Classics appeal at an early age

Literature: Children read and discuss stories that have passed the test of time.

February 10, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Her brow creased and her lips pursed, 7-year-old Merrill Daniels pondered the meaning of the story "The Emperor's New Clothes." Her classmates, seated around a table in the Jones Elementary School library, in Anne Arundel County, dangled their feet and waited.

"Don't be greedy," Merrill said, "and don't wear something you can't see."

Patrick Malanoski, also 7, had another interpretation: "You should never judge a swindler by what they say."

Keegan Davis, 7, took a more practical lesson from the story. Before committing to buy a whole suit of clothes, "first have them make a little cloth to see if it's any good," he said.

These children, and five other second-graders at Jones Elementary, arrive at the Severna Park school one hour early on Tuesdays to read and discuss classic children's stories from around the world with a parent volunteer.

It's the Great Books, writ small.

"The stories are supposed to be thought-provoking," said Atoussa Davis, Keegan's mother, who runs the Junior Great Books group at Jones. "I want them to feel good about reading and to feel comfortable presenting an idea and defending it."

More than 1 million children throughout the country are involved in similar programs associated with the Great Books Foundation, based in Chicago and begun in 1947 by Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago.

Although not affiliated with St. John's College in Annapolis, known for its curriculum based on 400 great books, the program for young people uses the same "shared inquiry" approach: learning by reading classic literature and then discussing it with peers.

The foundation trains parents and teachers to lead discussions and publishes age-appropriate anthologies of children's stories. The Junior Great Books program has been shown to increase reading test scores and get children hooked on books, said foundation officials.

In Anne Arundel County, this shared inquiry approach is a key part of the Touchstone program, used to supplement the second- through seventh-grade reading curriculum.

"It fosters creativity," said Ruth Bowman, the county's reading coordinator. "It gives students a risk-free environment to pursue ideas, to accept one another's ideas and to approach literature in a very broad perspective."

Although the program has existed for 40 years, it didn't really catch on until the past decade. During the past five years, Montgomery and Prince George's counties added the program at many elementary schools, said Kent Sweeton, a Junior Great Books vice president. In the summer, the program will train third-grade teachers from Baltimore County, Sweeton said.

At Jones Elementary, the program is offered as an extracurricular activity, as is the French club or the drawing club. Davis began the group last month, after receiving training while living in Minnesota last year. She and her second-graders are reading a story a week for 12 weeks.

This year, Jones Elementary ranked eighth in the Baltimore area for third-grade reading scores on the state's testing program, and the pupils are good readers, said Principal Alison Lee. But officials hope a program such as Junior Great Books will make them better. "They're enjoying reading," Lee said. "I only see this program growing."

The Junior Great Books program recommends that each parent-led group be limited to eight children, and that each pay $13 for the anthology of stories they'll read in 12 weeks. Davis said the PTA has agreed to pay for the training of parents who want to lead sections.

Although many of the children are in the group because their parents signed them up, they seem to have taken quickly to the stories and discussions. At the start of a recent meeting, 7-year-old Hartin Code climbed into his chair, opened his book to "The Emperor's New Clothes," and announced to the group: "I read it twice!"

While leading the 30-minute discussion, Davis doesn't make judgments about the children's answers and lets them hash out the issues themselves, such as how the experience of buying nonexistent clothes might have changed the emperor.

"He'd hate the swindlers," Hartin said.

"No, he'd hate clothes," said Madeleine Mankowski, 8.

Hartin considered that and amended his opinion: "He'd hate the swindlers and he'd hate clothes because he had to go out in the procession naked."

After 30 minutes of discussion, Davis and the children moved to a rug in the library, where she handed out graham crackers and drink boxes, and the children took turns reading the next story aloud. When one child wrestled with a tough word, such as sunburn or position, the others helped sound it out.

They usually don't have time to complete the story, so they have to finish it at home - highlighting the words they don't understand - and be ready to discuss it the next week.

"I wanted to take it because I like reading," said Madeleine, who's never shy about sharing her opinions with classmates. "I like the talking parts and the reading."

Great books

The second-graders in the Junior Great Books program at Jones Elementary are reading these stories in the anthology Junior Great Books: Series 2:

"The Red Balloon," by Albert Lamorisse

"The Other Side of the Hill," by Elizabeth Coatsworth

"The Emperor's New Clothes," by Hans Christian Andersen

"How the Elephant Became," by Ted Hughes

"Anansi's Fishing Expedition," a West African folktale

"The Velveteen Rabbit," by Margery Williams

"The Terrible Leak," a Japanese folktale

"The Singing Tortoise," a West African folktale

"Three Boys with Jugs of Molasses and Secret Ambitions," by Carl Sandburg

"Cinderella," by Charles Perrault

"The Mouse's Bride," an Indian folktale

"How the Coyote Stole the Sun," a Native American folktale

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