Shared Inquiry Provides a Common Language for Immersion Schools in Louisiana

For Dr. Laura Adelman-Cannon, principal of the International School of Louisiana’s Uptown Campus in New Orleans (ISL), Junior Great Books® and the Shared Inquiry™ method of learning teach children how to have meaningful and respectful conversations not only in school, but everywhere they go. According to Dr. Adelman-Cannon, “Junior Great Books . . . is exactly what prepares students to go to the university, the workplace, anywhere, and have intelligent, passionate, appropriate conversations.”

Adelman-Cannon, a self-described “Junior Great Books baby,” has been involved with Junior Great Books since she was a young child, when her mother, Mary Beth Adelman, was a Junior Great Books volunteer at Central School in Glencoe, IL. Mary Beth Adelman brought JGB stories home in order to read and record them so that children with reading difficulties could access texts more equitably, an effort to increase inclusivity which was ahead of its time.

In her career as a teacher and now as a principal, Adelman-Cannon has brought Junior Great Books to every school at which she has taught––and she has made sure it is a key component of the International School’s curriculum and teachers’ professional development options.

Dr. Laura Adelman-Cannon

Dr. Laura Adelman-Cannon, principal of the International School of Louisiana’s Uptown Campus in New Orleans.

ISL features a full language immersion program for its K–8 students, 80% of whom enter kindergarten from English-speaking homes. From their first day of school, students are taught core academic subjects in either French or Spanish. They continue to learn their second language naturally, through everyday conversation and classroom instruction. By the time ISL students leave in eighth grade, they are bilingual speakers, and sometimes even trilingual.

To make sure Junior Great Books is effective within this academic context, Adelman-Cannon has gathered as many Spanish and French story translations as possible, which allows all teachers, regardless of language, to use the interpretive questions and Shared Inquiry activities provided in Junior Great Books Teacher’s Editions. She says, “Using the Shared Inquiry method provides a common language for everyone, adults and children, to have this common experience.”

Building Culture Around a Text

Adelman-Cannon describes the common experience at ISL as “building culture around a text.” This practice is established in her school through Junior Great Books and Shared Inquiry, which is then carried into every subject teachers teach and students study.

“I really believe in literature and building character,” Adelman-Cannon states. “That’s what Great Books stories do: you pick highly amazing stories that teach really valuable lessons, whether they are about how we treat others, bullying, or so many other worthwhile themes. Through conversation about literature, we discover aspects of character. ‘Wow, this kid did that? That’s bullying!’ And this will lead to important questions, like ‘How does that make someone feel?’ So we have larger conversations about life, about how we treat people, about what’s valuable around the text we are reading. That is culturally really important.”

Including Teachers in the Process

For Adelman-Cannon, language arts teachers are not the only ones who can benefit from Shared Inquiry instruction. At a recent professional development event hosted by the Uptown Campus, Adelman-Cannon arranged for all teachers, regardless of subject, to participate. For this event, she picked The Little Prince as the text to be discussed, because it is widely available in many languages, including French and Spanish. She explains, “I wanted everyone to come together, no matter . . . their preferred language or experience, to be led through a Shared Inquiry discussion.”

Why? Because Adelman-Cannon believes it is critically important for teachers and other adults to experience the joy of interpreting a story themselves instead of always having to lead the discussions. In fact, the teachers who participated found that Shared Inquiry could be used in any subject. “My music teacher said, ‘Oh, we can use this to talk about music. The art teacher found they could use the method to talk about art. It’s how we invite people into the conversation that’s important. It doesn’t matter what the subject is.”

Respectful Dialogue Beyond the Classroom

Indeed, Shared Inquiry learning is used so well at ISL that students bring it with them outside the classroom—way outside. “We have a program called TREE,” Adelman explains, “Teaching Responsible Earth Education, where the kids go out for three days and two nights, where they’re led by environmental science teachers. I got a note back a couple of years ago from one of those teachers saying, ‘It’s so incredible how your students talk to each other!’ The teacher had observed that, in a discussion circle, ISL students were still using Shared Inquiry strategies, saying to each other, ‘Well, that’s a good point, but I disagree, and here’s why,’ or, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but I would like to add this.’” Adelman-Cannon was thrilled to hear that the respectful way in which her students communicated with each other carried all the way from Junior Great Books sessions to other subjects students study in school and well beyond the school’s walls.

