Junior Great Books Sparks Creativity and Communication

Felicia Messina-D'Haiti

Students in Washington, DC, gain conversation and critical thinking skills

Felicia Messina-D’Haiti, the manager of academic enrichment programs for Washington, DC public schools, believes Junior Great Books® programs to be the “jumping off point” for students’ creativity. Messina-D’Haiti began teaching in DCPS in 2012, which is when she was first introduced to Junior Great Books and the Shared Inquiry™ method of teaching and learning. From 2012 to 2017, Messina-D’Haiti taught Junior Great Books to middle schoolers and remembers how her students would “use the theme of the stories . . . to create plays, do artwork, [and] create music.” The quality of literature found in Junior Great Books not only sparked students’ other interests and passions, but it also widened their worldview. Messina-D’Haiti explains that “reading lots of great literature that . . . they’re not encountering in the regular curriculum encourages them to check out different kinds of stories . . . and start exploring a new area of interest.”

Felicia Messina-D'Haiti

According to Messina-D’Haiti, not only does Junior Great Books spark student creativity, it also helps students become better communicators with one another. She explains that “middle school is that kind of age where the kids aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves or each other.” But with Junior Great Books, “students gain the skills to have conversations where they are using critical thinking skills, and they’re able to . . . develop conversation skills with their classmates. That’s lacking a bit sometimes, but Junior Great Books shows them how to take information, create their own ideas, and then bounce their ideas off of their classmates.”

These newfound skills don’t just apply to ELA and literature classes. Messina-D’Haiti is adamant that “the skills definitely transfer over to other classes and other social situations throughout the day.”

Teachers Are Enthusiastic

Now as the manager of academic enrichment programs in DC public schools’ central office, Messina-D’Haiti trains teachers year-round in the Shared Inquiry method. She claims that out of all the programs she helps to implement in the district, “Junior Great Books is by far the most popular program.” In fact, “several of my teachers have come . . . for different advanced trainings because there’s a continual interest in growing their skills with Junior Great Books.”

When asked why the teachers are so enthusiastic about Junior Great Books and Shared Inquiry, Messina-D’Haiti explained: “It provides a different structure or a different way of thinking about literature and takes some of the pressure off because, during the discussions, it’s not dependent on the teacher to provide all the answers. It’s also enjoyable to see what came up from the discussions with the students and how they grew.”

Junior Great Books Pivotal for Summer School

In the schools Messina-D’Haiti manages, Junior Great Books is primarily used as a secondary enrichment program during the academic year. But during the summers, “all the summer schoolteachers and instructional coaches get trained [in Shared Inquiry].” For the past two summers, Junior Great Books has been a staple of the summer school curriculum, resulting in 300 new and returning teachers trained each summer. Messina-D’Haiti enthusiastically maintains that this summer will be no different because she and other teachers have noticed that Junior Great Books has “helped with student engagement, reading comprehension, and attendance.” Because of this, she hopes to eventually conduct a formal study of Junior Great Books’ impact on the students in her district. (Studies performed in 2013–14 and 2014–15 showed that students at all reading levels who participated in Junior Great Books performed significantly better on text/reading comprehension tests than peers in control groups who had not participated in the program.)

For summer school, all the Shared Inquiry professional development is conducted online, with Messina-D’Haiti relying on Great Books academic consultant, Denise Ahlquist, to train her teachers. When asked why she keeps returning to Denise, Messina-D’Haiti confirms that “all the teachers love Denise because she is very understanding of their schedules, and the trainings are full of great information at a good pace. She gives them appropriate breaks, she answers all their questions, and she’s available to them after each training. She invites them to email her, ask questions. And then she’s very good at modeling what they need to do.”

DC public schools have been using Junior Great Books since 2000. In that time, hundreds of teachers have learned how to implement Junior Great Books using the Shared Inquiry method, and thousands of students have benefited from the program across reading ability levels. Messina-D’Haiti is “glad that we’ve been able to maintain and grow our relationship with Junior Great Books and the Great Books Foundation over the years.” And we are too.

Bring Creativity and Communication to Your School or District!

Do you want to get Junior Great Books and Shared Inquiry into your school district? Perhaps you want to develop a relationship with your own Great Books academic consultant that spans not only years, but decades. Or maybe you simply want to see an increase in your students’ creativity, critical thinking, engagement, and attendance. If that’s you, try us out today! Your Great Books K–12 partnership manager is ready to answer your call or email and meet with you to discuss just how Junior Great Books and Shared Inquiry can be incorporated into your unique setting.

Marketing Coordinator Throughout her career, Misha has taught rising 9th grade ELA and creative writing and has tutored middle and high school students in reading comprehension, essay writing, and college applications. She has also worked in event planning, marketing, and social media management for social justice and arts nonprofits based in Philadelphia and New York. Now at the Great Books Foundation, Misha is able to synthesize her love for content creation with her deep admiration for equity-based educational practices and the power of literature through Shared Inquiry™ discussion.