How I Learned to Stop Being Afraid of Socratic Seminars & Try Them in My Classes

Here’s what I did to make my “Socratic seminar” different from a regular class discussion.

As a teacher, you’ve got two to-do lists. There’s the list of things that actually have to get done: grading, planning, ridiculous bureaucratic hoops to jump through, etc. Then there’s the secondary list of things you’re going to do when you have time, like cleaning out that file cabinet that’s become a house of horrors over the past nine years, or getting the stain out of your spirit wear shirt so you can stop pretending to be surprised by it when kids point it out. Socratic seminars have been on my secondary list for years.

They just seemed so daunting. First of all, I had to figure out how to do them, which involved learning new things, which, while often fun, is also time-consuming. My learning-new-things time slot is often soaked up by a new computerized grading system the county makes us use, or a series of videos on response to intervention that actually teach me nothing, but on which I have to take a computerized quiz anyway. Socratic seminars never made the cut.

What little reading I had done about them showed that they’d take up a TON of class time. You have to set the kids up in two concentric circles and go over the rules and do practice dialogues that last 10-15 minutes several times a month to prepare for an actual dialogue…who has time for that? I mean, seriously. Who can rearrange their entire classroom for a ten minute activity? It’s not possible.

Well, last week I gave up on doing it right. I decided to just go ahead and do it wrong instead. My ragtag little public school sends a bunch of kids to really fancy private schools every year. I’m not bragging—wait, yes I am—but we’ve got multiple kids at elite New England boarding schools like Phillips Exeter and Andover. They need to know how to do a graded group discussion. Like, for real.

So here’s what I did to make my “Socratic seminar” different from a regular class discussion.

1. I made the kids move their chairs into a circle so we could all see each other. My classroom’s kind of set up like that anyway, but I think changing the aesthetics helped prep the kids for a new kind of activity. Also, concentric circles be damned. This is Language Arts, not geometry.

2. I told the kids they were getting a grade for the discussion. One smart comment would earn them a B. Two smart comments was a 100. A smart comment had to include reasons, explanations, connections, follow-up questions, or examples; it couldn’t just be “I disagree with what Angel said.”

3. I visibly kept track of who was talking and when. I had a class roster on my lap and made a mark (and occasionally a note) every time a kid contributed. I also wrote my name down, so I could track how much I was talking. I had to ask a lot of followup questions in my lower-level and ESOL classes, but I only talked THREE TIMES in my gifted class.

4. I spent a lot of time prepping the kids on the material. We were talking about social class (we’re reading The Outsiders), and we’d defined upper, middle and working class, then read an article about parenting differences between social classes. My gifted kids read and annotated the article mostly on their own. My struggling kids read an abridged version of it out loud in class, with lots of stopping to explain and define as needed. I told them before we began reading that there would be a graded class discussion, and gave them the specifications on how they’d earn their grade so they could start thinking of what they wanted to say beforehand.

It was awesome. Every single class—and seriously, one of these classes could accurately be described as “mostly illiterate”—had an amazing discussion and threw a hissy fit when the bell rang to end our class period. Their discussions differed wildly; first period spent half their time talking about whether stereotypes were acceptable if they were grounded in reality. Third period was spent discussing whether spanking your kids was a necessary part of parenting. (Consensus: yes.)

In each class, two to four students chose not to participate at all.  Since some of these were shy, hard-working kids, I gave them the option to write a two-paragraph response to our discussion— whatever they wanted to say in class but, for whatever reason, didn’t say—to make up the grade and avoid a zero. All of them did it, and it was some of the most thoughtful, well-considered writing I’ve gotten so far this year.

I’ll probably never learn to do them the right way (because now, why bother?), but Socratic seminars are definitely going to be a part of my classroom from now on. Ignoring the right way to do things worked out really well for me this time around. Now I’m going to go try to treat that stain on my spirit wear shirt with whatever fizzy liquid is available in my refrigerator and see what happens!

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Posted by Captain Awesome

Captain Awesome teaches seventh grade English at an urban charter school for refugee and immigrant kids. She is a big fan of books, social justice, holiday-flavored coffee creamers, righteous indignation, and Friday Night Lights.

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