An edited version of this post first appeared on Edutopia.
“Socratic seminars help me understand other people’s perspective as well as advance my own through critical thinking…They have also helped me become a better leader by engaging my peers in the discussion through deepening questions.” ~BQ, class of 2016
One of my favorite moments as a teacher is when guests come into my classroom, and despite their best attempts to locate me visually and auditorily, they can’t. I am hidden quietly among the students, who are engaged in a student-led, high-level academic discussion.
Throughout my nine years as a high school Language Arts teacher, I have discovered and refined a pivotal strategy that results in such a moment in my classroom: the Socratic seminar (hereafter known as SS). These student-led discussions–based on Socrates method of student inquiry rather than teacher lecture–elicit student ownership, deep thinking, critical questioning, respectful communication and collaboration, academic vocabulary usage, and a rooted sense of community. Though seemingly “off stage,” a meaningful and effective SS only occurs through intentional teacher moves before, during, and after.
“SS brought us closer as a class, building a comfortable community and they were fun.” ~RP, class of 2016
The most important part of a meaningful SS is the planning embedded throughout the year.
- Let’s get comfortable.
- There is no SS without risk. And there is no risk without trust. An effective SS occurs because there are thousands of invisible strings of connections already built among students and teacher. Build these connections through social-emotional circles, games, laughter, student surveys, journal entries, icebreakers, sharing of stories, high expectations and follow-through regarding respect, positive postcards home, cheerleading at student games and events, humility and authentic care.
- Norm, norm, norm. At the beginning of the year, establish classroom procedures, routines, and expectations. At the beginning of every discussion, do the same. Hold students accountable for demonstrating the utmost respect to each other. More often than not, my classroom management is unseen and private. But I never let a disrespectful comment or laugh or eye roll go unaddressed in front of the class. For students to feel safe, they need to know I publicly and privately support them and the safety of our classroom.
“I like SS because it gives us a chance to become leaders and it builds our relationship as a class.” TS, class of 2019
- Let’s get academic.
- Use anchor charts to teach, model, and expect use of target vocabulary every period. Establish some way of students recognizing each other’s academic vocabulary use (snapping, tracking). This ensures students both identify and apply target language, offering ample opportunity for practice. Provide resources such as sentence stems, directly teach and model language functions, and expect students to practice them in conversations.
- Use strategically crafted questions to create daily opportunities for academic conversation in a variety of configurations: partners, tables, small groups, concentric circles, around the world cafes, and kinesthetic activities such as 4 corners or line ups. Use a roster to track participation and ensure all students talk sometime throughout each week.
- Practice gradual release of discussion leadership throughout the year. At the beginning, model strong facilitation skills and verbally label them for students. Create anchor charts collaboratively of what makes a strong discussion leader, participants, and conversations. Reflect on the day’s discussion: strengths, weaknesses, modifications. Eventually poll the class to see who wants to take a more active role in leading class discussions. In a small group with them, discuss strong and weak leadership moves. Norm with the class how to treat a student taking a risk. And then let them run the show! Afterwards prompt students to reflect on how the the progress of the leader, the class, and themselves. Through this process, by the end of the year almost every discussion is like a SS because the cognitive and discourse responsibilities have transferred entirely to the students.
- Directly teach, model, practice, and assess analytical and text-based questioning. The top resources I’ve found for this are from AVID. This skill is essential in reading comprehension, high-level discourse, critical thinking, and holistic success in a world inundated with messages. What I’ve found works best is delineating between right/wrong, yes/no questions and those that produce divergent discussion. Additionally, text-dependent questions ground students in the work rather than speculative thinking. Use these types of questions as class discussion and/or writing prompts, collaboratively evaluating and adjusting them as needed. This makes a great opener activity, enhanced by a Teach Like A Champion “building ration through writing” strategy. Teach students to craft these kinds of questions as they read, forming a self-monitoring strategy.
“SS help me to understand a novel with much more depth. When I read a book I see the events in one way but in SS I was able to deepen my previous thoughts and create new ones based on what everyone else shared.” ~DGC, class of 2016
- Let’s get prepared.
- Choose a rich text that offers cross-content and real-world connections. I often use whole novels as the basis of my SS.
- Create prep work based on learning objectives and student data. Whether in 9th grade Intro to Lit class or AP Lit class, I found that prep work allows students to feel confident going into the SS: a game-changer.
