Kathryn Karasek is the iDAL (instructional digital age learning) coach at Arnett C. Lines Elementary School in Barrington Community School District 220 in Barrington, Illinois. She spearheaded a Junior Great Books® implementation by arranging Shared Inquiry training for 33 teachers at the school in November 2021. More than 400 students in grades K–5 have participated in Junior Great Books on a regular basis since the teachers were trained last fall. Below Ms. Karasek answers some of our questions about the program’s impact on students and teachers since its implementation.

What are you seeing teachers learning as they practice Shared Inquiry™? How is using Junior Great Books changing the way teachers work together, and what students are learning?

Teachers have noticed that some of their students who normally struggle with decoding, and who don’t always get a chance to participate in rich literacy conversations, are contributing to the Junior Great Books discussions on a deeper level. Since the text is not only read aloud, but read more than once, all students are able to digest the material.

Another takeaway that has breathed excitement into classrooms has been listening to the variety of interpretations of the text that students offer in the class discussion. Students seem to be more relaxed about providing answers when they realize that there isn’t one right answer to the discussion question.

How did you prepare teachers to use Shared Inquiry and Junior Great Books? What did you do to make learning a new method a team undertaking?

Our building’s vision statement this year focused on supporting our students’ reading stamina to build a deep response to reading and using text evidence to support their thinking. With this in mind, we first analyzed the Common Core State Standards and looked to identify standards that support this work and also align with the types of response questions asked on the IAR (Illinois Assessment of Readiness).

We collectively agreed that the state standards focusing on character and theme analysis and on comparing characters and themes in two passages would be most aligned. We also wanted to offer teachers rich, complex texts to teach those standards, as well as effective practices to do so. That naturally paved the way for Junior Great Books.

The launch of our Great Books professional development was met with excitement from the teachers, since they appreciate the philosophy around the Shared Inquiry method. Our principal never mandated this to be implemented; he offered it as a choice, allowing teachers to utilize the method and materials when they best met the needs of their students. Teachers had the freedom to explore the stories and methods when the timing was right alongside their literacy curriculum.

What role has training with Great Books instructors played in your implementation? How, specifically, do you see training helping teachers?

The trainers have been wonderful at engaging the teachers with the practice so they learned by doing. One of the most powerful sessions, in my opinion, was when we as a staff were exploring and practicing the progression of questions in Shared Inquiry, from factual to interpretive and evaluative questions. This aspect of discussion can be challenging to navigate since the bulk of the conversation needs to come from the students. Teachers learned strategies for eliciting deep interpretations while staying in the background of the discussion.

What have you noticed students doing with Junior Great Books? In what areas are you seeing the most student growth?

I have noticed students are more comfortable with annotating texts, pausing their reading to acknowledge a reaction or question and marking what they see as significant. Students are interacting with texts, as compared to the past where we might otherwise have noticed a more passive demeanor. Now students know it is okay to read a text more than once and that it is actually better if you do!

Your district’s values include inspiring all students to achieve excellence. What role do Shared Inquiry and Junior Great Books play in achieving this goal?

Junior Great Books has leveled the playing field for all learners. Now, regardless of their reading level, students are interacting with texts in a way that supports deeper understanding and interpretation. The Shared Inquiry method offers opportunities for students to share their thoughts, free of judgment, verbally or in writing.

In other lessons, we find that the readability of a text can set some students up for a disadvantage on their way to comprehension. But the Shared Inquiry method allows all learners the opportunity to engage meaningfully with the text, since the teacher reads the text aloud. I’ve noticed that with that support all students are able to participate in the deep comprehension conversation, regardless of their reading level. Junior Great Books allows students access to more complex texts than they would have the opportunity to explore if only going by their own reading levels.