Junior Great Books is a series of classical works that the students read and discuss in class. The stories are classical works of literature that easily promote discussion and shared inquiry. They are to guide the learners in developing their own interpretations and defending their reasoning. The works of literature selected in the Jr. Great Books series actively engage the learner in imaginative thinking as well as developing the mind as they engage in shared inquiry. In shared inquiry the students have already read the text once. The teacher text has thought provoking questions that require the learner to consider what the author intended or what the character’s true intentions are.
The shared inquiry leader is to refrain from sharing her opinions. Students usually just agree with the teacher out of a desire to be like her, or to please her, or out of respect for authority. When the leader refrains, the students feel they can share more openly in each subsequent book as the year progresses. When a teacher shares her thoughts, even at the end of the sharing, students may head off to recess with the "see, mine was right - the teacher agreed with me" attitude instead of respecting each others’ opinions supported by their facts.
I wanted to share with you a great example of our session in first grade. The students and I listened to the cassette tape of a Winnie-the-Pooh story. On the second day of working with the story the students joined me in a circle for the shared inquiry. On one of the pages, Piglet has a balloon that he is racing to give to Eeyore for his birthday. Piglet trips and pops the balloon in his race to be the first to give Eeyore this gift. An interpretive question in the teacher text asks about Piglet’s intentions as he is racing to get to Eeyore.
As the shared inquiry leader I did not share my own opinion. I began by asking each child to take the time to write his thoughts as to “Why Piglet was in such a hurry.” After several minutes (and assisting the learners in sounding out words) we were ready for our discussion. I began and restated the question. One little girl was eager to share and began by reading her thoughts; “Piglet was in a hurry because he wanted to be the first to give Eeyore a present because being first is special.” The next two students agreed with her response. The next participant in the discussion disagreed and read her opinion; “Piglet was in a hurry because he wanted to get cake.” She logically interjected that birthday parties have cake and persuaded one of the two who had agreed with the first girl to now change her opinion. Several students agreed with one of the already shared opinions. The next learner to share his thoughts read; “Piglet was in a hurry because he loves Eeyore and didn’t want him to be sad any longer so he ran.” What should have been a 15-minute shared inquiry session became a full hour of constructive disagreements, well defended arguments, and students clarifying their thoughts and forming opinions based on evidence in the story or relating to past experiences. They compared ideas, and worked to persuade each other of their opinions while considering each idea. We did not come to a group consensus as to why Piglet was in such a hurry. We did learn to form opinions based on events and not on feelings; we learned to explain and defend our thoughts more clearly, and to respectfully disagree with another person’s opinion while allowing for their thoughts to have validity. It was a real delight to experience the students so engaged in the story and deeply involved in sharing and explaining their thoughts.
Margaret Harp has been teaching first grade for the past nine years at St. Thomas More Academy in Buckeystown, Maryland.