When I talk with teachers about doing Socratic seminars with their students, the most asked question is, how will I grade them? This is a fair enough question because if the seminar is going as it should, then essentially, to an outsider it would look like just a conversation about a text between a bunch of 6th graders. But, there is so much more going on and as teachers, we need to be aware of it all. I don’t want to freak you out and make you think that right away you need to be super cognizant of all the academics the students are demonstrating as well as the social learning that is happening, but eventually, you will be. With time, you will start to recognize certain behaviors and responses that will trigger a comprehension strategy or social skill and in even more time, you will remember the things that stick out as important without necessarily having to look back at your notes! Just as the students are learning to have a conversation with each other and think deeply about the text, you are learning how to navigate the analyzation of each child’s understanding. That’s a lot! However, it’s more than doable. Once you start the process, I promise you will never look back! It beats grading papers each day, I will tell you that much!
Be very aware of the student(s) who is sharing a miscomprehension about the text and where it is coming from. Ask yourself, Is it an inference that doesn’t make sense, a prediction or understanding of a character trait or motivation? There have been plenty of times where a student has shared a prediction about a character and it just doesn’t make sense. I have to note, does it not make sense because it doesn’t follow the traits we know of this character or does it not make sense as far as how the story is structured and moving along? When I am noting a miscomprehension, I am noting exactly where the student is confused. And it’s very important that I do not question the student. I wait for another student to do so. If no one does, then I will say something like this to the group, “Does that make sense?” When another student says it doesn’t, I will ask them to explain why it doesn’t to their confused peer.
There are usually two types of questions that are asked during Socratic seminars. One type is a comprehension question. A student is unsure of what they read and will ask the class to clarify. As the teacher, I need to understand what kind of question it was and what it tells me about the student’s understanding of the text. I’ve had students ask questions about vocabulary which I don’t usually worry too much about as long as it isn’t inferering with their comprehension. Other times, students have asked questions that pertain more to the comprehension of the overall gist of the section they read. After a student asks this kind of question, or any question for that matter, I pay close attention to see how they work it out with the circle. Do they understand after it’s explained to them or is it still confusing? Are they satisfied with the answer their peer provides to them or are they still super confused? Do they even wait for an answer and pay attention to the response?? All of these things are crucial to be aware of because it’s very good insight as to how well this student is comprehending the basics of the text and participating in the Socratic seminar. Another type of question that is asked is one that generates conversation. This might start out with the words, why do you think or what if the character did this instead. The students who are sharing these types of questions are the ones who are demonstrating leadership roles within the Socratic seminar and are thinking more deeply about the text. They took insightful notes while reading, watched the teacher model what makes for good discussion questions and are ready to take on that role.
Socratic seminars are NOT a place for debate. They just aren’t. The goal of a Socratic seminar is for the students to learn from each other, not for one point to be proven or made in a debate style type of way. I like to tell my students the Socratic seminar mantra in our class is: Seek to understand, not to be understood. This was a quote from the book, All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Katherine Tegen. An awesome read aloud, if you’re looking for one, by the way! I believe that arguments are healthy and Socratic seminars are a place for that. Students explain their points of view and learn from each other. When another student respectfully points out someone’s contradiction, that is amazing! When a few students start to have a conversation to explain each of their view points, that is amazing! What isn’t amazing is when students don’t let the argument continue as a conversation in which they are trying to learn and understand the other person’s point of view. If the conversation becomes about trying to convince someone of a perspective or position, then I will chime in and get them to move on. I may even remind the class of the goals of Socratic seminars and ask for someone else to share next.
6th grade Humanities Teacher, Writer, Resource Creator, Curriculum and Course Developer