Socratic Seminars

Language Arts Resources, Middle School Classroom

After attending a professional development session with my supervisor this summer, I became very intrigued in Socratic Seminar. This is interesting because I tend to stray from educational fads. They come and go, and I feel that I’m creative enough to make my own styles in my classroom. There was something about these types of discussions that I really saw beneficial, though. Many educators do Socratic Seminars differently, so in my opinion, if your students are creating questions and having discussions about them, every other aspect is pretty much fair game for the teacher’s discretion.

Socratic Seminars are based around Socrates, the philosopher. The premise of a Socratic Seminar is that students prepare questions to ask during a whole-class discussion on a shared text.


To find yourself, think for yourself.

Socrates

What better way to enhance my students’ critical thinking and analyzing skills?! First, I want to share with you the five things I’ve incorporated into my Socratic Seminars that have been helpful to their success.

  1. I give my students sentence frames in order to help them speak kindly and academically. I require my students to keep these sentence frames on their desks during their discussion. Different sections on the sentence starters worksheet are: To agree or add on, to disagree, to change the subject, and to add textual evidence. The one that always makes me smile is when one of my students says, “I believe we’ve exhausted this portion of the conversation, would anyone mind if I moved onto another subject?” I mean, guys, these kids are 11 years old, and hearing them speak so intelligently is adorable. I felt it was necessary to teach them this skill, though, because without these sentence starters, the conversation can be quite awkward and choppy!
  2. Before each Socratic Seminar, we go over speaking guidelines. In these guidelines, students are reminded to not interrupt others, to not raise their hands (discussion should flow pretty smoothly), and to use the text to support their answers. We also talk about how to not dominate the conversation and how to kindly invite others to speak up who may be a little more shy. During the discussion, I tend to be an active listener but try to stay out of it as much as I can. Because of my large class sizes, from time to time, I help students who give me the “help, I want to talk but I’m so quiet” look. 🙂
  3. In order to encourage my students to move the conversation along and all have a chance to speak, I have used different manipulatives. One item I have used is a soccer ball. I found this resource from Ashley Bible’s web page. You can check this out below. I have also given my students two pennies and told them they were required to put in their “two cents” before the class was over. They really liked this and tied right into the book we are reading, which is The Phantom Tollbooth. Who doesn’t love a good pun?! http://www.buildingbooklove.com/2017/01/how-to-liven-up-your-socratic-seminar.html
  4. I made a self-grading rubric where students take ownership of their own participation. On it, they tally mark how many times they speak and then grade themselves out of 5 points. I’ve attached a picture of this below. On the rubric, they also check mark if they have questions prepared for the discussion. I require that they prepare at least 3 different types of questions for the discussion: a connection question, a text-based question, and a deep/higher order thinking question. Most times, I give students the score they gave themselves, but I also keep track of the participation on a notepad on my desk. I write down their name when they talk, put a check mark by their name if they talk more than once, and star by their name if they encourage others to turn to a certain page to read a passage.
  5. Of course, there are always students who do not speak up during the discussion. Sometimes, there is simply a lack of time, but other times, they are just shy. In addition, I wanted a way for students who are absent to participate in our discussion. To give these students a place to either remediate their scores or get a score to begin with (if they were absent), I created different grids on a website called flipgrid, where students can post videos. During their video, I require them to ask one of the questions they had prepared, a response to a question, and to use their novel to support their response with evidence. http://flipgrid.com

Lastly, there are three main positive impacts I have seen in my classroom since I’ve started using Socratic Seminars:

  1. My classroom culture is better. During our socratic seminar, students use sentence starters and our discussion guidelines to invite others to speak, kindly change the subject, and even politely disagree with other students. I feel that taking a class period to let the kids lead the discussion instead of me has given many of them confidence and allowed them to rely on each other. I also see them encourage each other and work together to learn as much knowledge about the section as they can. Love it!
  2. My students are becoming better at public speaking and listening. It is no surprise that this is one of the PA standards includes there very things. In a socratic seminar, we put the chairs into a big circle and try our best to only have one student speak at once. Let me tell you, this is hard, as one of my classes has 34 students! We once tried to separate the class into 2 separate circles, but it didn’t work. Don’t be afraid to experiment, though! The kids have been super flexible as we test out different ideas.
  3. My kids are getting better at writing. There is no writing involved in the socratic seminar (besides preparing their questions), but they are doing SO WELL with finding text evidence to support their arguments. Whenever they have the opportunity to write on other days, I can see that this is improving in that area due to their mastery in our seminar. This has been an unexpected, yet awesome, perk. They are also finding what is important in the text. When we started socratic seminars, many of the questions were basic, but now, students are asking really great, text-based, challenging questions that provoke solid discussion.

I’m still far from being a socratic seminar master, but I’m proud to say that the kids are doing a really great job in my class with this! My hope is that something in this blog post helped you if you haven’t yet conducted a socratic seminar in your class. If this idea doesn’t apply to you, I hope that it at least inspires you to take a risk in your class and try something new and student-lead!

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