- Schedule the SS, providing students enough time to complete the work (either in class or out).
- Repeatedly explain the purpose and expectations of the SS. I use a contract clearly outlining expectations.
“A well-run SS is is an artful blend of awkward pauses and meaningful analysis.” ~CS, class of 2016
Once the culture and preparations have been established, it is time to set the scene for the actual SS.
- Let’s get physical.
- A SS is best in a circle, where students are equal and I–as a facilitator and not participant–am on the outside. There are a couple of ways to do that based on the class size and dynamics. One giant circle for all students or fishbowl style (where there is an inner circle and an outer; the inner participants speak, the outer participants coach).
- Announce what supplies are expected in the circle and only allow those (e.g. text, homework prep, assessment sheet).
- Set up the SS so the target vocabulary anchor charts are visually accessible for student use.
- Let’s get ready.
- When students arrive on the SS day, I create a “do now” activity that will last between 5-10 minutes so that I can individually check for prep completion. I do not allow students who are not 100% complete with the prep to participate. At the beginning of the year, this is harsh. But as the year goes on, students rise to expectations and accept this is designed to ensure a better discussion (and often grade).
- The first SS of the year begins with a lot of direct instruction going over what makes a good one, a bad one, and how students get an A (targets). These targets–which can shift throughout the year–are based on standards and can be active voice, upgraded verbs, academic vocabulary, transitional phrases, textual evidence, clarifying questions, etc. Every SS thereafter, I still spend time at the beginning directly establishing these norms and targets. I also have students set goals.
- I often start with an opening round question that is light (from ice cream flavors, weekend plans to favorite quote or character). This invites all voices in, helping students take that initial plunge into the conversation.
- Let’s get better.
- I practice gradual release of SS throughout the year. Early on, I am inserting myself into the conversation more frequently. These interruptions can be feedback about strong moves, ways to improve, lessons about conservation strategies, highlighting of impressive questions or insights, muting dominant voices, soliciting reserved voices, and/or pausing conversation so students can self-assess and adjust moving forward. As the year goes on, these interruptions occur less and less as students internalize expectations and step up as facilitators. I’ve also found that the shorter SS are in the beginning, the easier it is for students to master them.
- In any SS, there will be awkward pauses. Here are some ways to approach those. First, I stress every time this is to be expected and honored as thought time. If it extends unreasonably, I will try any of these strategies: switch seats, whip around, pair share, walk and talk, talking piece, self-assess and/or check grade.
- Students come to SS with a range of abilities and needs. I’ve found that assigning leadership roles and differentiated targets to be successful for upward differentiation. For scaffolding, provide scripts, sentence starters, peer coaches, small group instruction ahead of time and/or differentiated tasks.
“SS have helped me with speaking verbally, because at the beginning I didn’t talk and was shy, but now I feel confident.” ~AG, class of 2019
- Let’s get assessed.
- The hardest part of SS is assessing them. But over the years, I have refined a tracking and assessing strategy that is easy, accurate, and best of all…it works.
- Use a roster. Highlight students who are able to participate. Mark those who are not with a 0 and put a line through the row.
- Establish “A moves” (e.g. using academic transitions, speaking in literary tense, using and explaining quotes) and codes for those.
- Track student participation using the codes. A colleague of mine does this visually on the doc cam so students have live access to their progress. I also do it privately on a clipboard. Here are some examples.
- After, highlight each “A move” a different color. Head a column with number of “A moves” and then another for score. Count up the “A moves” and use predetermined scale to establish grade.
- Let’s get reflective.
- The final element to any meaningful SS is reflection–both for student and teacher. Here are some prompts I often use.
- Teacher: How natural was the conversation? How varied was student participation? How analytical were student comments? How authentic and accurate was the use of academic vocabulary? What do I need to reteach? How do I plan ahead to make the next one better?
- Student: What do you think your grade should be and why? What did you do well? What did your colleagues do well? What do you need to improve? What does the class need to improve? Did you feel safe sharing your ideas? How can we improve community? How has your thinking about ____ changed?
“SS have helped me because it allows me to expand my thinking.” ~MC, class of 2019
What I love the most about effective SS–from community to text analysis to rich discussion to student ownership– is that it feels like a college class. And my students deserve this. As do all students.