Teacherscribe’s Teaching Tip #169
Give the “Socratic Seminar” a try.
The process is simple - give students something (preferably short) to read the night before. It’s vital that they all read it, so if a student comes in who hasn’t read it, set them aside until they have read it (which is why the reading assignment should be short). Then arrange your desks in a large circle to begin the “Socratic seminar” discussion of the text.
Now, it helps to have key, open ended questions set ahead of time to ask to get the seminar going. You can also make copies of the questions and hand them out to students as they enter. Students should also have their copy of the text to refer to and to annotate during the seminar.
The rules are also simple - everyone speaks and shares during the seminar. If you are an introvert, you’re going to be called to step outside of your comfort zone more and speak up more than you would normally. Likewise, if you’re an extrovert, you’re going to be called to reel it in a little bit so you don’t dominate the discussion as usual. This way everyone will have a chance to contribute and share. The teacher will speak as little as possible - remember the point is on putting the students first and having them take ownership of the discussion. Likewise, the teacher should avoid eye contact too. This is also done to help put the focus on the students leading the discussion.
In the Socratic seminars I’ve been a part of, the teacher starts the discussion with an “easy share” and then turns to the person to their right and then has them offer their “easy share.” In the seminar I was in, the “easy share” was simply telling the group what we thought the title of the piece we read was.
Then the teacher asked a question from the sheet and turned it over to the students to begin discussing. If the conversation stalled, the teacher could ask a follow up question, though he tried to stress that the teacher stay out of it as much as possible, even if the silence became uncomfortable. This way, he was hoping that a student would take the lead and fire the discussion up again. Here is where you could rely on some of your extroverts, who would no doubt be chomping at the bit to offer their opinions.
Whenever I have used this, it has gone over very, very well. But I don’t use it often, maybe once or twice a quarter. I know several other teachers who have come up with some really clever ways to use the Socratic Seminar, such as having students evaluate each other based on their questions and commentaries.
How I’ve used it - we have read a short piece, such as “Engage Me or Enrage Me” or “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” and then spent the block discussing and analyzing each piece.
I have also used it to have students share their initial reactions to their Sticky-Note Books. We go around the table and each student shares their book and gives a brief summary. Then we go around again in a free-for-all fashion where students are encouraged to ask questions and make connections.