If you have control issues (like I do!) you will most likely be more comfortable with this Socratic Seminar approach which allows for a gradual release of classroom control. I first witnessed it quite by accident. Christine Parr and I share a room. While at my desk one day I watched her begin this method and simply had to stay the entire period. She introduced me to an entirely new way of conducting seminars. The room was full of freshmen. You know those adorable little humans in your classes, right? They love to be silly with classmates, but are terrified when it comes to facing their peers for an academic discussion. The face-to-face pressure of a Socratic Seminar is often scary. This approach proved effective for the Socratic newbies because it eased them into an academic discourse. Once they are completely in control, they will be a bit more practiced in the art of scholarly conversations and more confident in their abilities to participate.
So let’s get to it! Christine’s students all had a common text that they had closely read prior to the seminar. The text, “The Most Dangerous Game” is a short story about a hunter who becomes the prey. Students sat with both the text and their composition notebooks on their desks. Christine displayed the first question using a Prezi presentation she had created. The question read, “How does conflict lead to deeper personal growth in the short story? Use specific examples as support.” (See instructions for how to write effective Socratic Seminar questions here). The students copied the question and proceeded to answer it by first silently writing in their notebooks. One by one students began to raise their hands as she numbered them off. She stopped at about 8 students. The students then began to answer the question, citing supporting evidence from the text, and building off one another’s ideas. At the end Christine asked if there were any further comments and a couple more students responded, building on the ideas they had heard. Next, she moved on to the second question and repeated the steps. Some questions generated more discussion than others and the dialogue became lively at these points. In our teaching lives, is there anything better than seeing students excited and engaged? Christine only provided the text, the questions, and the opportunity for discussion. The students did the rest. They not only demonstrated insight and critical thinking, but also practiced a key skill in the art of argument–using specific evidence to support a claim (hello, Writing Standard 1!). I love this approach because it provides a safe way for all students to have a voice in the conversation. Even if students don’t offer to speak up, they all have answered the questions on paper first. Additionally, they are all able listen to the conversation. We know that students are not always able to sit around the table at night and discuss the world’s events with their parents. Some may never do this. Providing them a way to safely test their own opinions and to practice thoughtful dialogue with their peers is one way to prepare them for their futures as responsible citizens and thoughtful communicators. Little teacher prep, big student payoff. Sounds like a win-win to me! Thank you, Christine for allowing me to watch this in action!
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Stay tuned for part three and read about Tina Centoni’s approach to Socratic Seminar.