Helping Students Grow as Thinkers and Readers

Erin Mohr leading her students in a Great Books Shared Inquiry Discussion

In January 2023, Hamilton Southeastern School District in Fishers, Indiana, drastically ramped up their Junior Great Books® program to include thousands of K–6 students across 13 elementary schools and 4 intermediate schools. Previously, the program had only been used for gifted students, but Erin Mohr, the high-ability coordinator for the district, felt that all students could benefit by participating in the program:

“It’s exciting to know that we are providing this opportunity for all of our kids,” she says. “They deserve it.”

“Just yesterday,” Mohr observes, “I was in a classroom with a teacher who doesn’t serve any high-ability students. In fact, many of her students are still emerging readers. But that doesn’t mean they have to wait to start thinking about great texts and discussing great texts. . . . We held a Shared Inquiry™ discussion on ‘Jack and the Beanstalk,’ and were discussing whether Jack was lucky or smart. Listening to these students discuss the question deeply and use evidence was so exciting.”

Erin Mohr

Erin Mohr, high-ability coordinator for Hamilton Southeastern Schools, has paved the way for a large Junior Great Books implementation in her district.

Junior Great Books selections are actual stories from cultures all over the world. We love that we are constantly sharing different diverse authors from different countries, as well as experiencing lots of different types of texts, from nonfiction to fiction to poetry.

One of the biggest benefits Mohr cites is students’ ability to grow as thinkers and readers. All Junior Great Books texts have multiple evidence-based answers to various interpretive questions, which is a key feature for Mohr and the teachers she supports.

Erin Mohr leading her students in a Great Books Shared Inquiry Discussion

Students share questions after their first reading of the Series 3 selection “The Man Whose Trade Was Tricks.”

“There is power in understanding that your first answer doesn’t have to be the ‘right’ answer,” Mohr says. “Just because your answer was one thing at the beginning and you changed it at the end of a Shared Inquiry discussion, that doesn’t mean you were wrong before. It means you grew as a thinker, and you grew in community with the other readers you were talking with. That’s actually the sign of a really great critical thinker.”

Real Texts from Cultures All Over the World

Mohr points out that the diverse selections in Junior Great Books anthologies are critical to the success of the program. When asked what elements curriculum coordinators would appreciate, Mohr says, “It’s certainly the Shared Inquiry opportunities. But it’s also access to rich texts that are real texts. When I say that, I mean texts not written by an author for a textbook. Junior Great Books selections are actual stories from cultures all over the world. We love that we are constantly sharing different diverse authors from different countries, as well as experiencing lots of different types of texts, from nonfiction to fiction to poetry.”

Another draw to Junior Great Books is the “brevity of the texts.” Mohr notes that having selections that can be read in just one or two classroom sessions enables students to complete the readings and have time for interpretive activities—from prereading through Shared Inquiry discussion and the writing extensions afterward. It’s a relief for teachers as well, who don’t have to try and fit a whole novel into their lesson plans.

An additional feature that Mohr prizes highly is the inclusion of audio files for every K–8 selection. Students can listen to every text multiple times, and, “[t]hey all have access on their iPad. They can pop their earphones in and just listen. It’s fantastic,” she says. By listening to high-quality audio versions of each reading, students not only understand the content more easily, but they also “get to hear a model read that is read fluently. Also, because there are stories from many different countries, it’s great for them to hear proper pronunciations of new words and characters’ names.”

Erin Mohr working with students before discussion

Third graders participating in Shared Inquiry discussion

Junior Great Books Meets Science of Reading Tenets

When asked if Junior Great Books supported principles cited in the science of reading, Mohr replies, “Absolutely!”

“One of the elements I think Junior Great Books really supports is the role of background knowledge in the comprehension pillar,” she notes. “For example, for the Series 4 story “Crow Call” by Lois Lowry, we just used a computer, and we started by looking up ‘What is a crow call?’ We listened to the sound of a crow call and activated background knowledge before even reading the story.” With their teacher’s help, students also investigated the Korean war, because as a class, they had deduced that the character of the father in the story was a Korean War veteran. “Because there are different stories from around the world in Junior Great Books, students get an opportunity to activate background knowledge in really interesting ways,” says Mohr.

Students also get to improve reading comprehension and fluency through Junior Great Books, which are also essential pillars of the science of reading.

“Students are constantly referring to the evidence in the text during Shared Inquiry discussions,” Mohr states. “They will point out the page that they’re going to read, their proof, their evidence, and then they read it aloud to the class. It’s very important to them that they are getting their point across. So, for that reason, they have natural motivation to read fluently, and it works out even better.”

Mohr also observes that there are “endless” opportunities for exploring vocabulary in Junior Great Books: “There is always new vocabulary, but it’s never at such a level that it’s so much new vocabulary that students can’t comprehend the text.”

A recent discussion of the story “Charles” by Shirley Jackson yielded a unique opportunity for students to explore a word which was familiar, but not used within the context students expected. “In that story the teacher calls Charles ‘fresh,’ so ‘fresh’ is certainly a word that fifth graders know—but they don’t know it in that context,” Mohr observes. “So having a chance to explore what is meant by that use . . . we don’t hear teachers call students ‘fresh’ now, so what does that mean?”

“I’ve Never Thought This Much about a Story”

All across her district, Mohr supports teachers with implementing Junior Great Books as much as she can. “I’m constantly coaching, coteaching, and modeling. And I lead Junior Great Books once or twice every day,” she attests. “I always ask classes, after we read a story, what their feelings are on it. I ask, ‘Who changed their answer? Who added to their answer? Who kept their answer the same?’ After we do that, I always ask a follow-up question of ‘How did this feel for you?’”

After a sixth-grade discussion of “The Hero of the Story” by Lemony Snicket, “one of the students said, ‘I’ve never thought about a story this much before,’” Mohr recalls.

Student's reflection on discussion

Mohr always asks students to share their feelings about discussing Junior Great Books. Many say they love being heard.

Mohr hopes to keep expanding the use of Junior Great Books in Hamilton Southeastern, so even more students, regardless of reading level, have the chance to think deeply about what they are reading, better express themselves and their ideas, collaborate with others to share their opinions, dig deep for evidence-based answers, and enjoy rich, real selections from around the world.

“I’m hoping to keep the fire going!” she says.

Learn More about Junior Great Books

Would you like to bring rich texts from around the world to your students? Give teachers a great tool to address the pillars of the science of reading? Enable your students to feel heard while investigating new ideas and new topics? Get in touch with your Great Books K–12 partnership manager today!