I was using Socratic Seminars before I even knew what they were and you might be, too! When I first started teaching, I was given a basal reader. A script to (I assumed) memorize and then recite to my students. There were comprehension questions that got at the surface of the 5 page story, an excerpt from a novel and then a multiple choice and writing prompt for students. I would wait for them to complete it, about a third of them would, then I’d go over the answers. After that, I would move onto math. I remember one day I was reading a story to the class and I had them make a prediction. We turned the page to see if the prediction could be confirmed and it was the end of the story! No more left. The next section went onto the comprehension questions. What? I kept flipping the pages back and forth as my students idea that school was a waste of time was reinforced into their minds. This program was seriously the least engaging program I had ever seen. The entire process of read, answer 5 multiple choice questions and write a response took away any joy there might be in reading.
The routine lasted almost 2 weeks. I was struggling to keep the kids from running out of the room and the basal reader wasn’t the entire problem, but I knew it wasn’t helping me to survive my first year of teaching. I couldn’t change much about my experience there, but I knew I could change this part of it. So I ditched the basal reader and had to find something else. I found a class set of The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. It was the beginning of the school year, I felt absolutely clueless about so much, but I knew I wanted to use these books and I wanted my students to talk about them. I wanted them to experience the feeling of connecting with characters and discussing them as if they were real people and challenge each other on their opinions of what might happen next. So I started running what I called The Reading Club.
5 Reasons why Socratic seminars work in any classroom
1. The work is mostly put on the students, not the teacher. The word Socratic comes from Socrates, the Greek philosopher who believed that he could teach his students best by questioning them. Guiding them to eventually question each other and organically uncover contradictions and learn among themselves. I mean, I am going home each day knowing that I taught like Socrates that day! How cool is that?!
2. The kids challenge each other. Witnessing kids challenge each other’s thought systems, or comprehension or analyzation of a text is amazing. Kids step up. When given the tools to be in control of their learning, kids will not disappoint.
3. A great teaching strategy for when kids are on different reading levels. As long as kids have access to the text (this can be in the form of audio book, a leveled text that has the same theme or reading with a parent, for example), Socratic seminars work for everyone. Higher level students are modeling the thinking and challenging each other, and lower level students are getting their questions answered and comprehending a book that they could not necessarily comprehend on their own. This also gives the teacher a really great sense of where the students are in terms of reading levels.
4. The learning is meaningful to the students. Because the students are the ones coming up with the questions (in most cases), having the discussions and running the class, they are invested in what is happening. They come to class prepared with notes on topics, themes and insights they want to talk about.
5. The students are learning from each other. When someone in class presents a miscomprehension in the discussion, there are other students who are "calling them out" and explaining the correct thinking. The teacher is not doing that and so the learning is much more authentic to the kid. They are learning on a higher level than if the teacher were directly teaching about the text.
Are you interested in starting Socratic seminars in your classroom?
6th grade Humanities Teacher, Writer, Resource Creator, Curriculum and Course Developer