An Unexpected (and Magical!) Part 4

Okay, okay.  I know I said that the Socratic Seminar posts would be a three-part series, but something happened that I (well actually, WE) just have to write about!

Erin Bach and I plan our AP Language and Composition classes together.  We also recently started planning some similar lessons for Read 180 and EL4.  For this particular lesson we used the SAME TEXT for both our advanced classes (AP) and our emerging classes (Read 180, EL) and held Socratic Seminars in all classes.  Our approaches to the text and the seminars were not the same…we differentiated based on the needs of our students.  The results, however, are worth bragging about!

First, the text.  We chose a text titled Success vs. Happiness:  Don’t be Fooled into Thinking They’re the Same.  How do we define success?  Does success lead to happiness? These are a couple of the questions we sought to explore.  Our AP students read and annotated the text before answering a prompt on our online discussion board.  They were given the article on Monday and expected to have posted before 8 a.m. Friday morning.  Here is the prompt: Sarah Vermunt writes, “While there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting stuff, status, wealth or acclaim, it’s a mistake to assume that they pave the way to happiness and fulfillment.”  Consider this statement.  Do you agree or disagree? Would you qualify the argument in any way?  Write a claim that takes your own position about what does and does not pave the way to happiness and fulfillment. Then support your thinking with SPECIFIC examples from your READING, OBSERVATIONS, EXPERIENCE, POP CULTURE and HISTORY.  Once our students completed their posts they responded to the arguments of two other classmates.  On Friday we held the seminar.  I love that the students had already completed an extended written piece on the subject and had explored the thinking of others prior to coming to class. (Although we had our R180 and EL students speak without any formal writing, which helped them generate ideas for their extended pieces of writing later-#differentiation).  For this seminar we chose not to give the AP students guiding questions.  Instead we asked them to choose two passages to write about in their writer’s notebooks.  We also asked them to make a list of 10 things that make them happy and write a notebook piece about one.  Since we have had many seminars this semester, the students are now skilled in creating their own questions for discussion.

For our EL and Read 180 students we differentiated a bit.   We passed out the same article we gave the AP students, but we read the beginning with them.  Next, we chunked out the text into smaller sections and had them read with partners (EL) or as a whole class (Read 180).  They annotated as they read and circled words they didn’t understand.  We discussed how to attack the words in context to understand meaning.  After we had discussed the author’s perspective and made sure the students understood the argument, we handed out five open-ended questions for them to answer.  They had a few days to write their responses in their writer’s notebooks.  They also were assigned a survey and had to ask others of varying ages how they define success.  Finally, they also made a list of 10 things that make them happy and then wrote in detail about one.  We wanted the students to be prepared with plenty to talk about since we know these groups of students are more reluctant to engage in academic conversation than our AP students.

On the day of the seminar the AP students had thoughtful conversations about the text. In discussing our outcomes afterwards, Erin and I realized our classes had very similar experiences. They referred to the ideas their peers had posted on the online discussion board.  They used evidence from their own personal lives, from their other classes, from history, and from research they did on their own (other articles and TED Talks).  We were both proud to hear them make connections to world leaders, to theories in their AP Psychology classes, to their own lives and to the lives of their parents.  As they spoke, we both took notes on the interesting thoughts they had and on the strong evidence mentioned so that we  could discuss these moments later when we debriefed.  This is the perfect opportunity to point out the evidence that was most convincing as they practice for the AP exam.  We also plan on using some of their ideas to seek out other articles to use in class since we heard what topics generated the most excitement. This is why we cannot plan too far ahead…we need to listen to our students and tailor our lessons to them.

Now for the best part!

Sarah’s EL 4 experience:  My EL students entered the room with a nervous energy. Although we have had many classroom discussions, this was the first formal Socratic Seminar.  The students took their seats facing one another and placed their nametags, the text, and their responses on their tables.  Since I know these students, I know they fear speaking English in a large group because they are self-conscious about their accents.  We addressed this first and I assured them that they were all in this together.  In anticipation of their anxiety, I created slips of paper with different questions that related to the reading. I passed out one question to each student and had them spend a few minutes writing down their answers.  I explained that their question would be a way “into” the conversation.  If they were having a hard time deciding when to speak, they could always ask their questions and offer their responses first.  The seminar had a leader and he started the conversation by asking a question.  Some students responded, but the beginning of the discussion was tense.  I had to use all my willpower to stop myself from stepping in and taking over.  Instead, I trusted my students and let the awkward silence remain.  Once they hit on a topic of interest, however, there was no stopping them!  They spoke using sentence stems and listened politely to one another.  When it came to using evidence, I was simply blown away.  They defined happiness and talked about the things that made them happy.  One student said you cannot be happy in jail.  Another countered and said most students had already stated that not having to worry about bills, food, and money would make them happy.  “Well,” he said, “You don’t have to worry about those things in jail.”  Students spoke of their families often.  Some told heartbreaking stories that had the entire room in tears.  I feverishly took notes during the seminar and as they spoke I was mentally planning my next steps. Magical classroom moment…and all I had to do was sit back and listen.   



Teacher notes from Sarah’s Socratic Seminars

Erin’s Read 180 Experience: Despite spending a week preparing my students for this activity, when they came in and saw the desks in a U shape, they were immediately suspicious. When I reminded them about the seminar, they asked, “What seminar??” Uh oh. I was in for it. Since I wanted to be very clear with them about the purpose of this activity and my expectations for them before we started, I spent WAY  longer than I had planned walking them through the etiquette, procedures, and goals of the seminar. I was worried I took too long, but honestly, this proved to be time well spent. One issue I brought up with them is an observation that extends far beyond the classroom: most people (adults and teens alike) don’t really LISTEN to one another when they have a conversation, they simply wait for the other person to stop talking so they can jump in and say their piece. When I brought this up with my Read 180 kids, a light switched on and their eyes seemed to scream, “YES! We’ve felt that!” This is a class comprised of students who need additional support for a variety of reasons, ranging from discipline issues, to unstable home lives, to a general lack of motivation. They know exactly what it feels like to not be heard. I invited the students to really listen to one another during the seminar, not just wait for their turn to talk. I’ll be the first to admit I was surprised by how much they connected with this idea. Many of the students consciously referred to each other by name, referenced what classmates had said, and the atmosphere of room shifted; instead of withdrawal and reluctance there was a feeling of community and understanding. It sounds cheesy, but it almost felt like they finally realized that they’re all in this together. For struggling and  At-Risk students, this is a giant win. This was also a win for me as teacher because it reminded me how important communication is in the classroom. Spending the extra time to communicate to my students at the beginning not only led to a better discussion but to a genuine connection among classmates. And it showed me what these kids can do when I put a little bit of trust in them. These outcomes, the magic moments you can’t plan for, are what help bring me back to this often exhausting, ever-evolving practice of being a teacher.


Teacher notes from Erin’s Socratic Seminars…


So there you have it, the same text given to three very different groups.  A Socratic Seminar about happiness and success tailored to each group’s needs.  Erin and I could not have been more excited with the results. ALL of our students proved they can read a text and think critically about it.  The three groups demonstrated that they can engage in an academic discourse about the text and base their responses on sound claims with strong supporting evidence.  They all proved that they can collaborate and communicate without the teacher leading them.  We proved we can differentiate using the same text and have the same fantastic results.  Are success and happiness the same?  Our students succeeded and we are happy…so I guess in the world of teaching they most certainly are.  #magic

Sarah & Erin