On Socratic Seminar days my 7th and 8th graders show up to class in skirts and ties, their books filled with post-it notes scribbled with analysis, their annotations like maps over their articles. They arrive to class early on these days to poke fun at each others’ fanciness and review notes one more time. I tell them they look brilliant and they beam and buzz, proud of their preparations both academic and aesthetic.
For these Seminars, the desks are moved into two concentric circles. The middle circle is our “fishbowl” of 10 students. The “fish” engage in questions built around our texts and class themes that the students wrote and voted on the week before. The 20 students on the outside circle are the “coaches” (stick with me here on this mixed metaphor). Two coaches per fish. The coaches do not speak during the Seminar, but they can “feed the fish” with concrete details, analysis, encouragement, and reminders from our How to Interrupt lesson, through notes passed to fish furtively during the Seminar.
Meanwhile, I watch over the circles and furiously type observations in a mess of quotes, notes on behavior, recordings of evidence cited, and mentions of moments where commentary could have been expanded. I type in ALL CAPS when fish get so excited that they YELL their contributions into our circle. This is their reminder that the aim of our Seminar is conversation, not debate.
For our October Seminar this year, my students contrasted a novel, a short story, and a poem: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, Eleven by Sandra Cisneros, and Oranges by Gary Soto. Because it was our first student-led assessment of the year, I paused the conversation frequently to display my observations and invite everyone to turn-and-talk in their triads to reflect on how we’re doing and strategize on how we might take our analysis to surprising places. During these interruptions I remind Coaches of their roles, and in addition to collaborating on analysis, I suggest quick pep talks, high-fives if they feel inclined.
By our June Socratic Seminar, I will make considerably fewer interruptions because my students will have become fluent in listening to each other, interjecting and adding on, changing the subject when necessary, disagreeing respectfully yet confidently, and using evidence to back up their claims. By spring semester there’s more laughter during our Socratic Seminars too, as they will have also learned how to breathe into the process, dive deeper into their well-prepared evidence, and savor the epiphanies that happen live during our assessment that surprise and inform even their teacher.
This is dinner party prep, I tell them. This is where our classroom learning meets the real world. I assure them that this practice we’re doing in having conversations will serve them well later. At dinner parties. On dates. Their ears perk up. I have their attention for sure.
We do a “fish switch” three times so everyone gets a turn as a speaker. After the final round, the students and I are equal parts invigorated and exhausted. I lead the class in attaways—calling out specific moments of critical thinking, cooperation, awesomeness. I start with a few shout-outs but then the kids take over. This past October, we gave an attaway to a triad that included a fish who was absent on the day we analyzed Eleven, but still managed to contrast Rachel’s voice with Ponyboy’s through quick-thinking support from her coaches. Attaway, indeed.
The final step of our Socratic Seminar is to assess our assessment. I post all of my observations (“Live Leong Notes”) and we review the a-ha moments, the funny but disruptive slip ups, the totally mind-blowing connections we never saw coming, and then we agree on our final score. One score. For the whole class. Posted in the gradebook with the entirety of my observations. And nobody revolts with cries of unfairness.
During these Socratic Seminars I see students at their most insightful and engaged, connecting texts across months of curriculum, even though on other days they remind me of my customers from my nightclub bartending days. I see quiet kids so moved by the velocity of our conversation during these assessments that they speak up before they remember that they are anxious. And I see the alpha kids leading not bulldozing, and then later celebrating the bravery of our quieter fish without me having to prompt the attaway.
These Seminars remind me why I am a teacher. And although as a Humanities teacher I am proud to claim Socrates as one of my own, these Seminars aren’t just for the English department. Social Studies, Science, World Languages, perhaps even Math classrooms are all excellent settings for Socratic Seminars. After all, every department has to eventually turn students over to the world and over to each other. The kids who are going to thrive in the unscripted, unsupervised, no-multiple-choice ride of real life are going to be the ones who’ve been practicing leading their own learning and talking to each other, not just answering to a grown up.
Working with Charlotte Danielson’s TPEP evaluation framework? Socratic Seminars are a nice fit:
Criterion 2, Domain 3: 3B: Using Questioning and Discussion Techniques
Criterion 5, Domain 2: 2a: Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport, 2e: Organizing Physical Space
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