Shared Inquiry Fosters Community and Collaboration

Junior Great Books launches “beautiful journey” in Washington, DC

Steven Berry, a second-grade teacher at Van Ness Elementary School in Washington, DC, just began using Junior Great Books® and the Shared Inquiry™ method of teaching in November 2023. The community that has been fostered through this new methodology has ignited Berry’s enthusiasm for teaching and made his classroom a group of willing communicators.

Berry boils it down to this: “[In Junior Great Books], you pretty much just listen to each other,” he says. “All of the rules of Shared Inquiry are applicable not only to when we’re reading Junior Great Books stories, but for any other whole-group activity. So we have kind of adopted the Shared Inquiry approach to most of the things that we do in class.”

Creating a Community of Learners

Shared Inquiry provides teachers with a framework focused on collaborative thinking, where teachers and students work together to understand a text. The goal is to create a community of learners within which every student is supported and challenged to find their own voice, develop deep understanding of texts and other perspectives, and engage in respectful, civil discourse while learning from one another.

Steven Berry, second-grade teacher, Van Ness Elementary School.

Berry’s class just finished the Series 2 unit on Friendship, which features the stories “The Happy Lion,” by Louise Fatio, “Miss Maggie,” by Cynthia Rylant, and “Anancy and Dog and Puss and Friendship,” a West Indian folktale as told by James Berry. “I really loved the curriculum and the experience with young people,” Berry says, “so I was excited when I got my class to be able to use the materials and the resources of Junior Great Books.”

The Junior Great Books activities—reading a text, asking questions about it, rereading or listening to the audio version of the story, then discussing it as a whole class—prepare children very quickly to listen respectfully to each other and to honor each other’s opinions. Berry found that these activities opened up routes of communication between his students throughout the curriculum . . . and beyond it.

Building Identity and Encouraging Expression

“There’s a young person in my class who—I would say 90% of the young people identify as African-American—but I had never heard [this particular student] talk about identity. We just finished studying communities and how people come together, and, as we were talking about holidays and experiences and identity, she expressed that she did not have many friends and didn’t feel like she had a big community around her. So she posed a question to the group: ‘I don’t know how to dress for the holiday season for Lunar New Year. . . . I don’t know if I should wear my Korean clothes or my Vietnamese clothes.’”

“And so she’s now inviting this group of young people to go on this journey [with her], in terms of expression and community, how to respect her communities, and it became a moment where young people stopped to think, ‘Oh, she belongs to two communities; maybe she can honor both.’”

Berry says this “opened up an opportunity for us now to extend our definition of community and expression and really explore and build content to guide her as she makes this decision on how [to] express herself over the holidays. So we started to look at community, in terms of where Lunar New Year is celebrated, how people celebrate Lunar New Year . . . and this rich journey is happening because of questions that are being posed by young people about identity and community.” Berry believes his students are more apt to pose these questions and help each other because of their experiences discussing Junior Great Books stories in a now more collaborative and safe learning space.

Respectful Questions Open Doors

“This rich conversation, this rich journey is happening because of questions that are being posed by young people about identity and community and how to celebrate, and what celebrations mean. It’s just this beautiful experience.”

When asked if he felt that this rich communication comes out of his students’ participation in Junior Great Books and Shared Inquiry, Berry replies: “Absolutely. They’re looking at each other, they’re listening. . . . [T]hey were really open to being a part of ‘How can we help her?’ Because there’s no right or wrong answer. I felt they were thinking ‘How can we help her make a decision that’s really important to her about identity because so many people belong to so many different communities.’”

One of the main cornerstones of Junior Great Books and Shared Inquiry is just this: asking questions that may not have one right or wrong answer. The text selections and Shared Inquiry sequence of activities teach students that it’s okay to follow their curiosity, even when they’re not sure where their curiosity might take them.

Berry very much prizes “the questions that young people can ask each other” as a result of the practices they develop in Junior Great Books. He notes that when reading “Miss Maggie,” his students asked, “How did the bird die?” to which he replied, “How did you know it was a bird?”

A student pointed out, “It says ‘starling’ [in the story],” so another student got the classroom dictionary, looked up the word “starling,” and, as Berry says, “It just so happens that in our dictionary, there was a picture of a starling right there.”

“So you see, we have all these opportunities and all these tools to understand what we’re reading, and then to apply it to our everyday lives. The materials are just so helpful, and they guide the young people to really rich texts to get a deep understanding of not just how they fit into the community, but they’re defining community for themselves, as well as friendship, which was the goal of this unit.”

“It’s been a beautiful journey.”

Longtime Success in DC Public Schools

Junior Great Books has been a successful program in District of Columbia Public Schools since at least 2001. Multiple research projects, including a two-year study initiated in the 2013–14 school year, showed that students who participated in Junior Great Books had significantly higher increases in Text/Reading Comprehension than students who did not participate in the program. Download the accompanying study to see the results!

Currently, Junior Great Books is strongly supported by Felicia Messina-D’Haiti, Manager of Academic Enrichment Programs, and Matthew Reif, Director of Advanced and Enriched Instruction. Both are in the Office of Teaching and Learning in the district. In 2022, the DC Public Schools added Junior Great Books to their summer school program, using it in 2023 with plans in place to do so again in 2024.

In a recent email to Great Books professional learning consultant Denise Ahlquist, who Steven Berry calls a “great teacher,” Messina-D’Haiti said:

I wanted to take a moment to thank all of you for training and working with our teachers. The teachers began summer programming excited about using Junior Great Books and the Shared Inquiry method. The instructional coaches have also jumped in to further support their teachers and students.

Judging by the lack of questions I’ve received about implementation and the observations that Matthew has made while visiting schools, the teachers have embraced the program with much success.

We wish DC Public Schools all continued success and are committed to guiding their Junior Great Books implementation and further professional development for a long time to come!

Bring Junior Great Books to Your School or District

Would you like to create a community of learners who are open to discussing fun and interesting texts? Would you like to galvanize teachers like Steven Berry to take the Shared Inquiry process beyond English language arts to create a collaborative and open atmosphere throughout (and beyond) the school day? Please get in touch with the Great Books K–12 partnership manager to begin the conversation!