Recently we connected with Priscilla Hollington, coordinator of Gifted and Talented Education and Magnet Academies for Orangeburg, South Carolina, County School District. Ms. Hollington helped bring Junior Great Books® to three independent school districts as they merged to become the new consolidated Orangeburg district, providing introductory Shared Inquiry™ training for 22 third- through fifth-grade teachers in September 2021 so they could implement Junior Great Books with their students. Hollington made sure that the district provided ongoing support in the form of follow-up video coaching, which was carried out by seasoned Great Books trainers Denise Ahlquist and Teri Laliberte.

The following account of teacher and student experiences with the Shared Inquiry method and Junior Great Books is provided by Ms. Hollington.

Shared Inquiry Champion 

As the push for more rigorous, comprehensive curricula gained momentum in our school district, the Gifted Education team and I began to take a closer look at the services and instructional resources we provided to our high ability students. Of course, Junior Great Books was included on that extensive list. To offer some context, Orangeburg County’s three independent school systems recently consolidated into one school district. Understandably, prior to consolidation each district had its own vision, leadership, and resources. It was imperative for the newly formed district to reach consensus on some important issues—to include curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Year three of becoming Orangeburg County School District was challenging due to the impact of COVID-19 and all that it entailed. However, my team and I did not lose sight of the need to support teachers of high ability and gifted learners. We recognized that only one of the three consolidated school districts used Junior Great Books as part of their core content for instruction. A few meetings later, our Teacher Leader team agreed that the high quality literature, comprehensive language arts support, and digital as well as print access would assist us in reaching our departmental goals.

Serving as the coordinator of gifted education in the district, one of my goals is to build collective teacher efficacy around creating environments and lessons that encourage students to think critically and to take risks. To that end, Junior Great Books, with its focus on Shared Inquiry, became the instrument of choice.

What are the most important skills that Junior Great Books has helped students practice?

Students have become more discerning readers and more confident in their ability to challenge the text by using evidence from the text itself to justify their thinking. They have also become active listeners and effective communicators as a result of participating in group discussions. This can be observed in the video recordings of classroom literature discussions where students wait patiently to share their ideas and use (teacher posed) prompts to elaborate on a thought or to pose a follow-up question. Furthermore, the types of questions students ask are more interpretive and evaluative in nature. I believe this adds to the depth and wealth of the conversation.

How has using Shared Inquiry and Junior Great Books influenced the way teachers teach?

Teachers are modeling how to take risks and make approximations with no fear. I see them taking on dual roles as learners as well as guides for students. Questioning, paraphrasing, summarizing, justifying, and refining their responses to stories by award-winning authors frees their students to do the same. Teachers are asking higher order thinking questions which push student thinking and require them to step out of their comfort zone.

How did teachers change their practice after receiving feedback about their videos from Great Books trainers?

This model of coaching and support had the greatest impact on teacher performance. Having time to view their lessons alongside a knowledgeable trainer truly shortened the distance between the cognitive processing theory Great Books teaches (Shared Inquiry) and its practical application in their classrooms. Immediate feedback from Teri and Denise focused on the strengths of the lesson as opportunities for growth. This strengths-based coaching reduced teacher apprehension about the process, and made them more aware of the possibilities Shared Inquiry could bring to their other content-area instruction. Teachers commented that having the additional support from the Great Books trainers was invaluable. They wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Why is it important to you that teachers implement Junior Great Books with fidelity to the program?

It is imperative that teachers implement Junior Great Books with fidelity because state standards for learning and accountability do matter. Junior Great Books addresses all the components of language arts (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) seen as an integral part of a child’s formative education. K-12 educators are responsible for ensuring that all students learn and develop certain skills prior to completing high school. This includes being able to compete in a 21st century, global marketplace where being able to think well—critically, discretely—is a prerequisite to creating a career and lifestyle marked by success.

In my humble opinion, teaching students to question ideas and to persist in understanding—as Junior Great Books compels them to do—sets them up to be effective thinkers and problem solvers in any career path they choose to follow. If we expect to achieve the desired results (as indicated by the curriculum or program) we have to use the product as prescribed. Otherwise, we are simply wasting our students’ time and talents.

What do students like best about participating in Junior Great Books?

Students love to talk. It is true. Junior Great Books allows students to participate in productive talk while exploring rich literary texts. They are able to communicate their ideas without the pressure of having to give the “right” answer. Student voices are welcomed and valued in the Shared Inquiry environment. Here are a two of my teachers’ responses to this question:

The students enjoy the stories and communicating their ideas with their classmates. After the students realize that there are no wrong answers, as long as they support their answers with evidence, they tend to become more engaged, even the shy students.

—Ashley Murray
Edisto Elementary School
Broadcasting and Journalism Academy (BAJA Magnet)
Lead Teacher

Students enjoy making meaning out of the text while having “adult-like” conversations that relate to real-world experiences.

—Audrey Irick
Orangeburg County School District
Gifted and Talented Education
Lead Teacher

What do teachers like best about the program?

Teachers remark about the impact that inquiry-based literature discussions have on student thinking as well as their writing. Often, the delight for teachers is watching as students take ownership of the Shared Inquiry process and their learning. Students produce oral and written responses that push the limits of reason. It is also common for meaningful conversations to erupt in response to one question or one passage of text. Ideas from these conversations may resurface several times, in various content areas, even once students have moved on to a different literary or informational text. And this discourse is not superficial. Students are making connections across disciplines and with real-world situations. Teachers appreciate the depth of student thought as well as productive debate with their peers.

Priscilla Hollington, coordinator of Gifted and Talented Education, Orangeburg, SC, County School District.

Engage Students and Teachers Through Junior Great Books

Would you like to see students become more discerning readers, be more confident discussing texts, and use evidence from the text to justify their thinking? Would you like them to become active listeners and effective communicators? Would you enjoy seeing teachers asking higher order thinking questions to elicit deeper thinking and more participation from their students? The experiences of both teacher and students in Orangeburg, SC, have been replicated throughout the nation with students of all abilities.

To get started, contact your K–12 partnership manager today!