels. On the other hand, students who are still developing as readers also show excitement because the stories are read aloud as part of the Shared Inquiry process. These students typically have stronger oral comprehension skills than decoding skills and now have the opportunity to contribute to the discussions, which is phenomenal.

As primary students work through the Shared Inquiry process, they learn crucial skills for becoming a critical thinker. I have witnessed my first-grade students formulating questions while listening to the first read of the story. They are learning to use context clues to figure out the meanings of new vocabulary words presented. Most importantly, I observe them responding to one another’s ideas during discussion and challenging the ideas they are presented with.

How has learning the Shared Inquiry method affected the way you teach? Do you use aspects of the method with other subjects?

The Shared Inquiry method is one that I have found to be most effective across all subject areas. Using the JGB curriculum has helped me to strengthen the questioning techniques that I use with students, regardless of the subject matter. As an educator, my primary goal is to teach students how to think critically. This is a skill that will serve them well in their pursuit of lifelong learning.

Using the Shared Inquiry method has motivated me to teach students to think deeply on all levels. For instance, when learning about science and social studies concepts, I am intentional about developing questions beforehand that will lead to deep discussions. In the area of mathematics, the inquiry process lends itself to students discovering how there are several ways of thinking about a problem. Overall, incorporating the Shared Inquiry method practices has made me a stronger teacher.

If you used JGB during remote learning, how did that work? What adjustments did you make?

In my district, we were fortunate to have access to the digital version of JGB, so I was able to use our district’s online platform to link the stories for students to listen to during remote learning. In addition, they had access to various worksheets and activities for each story. This was so useful for students! Remote learning did not hinder our participation in using the JGB curriculum. In my first-grade classroom, we were able to have a Shared Inquiry discussion via Zoom. One adjustment I made was to break the students into three smaller groups rather than two for the discussion circles. Having fewer students per group was more manageable from a remote learning standpoint.

What would you say are the most important things that students learn by doing JGB?

The skills that students acquire by doing JGB are just incredible. They learn how to develop questions while listening to or reading a text. They discover how to make inferences based on the ambiguous nature of the stories. They are introduced to challenging vocabulary. They learn to think deeply about the texts they read across subject areas. Most importantly, they learn how to become better critical thinkers, which ultimately leads to better contributors to our society in the future. I cannot speak highly enough of the JGB curriculum and encourage my fellow educators to use it as often as possible!

Great Books Shared Inquiry Guest Speaker Brienne Cundiff

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