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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!

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