In October, students in my class prepare for their student-led conferences by reflecting on how their school year is going so far and a goal they want to achieve. During the conference, the parents and I (along with the student) create a plan for the goal to be met.
So many of my students recognized that they do not speak enough or at all during Socratic seminars. I was proud of them for noticing this struggle and I started to notice a pattern as to why they were having so much trouble sharing during the seminars. There were two most prominent reasons as to why this was occurring; one reason was because most students were lacking the confidence in their ideas and take-aways from the reading. The other students didn’t feel like they had anything to say.
After speaking with over 58 of my students in these student-led conferences, I felt like a pro at troubleshooting, strategizing and formulating solutions. I was emotionally and mentally drained by the end of that week, but it was so great. I learned a lot about my students and I learned a lot about how I can support many of them in participating more in Socratic seminars.
Today was an interesting and good reminder for me that I need to explicitly be teaching students that Socratic seminars are not a place for debate, but discussion.
My 6th graders are currently reading Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli. If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it for all students between the ages of 10 and 12. It tells the story of Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee whose parents died and he was forced to live in the most unhappy of places - with his Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan who hate each other. One day, Maniac can’t take it anymore and he runs away! He crosses the racial lines that divide the city of Two Mills and quickly becomes a legend or a myth. No one is really sure.
I am a huge believer in integrating as much learning as possible when I plan lessons, activities, etc. This also pertains to Socratic seminars. I keep the same structure each time students meet and discuss their seminars as far as how the conversation goes - Students ask questions they had during reading which usually generates a conversation.
Then I present a central question. The central question ALWAYS relates to life in some way. It is not directly related to the story. For example, when students were discussing Nine, Ten - A September 11th Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin, the father always told his family to never stop on the side of the road as it’s very dangerous. One day, the father is driving alone and sees a man broken down on the side of the road. He stops to help and they both get hit by a truck and die. When the police came to the boy’s house to tell him and his mom what happened, the officer stated that the boy’s father was a hero. The boy then faces an internal conflict as to whether his father was truly a hero.
The central question I presented to students was, what is a hero.
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!
The structure of a Socratic seminar is pretty easy to establish and keep up with in the classroom. It includes student preparation, two circles (inner and outer), keeping time, a writing reflection and a tracking sheet.
A big part of making Socratic seminars work in my classroom is explicitly teaching kids how to have a conversation with a group of people. The more specific I am about how to do this, the better it ends up being in the long run. The last thing you want to do is try to jump into Socratic seminars without giving them any guidelines and just assuming they will get it. They won’t. It will end up being a giant mess and it’s way harder to go back and try to redo something like this after it goes wrong rather than taking the time and setting the students up for success. Plus, if that is all you have planned for the period and it crashes and burns within the first 10 minutes, your stuck with nothing left to do the rest of the period.
Why is a Safe Space in Socratic Seminars Important?
I believe that a safe learning space is important in any classroom, whether you are doing Socratic seminars or not, but especially important here. Why? Because students need to be comfortable to make mistakes, ask questions and not feel threatened if they are challenged by a peer for their opinion or their understanding of something. During Socratic Seminars, students have to trust that they are being heard and that their voice is valued. They must also understand the importance of listening to one another.
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.
6th grade Humanities Teacher, Blogger, Resource Creator, Curriculum Developer