⌚ Socratic Seminar Report

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Socratic Seminar Report

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A Socratic Seminar with Brian West of East Hall High School

One of the biggest risks of the Socratic seminar lies in the same quality that also makes it such a meaningful assessment—it is student centered. This means that Socratic seminars depend on the performance of the students involved. At their worst, they may devolve into shouting matches or perhaps worse sixty minutes of awkward silence. Fortunately, there are concrete steps that we as teachers can take before, during, and after a Socratic seminar to cultivate effective student participation.

Prepare students with expectations for participation. Provide students with seminar questions in advance. I always require students to formally write up their responses to our seminar questions. This step goes a long way toward guaranteeing that students have done some degree of thinking about each question before our discussion. Having a written response to refer to during the seminar is useful for all students, but especially for students who are introverted or have social anxiety; it serves as a built-in talking point.

Offer a mix of required and optional seminar questions. Open with a round robin. Again, students who are introverts or who have social anxiety are never taken by surprise. Why did you do this? What happened as a result of your rebellion? What did you learn from this experience? Get comfortable with the uncomfortable. So many of us are drawn to teaching English because it gives us the opportunity to talk with young people about things that matter. At times, especially in the current political climate, these conversations can be fraught and uncomfortable, and the Socratic seminar is not exempt from these tensions.

But as educators, we should lean into that tension, in spite of the discomfort it may cause us. During a recent Socratic seminar on the American Dream in one of my junior classes, the conversation turned to white privilege. I describe my primary function during a Socratic seminar as that of a mirror—I try to reflect back or clarify what I hear students saying. Collaboratively create anchor charts of what makes strong discussion leaders, participants, and conversations. Eventually poll students to see who wants to take a more active role in leading class discussions. Directly teach, model, practice, and assess analytical and text-based questioning. This skill is essential in reading comprehension, high-level discourse, and critical thinking.

Additionally, text-dependent questions ground students in the work. Choose a rich text that offers cross-content and real-world connections. I often use a whole novel as the basis of a Socratic seminar. Create prep work based on learning objectives and student data. Whether students are in 9th grade Intro to Lit or AP Lit , I have found that prep work allows them to feel confident going into the Socratic seminar. Repeatedly explain the purpose and expectations of the Socratic seminar. I use a contract clearly outlining expectations. Once the culture and preparations have been established, it's time to set the scene for the actual Socratic seminar.

A Socratic seminar is best done in a circle, where students are equal and I as a facilitator and not a participant am on the outside. There are two ways to do that based on the class size and dynamics: one giant circle for all students, or fishbowl style where the participants in an inner circle have a discussion and the participants in an outer circle coach the inner circle. When students arrive on the Socratic seminar day, I create a five- to minute activity so that I can check for prep completion.

At the beginning of the year, this is harsh. But as the year goes on, students rise to expectations and accept that the rule is designed to ensure a better discussion and often grade. The first Socratic seminar of the year begins with a lot of direct instruction going over what makes a good Socratic seminar, what makes a bad one, and how students can get an A targets. These targets -- which can shift throughout the year -- are based on standards and can include active voice, upgraded verbs, academic vocabulary, transitional phrases, textual evidence, clarifying questions, etc.

Every Socratic seminar thereafter, I still spend time at the beginning directly establishing these norms and targets. I also have students set goals. I practice gradual release of Socratic seminar throughout the year. Early on, I insert myself into the conversation frequently. As the year goes on, these interruptions occur less frequently as students internalize expectations and step up as facilitators.

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