The Talented and Gifted School for Young Scholars in New York City began implementing Junior Great Books® schoolwide in 2012, and their program thrives today because of their deep belief in and commitment to the Shared Inquiry™ methodology. Every student in the K–8 school takes part in Shared Inquiry discussion and interpretive activities regularly because, as Assistant Principal Dr. Jennifer Cosme says, “Junior Great Books has changed our culture. Students really value the ideas of others.”
“We have gifted students who are very quick to say what they think, and sometimes it’s about getting their point across and making sure they get the last word,” Cosme says. “That just really changed when we introduced Junior Great Books. It became more about ‘What are we hearing other people say?’ and ‘How does that build on what I’m thinking?’”
Dr. Jennifer Cosme, assistant principal at TAG Young Scholars in New York City
“Junior Great Books embraces the beauty of just not knowing everything . . . it’s okay to change your mind. And I think that’s a lifelong skill, where you’re considering the viewpoints of others, thinking about your own, and then using evidence to support your opinions.”
Principal Jonathan Dascal agrees and points out another key aspect of the process: how students learn to stop looking to the teacher for validation of the ideas they express, and instead they learn to speak directly to each other, thus getting validation from their peers. “As teachers, we are trained to give our feedback to students,” he observes. “Students are also trained to give the adult, the teacher in the room, the answer they are looking for. This doesn’t promote that growth mindset.
Jonathan Dascal, principal at TAG Young Scholars
“When you take that away, it opens up this world where it’s not about ‘I said the right thing,’ but ‘I said something that was interesting to me and I have this evidence from the text to back it up,’” he continues. Dascal says that this atmosphere promotes true civil discourse in every TAG classroom. “The social discourse that goes on involves kids challenging each other’s thinking in a respectful way. They say ‘I respectfully disagree with so-and-so and here’s why.’ It’s not an ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ situation but an ‘I think differently from you and that’s okay’ mindset.”
Both Cosme and Dascal are quick to point out that, even though their school is composed entirely of gifted students, the scaffolding built into the Junior Great Books program is critical and makes deeper thought and the exchange of ideas possible for everyone. “One of the wonderful things about this program is that you don’t have to be the best reader, or writer, you just have to be able to listen and think,” says Dascal. “We have kids that are great thinkers but maybe not the best readers. And this allows them an entry point into a truly rigorous and challenging component of our curriculum.”
Cosme notes that the program allows students to access their highest levels of thinking. “Shared Inquiry does that for you, through multiple readings, teachers reading out loud, encouraging students’ questions. . . . It’s very strategic and supports all students for success.”
Cosme notes that more frequent use of Junior Great Books in kindergarten gives a big boost to students’ social emotional skills. “Our kindergarten team implements Junior Great Books on a biweekly schedule,” she says. “They find that it really helps with the SEL component. Students just learn how to talk to each other, how to respect each other’s ideas, and how to respectfully agree and disagree. Using a text as an anchor has really helped them and really accelerated their growth.”
At TAG, faithful use of the Junior Great Books program helps teachers too. “I would say the biggest benefit comes from the importance and the premium that is placed on asking open-ended questions,” Dascal says. “And we see this throughout grades, throughout classrooms, throughout subjects. Our teachers have gotten so much better at asking good questions that challenge students to truly think, make their thinking evident, and provide the support to back up whatever they say. And that comes directly from the Shared Inquiry in Great Books.” Dascal points out that the habit of asking open ended questions extends beyond English language arts. “We see it in our phys. ed. teacher, the way he asks questions, our music teachers, our art teachers—this has become infused in the fabric of what we do.”
By the time students graduate from TAG as rising high school freshmen, they are thoroughly experienced in taking part in open-ended discussions about important ideas. The school plans to teach seventh and eighth graders to facilitate discussions to some extent in the coming years, and Dascal says younger students are able to ask questions of their fellow students as well. “There’s no reason to limit it, and I think this is one of the beautiful things about this program. . . . It’s built for kindergarten on up. It shows that students that young do have these capabilities, we just have to provide them a platform for it.”
Dascal winds up our talk with a story about two former TAG students, now in high school, conducting a Shared Inquiry discussion with each other in one of their classes. “Their teacher asked, ‘How do you know how to do that?’” he recalls. “This is something that has become a part of who they are, and they carry it with them when they go to high school.
“This is a lifelong skill they are learning. This is something that benefits them throughout life—the ability to learn how to listen to other people, how to engage with others that you don’t necessarily agree with, but you can have a truly deep, meaningful discussion and have it be civil. And I think that’s something we all need a little bit more of in these times.
“That’s what this program does. That’s what Shared Inquiry does. That’s what Great Books does.”