“What we do is all about text, but it’s also about creating a culture of how we have conversations,” Adelman-Cannon notes. “The fact that the students were able to take it outside of the classroom, even without a text in front of them, and still apply it to: ‘Oh, we’re in a circle now? We must be doing Shared Inquiry—let’s follow the same methodology.’ It really made what we do even more important to me.”

A Great Way to Assess Speaking and Listening

In addition to creating a culture where students converse respectfully in all subjects and environments, Adelman-Cannon finds that Junior Great Books provides an unparalleled opportunity for teachers to assess students’ speaking and listening skills. “Whether you have Common Core or some other standards you are aligning with, you have to assess speaking and listening skills,” she says. “I honestly don’t understand how anyone is grading those standards if they are not doing something like Junior Great Books.”

“I can grade listening because I do it in Shared Inquiry. I have a rubric and I let students know, ‘How do I know you’re listening? Because you said, ‘So and so said this, on this page, but I disagree and here’s why.’ I am grading your listening skills.”

“I am also grading your speaking skills. Not because you raised your hand and answered a one-word answer—that’s not what this is. With students participating in Junior Great Books, I can gauge how they participate in a conversation and articulate an answer to an interpretive question. So if people aren’t doing this, they’re not grading speaking and listening.”

Dr. Adelman-Cannon has made great use of a modified Junior Great Books seating chart, which she refers to as a sociogram, to show students graphically how discussions went. She cited an example where the graphic showed just a few students speaking, and there was not much back-and-forth between the students. “Oh, that wasn’t a very good discussion,” the students noted. Adelman-Cannon then asked them, “What are we going to do tomorrow?” Her students answered, “We need to respond more so there are more arrows going across.”

Because of large class sizes in the middle school grades, the school’s teachers use the fishbowl technique to involve students in assessing speaking and listening. They set up A and B groups, and each student has a partner in the other group for whom they are responsible. “Each student actually has a grading sheet to write down what their partner did. Did they voice their opinions? Did they listen and respond? The goal is not just to talk but to have an effective conversation,” notes Adelman-Cannon. “Their grade is not just about what they do. Their grade is also about making someone better. The ultimate takeaway for me is that we have to collectively improve.”

“There’s So Much to Say!”

Adelman-Cannon says that Junior Great Books is “reading with a purpose.” She explains, “School requires you to read a certain way: to note, annotate, be able to write an essay, be able to have a conversation—and Junior Great Books is how we do that. It’s academic,” she adds, “because ultimately you’re going to have to take a test or write an essay.”

She also points out that Junior Great Books makes the process fun for students: “Because, you know, we’re talking,” she says. “They get these cool stories, and they get to share their opinions. Once they understand the Shared Inquiry method and how to share, then the idea becomes, ‘There’s so much to say!’ I, certainly, and other adults, want to listen to you when you [share] in this way. So the kids figure out, ‘When I share respectfully, people listen.’ They also get feedback from their peers. The students feel the comfort and the safety of the frame we provide, without which they would never just volunteer an opinion in class.”

Learn More about Building Culture in Your Setting

We can help you build a culture around text, as well as teach the importance of respectful conversations between students, with our Junior Great Books programs and Shared Inquiry professional development for your educators. As Dr. Adelman-Cannon emphasizes, taking part in Shared Inquiry discussion is rewarding for everyone, teachers and students alike!

Our courses can be customized to meet the needs and expectations of many different learning communities. We have worked with teachers all over the world to help them bring the meaningful work of Shared Inquiry to their classrooms. Great Books professional learning consultants can work with teachers and administrators to create a custom workshop that will support any unique curriculum where the goal is for critical thinking and civil discourse to flourish. To learn more about Junior Great Books classroom materials for grades K–12, and about introductory, advanced, and custom professional development options, please contact the Great Books partnership manager for your area!