Socratic Seminar Conversion (Reading Strategy)

In my early years of teaching, I worked with a teacher named Rebecca who was a Socratic Seminar bad ass. She was known in our school and in our district as the mother of Socratic Seminar. I was known more as the teacher who could get any kid to write. We all have our badges of honor in our schools, and I just let Rebecca rock Socratic Seminar and I never tried it.

Until last year.

As mentioned in my last post, Stop Hating, Start Teaching, we had been struggling in my high school with students who entered 9th grade years below grade level, most of them not even reading at a middle school level. With this in mind, we decided to shift the curriculum to begin Regents test preparation as soon as the kids walked through the door. We realized that if we didn’t begin test prep until 11th grade (when students in our school had traditionally taken the English Regents) that we suffered two large consequences: 1. the lowest level kids had limited exam sittings to pass (given that they only had two years of high school left and they took the test in June of their Junior year), and 2. we had NO time to teach any sort of college skills/reading/writing because we spent the last two years of the students’ high school lives entrenched in test preparation and testing.

Therefore, when the class of 2012 entered our school we started Regents preparation in 9th grade English. And, thankfully, by January of their junior year the majority of our juniors has passed! This necessitated another shift in our curriculum. What did we need students to learn/be able to do so that they could function in the college classroom? One of the first things we decided is that they needed to be able to have an ACADEMIC CONVERSATION. They needed to be able to talk one at a time, to build ideas on others’ ideas, and to keep to the topic. They needed to be able to speak academically, to create their own critical questions about texts and topics, to take notes while others are talking, to facilitate group discussions, and to engage in a conversation while respecting others’ different opinions. We worked in this for an entire semester, and, I must say, it was awesome on many levels.

It’s also great in that it forced the quieter kids to talk a bit, which is always so hard to do.

It can be a bit sloppy and haphazard at first, but the students get it after a few times (I did it every Monday) and soon they can run the entire seminar and you can step back. Try it–multiple times–and see how it goes. You, too, can be a Socratic Seminar bad ass!

Here are some Socratic Seminar tips I pulled together for my fellow professors.

Background: Socratic Seminars are a classroom pedagogical tool used to promote intellectual discussion and dialogue. Socrates used this method of responding to students’ questions with more questions to foster critical thinking and individual idea development.

Learning Objectives:

Students will:

  1. Develop open-ended questions that foster thinking deeply about a text or an idea.
  2. Practice conversational skills such as building on another person’s idea, agreeing/disagreeing with evidence, and using academic language to facilitate discussion.
  3. Understand and practice how to facilitate a dialogue among peers.
  4. (If applicable) Work on their active listening, note-taking, and summarizing for analysis skills.

Process:

  • Socratic Seminars can be used around a common class text or as a building background knowledge activity around a topic.
  • If it’s a small class, the entire class can participate in the discussion. If it’s a larger class, the fishbowl option works best to ensure that every student has a role in the activity.
    • In a fishbowl, the class is divided between an inner circle and an outer circle. Those in the inner circle discuss the questions posed. Those in the outer circle are assigned an individual in the inner circle, and they take notes on his/her comments and respond with their own opinions on paper. At the end of the seminar, the outer circle participants are asked for feedback on the discussion and these note-taking sheets are collected for evidence of class participation.
    • Questions are either generated by students or by the teacher. They are posted in a place where everyone in the class can see (whiteboard, chart paper) and they are the basis of the conversation.
    • The teacher is the conversation facilitator, but as students gain confidence a student can facilitate as well

    (all words in bold are skills that need to be taught explicitly in class for participation in a Socratic Seminar)

Academic Conversational  Prompts:I like what you said, but…I agree with what ____ said, and I’d like to add…

.I don’t understand when you said_____…

I disagree with ______ because…

When I read _______ I was surprised by….

Can someone help me understand….?

I need clarification on…./I am confused by….

This passage/text reminds me of….

[photo of student-generated questions for a Monday Socratic Seminar on why we dropped the atomic bombs on Japan during our War Unit, Spring 2011]

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3 thoughts on “Socratic Seminar Conversion (Reading Strategy)

  1. I teach a first/second grade class, and I really want to start incorporating those academic conversational prompts into our class! Hopefully I can do that next year. :) Thanks for your detailed description of Socratic seminars!

    • I think that’s a great idea! The younger, the better. I have a daughter who will enter kindergarten this fall, and I can’t wait to plug all this stuff into her sweet little sponge brain while the time is ripe. I think you could actually do a Socratic Seminar with little kids, too. Again, it would be a bit chaotic at first, but they’d catch on. :)

  2. Pingback: A tour of my last classroom | readwriteteach

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