The Democratic Influence of Junior Great Books

Matthew Rief, a former teacher currently serving as Director of Advanced and Enriched Instruction at the District of Columbia Schools (DCPS), shares his experience using Junior Great Books.

I’m generally not a big fan of surprises, I like my life predictable and stable. However, every once in a while—sometimes more often, sometimes less—we get thrown a curveball. Those curveballs can be pleasant or not-so-much. Junior Great Books threw me a curveball that I wasn’t expecting, and I’m glad it did.

MReifAs a teacher I started using Junior Great Books in my own classroom in suburban Maryland 10 years ago. At that time and place it was designated as being for “the gifted.” Only students who had been identified as gifted and talented were allowed access to these materials as their focus on critical thinking skills were deemed to be most appropriate for only this group of students. But something unexpected happened. I had a classroom with students of mixed abilities, and so the other students heard me reading aloud the Junior Great Book stories to my “gifted” group—and they started chiming in and referencing what I had read with the other group—and they began asking for Junior Great Books instead of the controlled-vocabulary, non-authentic “leveled readers” that our school system required for guided reading instruction. They knew they could handle the challenge and they pressed me on it, asking “Why can’t we read these books too?”

Shortly afterwards, largely because of the recession, I left Maryland and started working for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS.) Now, as Director of Advanced and Enriched Instruction I’m in a position where I can direct who uses Junior Great Books, and we’ve opened the doors wide.

DCPS schools have gobbled up the resources and professional learning provided by the Great Books Foundation. We’ve implemented the program at schools throughout our city with a wide range of students, not just our high-ability students—although we certainly don’t overlook them. And what we’ve found, for the second year in a row of tracking the data, is that the students that we least expected to use Junior Great Books, our struggling students, are the ones who have benefited the most from the program in terms of increased reading comprehension and fluency.

Now we advise our schools to try Junior Great Books out with anyone—students who need a challenge, students who need something to motivate them, students who are struggling—everyone. It wasn’t how I originally planned for the program to work out, but like I said, sometimes life throws you a curveball!

  1. Jean Scott says:

    Wish my memories were more specific — it was at least 30 years ago! I do remember how the children ‘s minds [and mine!] really opened up as they realized there was no one “right” answer but many right questions. Our minds learned to examine, imagine, and apply the ideas of a story to our personal lives. I remember meeting with my co-leader to plan and as we discussed the book together we both had many “aha!’ moments. I participate in a book club today and am an avid reader, in part because of that wonderful experience years ago.

    1. Sharon Crowley says:

      Thanks for sharing Jean! Those “aha!” moments are the best, aren’t they? We’ve heard many teachers and students use the same language when describing their time using Junior Great Books—it’s awesome that “aha!” seems to be a universal experience. We’re going to be in touch with you soon so we can send you a book to thank you for sharing your memories. Watch for an email that ends with

      Be well,
      your friends at Great Books

  2. When my children were in a parochial grade school, I offered to lead an after-school Junior Great Books Discussion group. I had learned the Great Books Method of discussion as a student teacher and had spent 4 years working my way through law school, where the Socratic Method of teaching neatly mirrors the GBM.

    The kids surprised me. They wanted to be there and wanted to learn. It was not merely their parents insisting on their taking this course. We really dug into “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, which I had never read before. Its easily close to twenty years ago since I taught the course, so my memory is a little hazy on details, but the fact that I was able to captivate children of a range of ages, differing skills and different interests remains in my mind as the most important aspect of my season of teaching Great Books Method.

    I started an Adult Book Club close to 10 years ago, and was the leader for years (until I just wore out). Our discussions were based on GBM of discussion and we always an in depth discussion. When we started rotating the leadership, we started getting questions like “Who was your favorite character?”…almost made me go back to leading.

    1. Sharon Crowley says:

      Hi Erica! Thank you for sharing your impressive experience and commitment to Great Books. You represent the best of our Great Books community—bringing Junior Great Books to students and later starting a Great Books group. We’re indebted to people like you, and are grateful for your time and support. We’ll be in touch with you soon—please watch from an email that ends with

      With thanks,
      your friends at Great Books

  3. Kelly Adams says:

    I am currently working on a Masters of Education in Literacy at Judson University in Elgin, IL. In today’s course, LIT520 Reaching Second Language Readers and Writers, the professor mentioned the Junior Great Books program and how beneficial it would be for educators to get trained. I was so excited to hear another person mention Junior Great Books. During break, I immediately went to your website and came across this post about alumni. I had to share! I have asked colleagues whether they were a part of this program growing up, but much to my dismay no one had participated or knew about Junior Great Books.
    I remember in 6th grade at Dearborn Street School in California (LAUSD), I would stay after-school and read and discuss great books in the teacher’s lounge of my school. This was over forty years ago, so the details are long forgotten, but the memory of participating in this reading group has stayed with me. Perhaps this was the impetus for my great love of reading, and the catalyst that launched my teaching career. I will never know; however, the fond memories associated with reading and Junior Great Books remains!!

  4. Julia Kara says:

    I am a former student that read Junior Great Books in my GATE class in 5th through 8th grade, over 35 years ago. I am now a 1st grade teacher with a highly gifted student in my class that is reading at a 5th to 6th grade level. I am in search of resources to keep her challenged, and the first books I thought of were the Junior Great Books I remembered digging so deeply into. It was the first time I remember having to really think deeply and analyze a story. I particularly remember reading “To Build a Fire” and being deeply affected by it.

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