One of the biggest struggles I've dealt with during Socratic seminars was getting students to discuss the book at the beginning, before anything interesting or important has happened yet. It always felt like there wasn’t much to say until about a third of the way through the story after already meeting for a few weeks. The conversations were dull until the main character started to be developed more or the problem/plot started to build.
Below is a list of strategies to get the Socratic seminar going before the book becomes really engaging:
1) Guide the connection: I like to guide students in making connections with either their learning in history, science or other books we have read as a class, to get them to think more deeply at the beginning of a text.
For example, students were reading Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli and at the same time, learning about the civil rights movement. At the very beginning of the book, the author writes that people in the city were afraid to go to the other side of the town (one town was deemed the “black” side and the other was the “white” side). By drawing on their understanding of segregation and how it helped construct people’s perspectives of each other, students were able to have a rich conversation around just one sentence written in Maniac Magee.
2) The teacher identifies the deeper learning: When we are knee-deep into a novel, I do not like to identify the sections the students should delve into more, mostly because it’s quite obvious by then and also because I think it’s really important for students to bring it to each other’s attention. However, when just starting a book, it’s much more difficult to do. Therefore, I make it my job to identify and point out the learning opportunity.
When you are analyzing the beginning of your class novel, ask yourself these questions while formulating questions/topics for the Socratic seminar: What is being challenged (a social norm, an expectation, a misconception)? What about this character is already a “red flag” or out of the ordinary? How is the setting going to play a part in the story? What is the style of writing and how does it play a part in the tone the author is trying to set?
3) Find alternate media that connects: There are plenty of real-life topics that come up in a novel almost right away. It’s a great idea to delve into those types of things from the start by sharing an article, YouTube video, or short story that relate and lend themselves well to conversation. For example, my class was reading the novel, Blended by Sharon M. Draper. This story is about a girl who’s parents are divorced and she splits her weeks between her mom’s house and her dad’s house. I brought in an article about the different ways in which families share custody and the class discussed their opinions of these different options. Some kids who are living in a similar situation were able to really connect and share about their experiences with split custody. It was a great Socratic seminar after they read just the first few chapters.
It can be really difficult to have an authentic and meaningful conversation when you’re just starting out the novel, BUT it IS possible. Try the suggestions above and leave me some feedback on how it worked for your students and if you have any other suggestions, we’d love to hear them!
Daughter of the King, wife and mother, former upper elementary teacher, curriculum and course developer