Would you like a strategy that teaches students to speak one at a time and truly listen to each other?
Would you like your students to think deeper about important issues in social studies, science, or literature?
Would you like students’ writing to reflect critical thinking?
If you answered “yes”, I have the strategy for you. In what grades will this strategy work? As young as third grade and all the way through college. I know, who can promise a “can’t-fail-strategy”? IF you follow the procedures, and carefully prepare your students, it will work. I used it with all kinds of groups.
It’s called Seminar. You can find all kinds of books and references for Socratic Seminar, and the Paideia Center has a study guide for teachers who want to use the Socratic Method. I use a modification of this method that is not as complicated and worked better for many of my middle school classes. Seminar essentially has students sit in a huge circle, allows only one student to speak at a time, expects those who are listening to take notes, and at the conclusion everyone writes a reflection piece in a journal or a piece of paper.
I have posted some documents and slides on a new page on this blog, Free Teacher Resources, to help you get started. I found the best success in going over the procedures the day before I planned a seminar and then reminding students of procedures the day of seminar, just before we began.
Setting the Stage
Logistically, the most difficult part of the strategy is arranging 30-35 student desks in a circle in a standard sized classroom. I eventually found a better alternative – two circles. An inner circle was designated as the circle for speaking, and the outer circle was for listening. I usually had students with last names beginning with A-J sit in the inner circle first and the rest of the alphabet in the outer circle. About halfway through the class period, I had the students swap circles – outer circle students moved into the inner circle desks. This way, everyone had a chance to speak.
Establishing expectations were very important – no matter what age, and giving them a concrete object to hold was the best way to designate who could speak. I used a stone like the one pictured, big enough to hold in one hand, not too heavy, with a word to remind them of the environment we wanted to establish: Peace, etc.
In the slides posted on the Resources page there are instructions of how to begin, what to do in the Inner Circle, the Outer Circle, and the appropriate attitude for Seminar. It is important to establish that this is a time for opinions, but students should be able to support their opinion with examples or facts. It is also essential that students understand put-downs, arguments, or sarcasm are not allowed. I always expected each student to speak at least once, so we began passing the stone all the way around one time. Then when students wanted to speak a second time, they were allowed to request the stone. Having their journals in front of them, ready to write, helps students to make a note of an opinion or question they want to discuss. Those who are listening should be writing down some of the opinions they hear, or an opinion of their own as topics change.
What to Discuss
What should be discussed? Since I usually taught reading and writing, we used novels or short stories. You will find a list of So-What-Questions in the Resources page that will help the facilitator establish a thread of discussion. I always followed up opinions given with “Why?” or “Can you give an example?”
If you want to follow the Socratic Method, you can find example videos and more resources through a Google search. You can see a great video in this link that includes students engaging in discussion. The main difference in my simplified version of Seminar is in the text that is discussed and the expectations. In Socratic Seminar students are typically given an essay or short reading to do the night before a seminar and will be expected to be ready for a discussion that displays knowledge of the reading. I had many reluctant students who would choose to not read the assignment so they would not have to participate. Thus, my strategy to involve every student would be to use a novel that we had read in class, and all students would have some prior knowledge of the text. It depends on your students as to what you can expect.
The interesting thing about using the two circles of desks is in students’ reaction to the requirement of holding the stone to speak. Often students who were in the Outer Circle would be so anxious to speak, but when they moved to the Inner Circle they had little to say. It is a good practice in self-control, speaking to a group, and thinking about what the speaker says.
I always learned something about my students from these discussions, and their reflection writing usually revealed deeper thought than the typical classroom conversation.
Be courageous! Give this a try. I’d love to hear how it worked for you.