Part 3- Tina’s “Civilized Seminar”

We last read about a method of Socratic Seminar that allows the students to ease into academic discourse.  As mentioned, that method is the ideal place to start if you want to gradually release control of the discussion to the students.  Tina McGowan (formerly Centoni-congrats!) opted for a more traditional Socratic Seminar and I had the opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversation.  Tina’s students were prepared and engaged thanks to her careful planning.   How do you facilitate a student-led collaborative discussion centered around intellectual dialogue?  Follow these tips for success outlined below:


Seating Arrangement ~ Save class time and set up the desks the day before the seminar.  Prior to the seminar Tina moved the tables in her classroom so that they formed a large rectangle and all students were facing each other.  Create an inner/outer circle if you need more space.  Use a handout such as this to record student names around the circle.  Each time a student comments, give him/her a point.   


Nametags ~ As they sat, Tina’s students displayed their nametags.  Nametags encourage students to address each other in a respectful way.  To save time, have your students create nametags once and then keep them in their notebooks so they will be accessible for each discussion.  Making a nametag is easy!  Fold a piece of paper “hot dog style” to create a tent…write the name on the front!  This is also a great activity the first week of school to help you learn names. 

Student Preparation ~ Students had the questions Tina provided and their responses written out.  These questions were given a few days in advance so students had time to thoughtfully prepare responses using the texts and any other research they wanted to conduct.  Ask open-ended questions that spark student interest and allow them into a deeper understanding of the text.  Remember that questions should help to expand the discussion, not shut it down.  Remind students that there will be no “right” answers.  Find examples of how to construct questions here.   Find an example Socratic Seminar sheet I have used here.  


Tina’s seminar was titled “A Civilized Seminar” because it was based on the texts the freshmen had read that all had a common idea about constitutes civilized behavior. These texts included several short stories and an article.  Giving students multiple texts about the topic studied and asking them to think about the connections among them will help prepare them for the synthesis writing prompts they encounter in AP classes and on the CAASPP.  See an example prompt here.  It will also help them think about the connections among ideas in your class and how these ideas relate to other subject areas.  


During the Seminar

The Teacher’s Place ~ Tina sat just outside of the circle so that she could be present for the discussion and award points to students as they spoke.  She reminded students, however, that during the discussion they should speak to one another, not her.  I find this is the most difficult for students in the beginning.  They want to look to the teacher when they speak, but instead must focus on what their peers are saying and respond to them.    

Sentence Stems ~ Tina reminded the students that this is an academic conversation.  This is why they refer to one another by name and engage in polite conversation.  Students had sentence stems that helped guide them into a more academic discourse.  See an example of sentence stems on page 8 of this Socratic Seminar informational packet.

Student Roles ~ One student was designated the leader and he began the seminar by asking the first question.  He also asked questions of the more reluctant speakers and kept the discussion moving during the awkward pauses.  If you have an inner and outer circle you may want to also have a “hot seat” in the inner circle.  This is an empty desk or chair that students in the outer circle can use to jump in and make comments.

Quality of Discussion ~ Tina reminded the students that the quality of the discussion will depend on them.  The insights and conversation the students had without any prompting whatsoever by the teacher was incredible.  For example, as students were discussing whether or not a character acted in a civilized way, one students spoke up and said he thought they should all discuss the definition of ‘civilized’ first.  After many responses they agreed that some ideas, like the definition of the term civilized, will depend on perspective.  Defining terms in an important aspect of argument and Tina can debrief with the students the next day to point out all the skills they demonstrated.  Additionally, students were not only referring to the text, but also to ideas from other classes, from their own lives, and from history.  Drawing upon many sources and synthesizing information is a vital skill for college.

I see adults (especially on social media… and in even in Congress!) refuse to consider another person’s viewpoint or even consider what has led a person to that way of thinking.  Yet, these freshmen had no problem engaging in a mature conversation that enlarged their understanding of a topic.  They also learned more about one another.  The communication skills they gain will carry with them into their relationships and their careers.


Tina-Thank you for making the world a more civilized place, one seminar at a time. 



If you are thinking of trying a Socratic Seminar in your classroom, let me know!  I would love to pop in an listen to the conversation.  If you are looking for a little guidance as you prepare, I would love to help!  

Have a great week!