Q&A: Books Foundation Seeks To Teach What 'Reading Really Is'

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The Chicago-based Great Books Foundation has for more than 40 years sponsored programs designed to encourage schoolchildren and adults to read and discuss literary classics.

Its Junior Great Books program, for example, is now offered in more than 3,500 school districts nationwide to introduce classic literature to students.

The organization's newest effort, unveiled last fall, may be its most ambitious venture to date: a "great books" program aimed at children who may not yet be able to read. Modeled after the foundation's program for older children, the new project, known as the Read-Aloud program, targets children between the ages of 5 and 8.

Teachers who participate in the program are required to attend a two-day workshop where they are trained in the organization's literary discussion method, known as "shared inquiry." Students in the program read and discuss the stories and poems at least three times: twice in the classroom and once at home with an adult who pauses to ask open-ended questions that emerge from the readings.

Carolyn S. Saper, the foundation's coordinating editor, spoke to Assistant Editor Debra Viadero about the new program and about how studying classic children's literature enhances children's education.

Q. Why is it important for young children to study literary classics?

A. In order for children to really become good readers, they need to understand what the purpose of reading really is, which they can't do if they're only going to be exposed to skill-based instruction.

The kinds of stories children are going to be able to read at that level aren't really going to be able to engage them intellectually or emotionally, so it's terribly important that they be exposed to the kind of literature that does speak to them, that can enrich their lives and make them think, because that's really the true purpose of reading.

Q. What are the "great books" for young children?

A. I should first point out that, while we call ourselves "great books," we are not in any way trying to establish a canon for children.

We have in the Read-Aloud program a lot of folktales from cultures around the world, because we strongly believe that folktales embody universal themes that speak to all children, no matter where they come from or what their backgrounds are. We do have some modern children's classics as well--stories by Carl Sandburg, for example, and Beatrix Potter, and Isaac Singer, and poetry by Garcia Lorca, Langston Hughes, and Edward Lear. We've got Native American poetry and even Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare. We include Ariel's song from the Tempest, along with Native American and African songs in the same unit.

Q. The Junior Great Books program has been criticized for not including many works by non-Western authors. It sounds as though you are attempting to address those complaints in the Read-Aloud program.

A. We're a nonprofit foundation and,11lnot in a position to revise books annually in the way that textbook publishers can do. And our current series is several years old.

There's no question that the Read-Aloud program is culturally diverse, and we're always reading to expand our program. As more and more is published, more and more does get included in our books. Our primary criteria are: Are those works genuine stories and poetry? Do they raise genuine questions that will interest and stimulate the thinking of both children participating in the discussions as well as adult leaders--because that is really the crux of what shared inquiry is.

Q. What is "shared inquiry?"

A. A distinctive part of the educational mission of the foundation is to teach teachers and parent volunteers in how to lead [a] very special, open-ended discussion.

In our workshops, adults are taught how to read interpretively and pinpoint questions of interpretation that are of interest to them. In other words, they might read "Jack and the Beanstalk," and after reading it two or three times and taking their own notes, they learn to write their own questions that are real to them.

They aren't going to say, "Who was the first person Jack talked to after he left home?" That's not an interpretative question. The teacher knows the answer to that, and the children know the teacher knows the answer so they don't have a genuine collaborative inquiry into the meaning of the tale.

But after really trying to grapple with the text herself, [the teacher] might come away with this question: Why does Jack climb the beanstalk again even though he's got inexhaustible wealth from the hen that lays the golden eggs? Children know the teacher is asking a genuine question, and then you've got a really genuine learning situation. The children and the leader try and work together to try to understand what the profundity of "Jack and the Beanstalk" really is.

Q. What is the value in that kind of inquiry for young children?

A. It teaches you how to think. It makes a child's education an active process, as opposed to passively absorbing that information the way an awful lot of children's routines require them to do. They are being taught tools for finding out the answers themselves ... and that is something children can learn from a very early age. Even before those kids can decode they can think about literature and be moved by literature.

Q. Don't young children get frustrated that no authority figure can give them the "right answer" to questions about the literature?

A. We don't say there are not right answers. We say there are several good answers that are possible. It's not the case that any answer will do. It has to be an answer that they will support.

If the teacher says, "Why did Jack climb the beanstalk for the third time?" a child couldn't say, "His mother told him to," because there's not evidence to support that. But he might say Jack wanted to destroy the ogre and point to places in the text that show that the ogre is wicked and needs to be destroyed. ... Children don't get frustrated by that, especially when they're taught early on that there are many different perspectives.

For many kids, this is the first time a teacher or an adult has looked to them for insight to a real question.

Vol. 10, Issue 20

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