Socratic Seminar-a three part series

Part I:  An Introduction

As a new teacher I remember being in survival mode most of the semester.  For the first several years of my teaching career, my schedule changed each fall and that meant new books to teach and new material to cover.  Often I was only a few steps ahead of my students as I read a few chapters, prepared lectures, and designed quizzes.  This is why my first experience participating in a Socratic Seminar made me completely rethink my approach to teaching.  I had agreed to start the AVID program at Hart High School and attended a training for new program coordinators.  We all were given a text to read and annotate.  Then we were given questions and asked to prepare short responses.  Next, we broke up into two circles, an “inner” and an “outer” circle.  The inner circle discussed the text and explored the topic while the outer circle took notes.  Then we switched places and roles.  Up until this point I had taught my classes exactly the way I was taught in high school.  Lectures, short classroom discussions that I led, and assessments.  Planning a Socratic Seminar meant relinquishing a bit of control and allowing my students to take over the discussion.  I was scared.  As a new teacher the one thing I feared most of losing control in a classroom.  Yet, I was also excited to shift my perspective of how a classroom should run and try something completely new.  

My first AVID class had thirty-five ninth graders.  Thirty-five students with two things in common–they were “mid-kids” and they wanted to be the first college graduates in their families.  For our initial Socratic Seminar I passed out a text about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed bill eliminating junk food from schools.  The text was full of statistics and presented opposing viewpoints.  That night for homework students had to read, annotate, and prepare responses to a few questions on the topic.  I went on to explain what a Socratic Seminar was, the objectives of the seminar, and the expectations.  I would not be a participant at all in the discussion, but merely an observer.  This made them a bit nervous, but also excited.  They felt respected.  Their opinions, their ideas mattered.  They were being trusted to have an academic discussion without the teacher leading.  

The Socratic Seminar began with all students believing that no bill should be passed.  They were adamant that teenagers should be allowed to eat what they want.  They then strayed a bit from the topic of health and discussed their frustrations at parents, school officials, and lawmakers who they claimed never trusting them.  I had to sit on my hands to prevent me from jumping in and taking over.   The leader of the seminar reminded the students that they needed to ground their discussion in the text.  I feared the seminar wouldn’t amount to much and the discussion would die down.  Then something happened.  A girl with tight curls and a soft smile spoke up about her younger sister.  She described her sister as only 8 and very overweight.  Making decisions about the food she eats while at school, she reasoned, should probably be in the hands of adults.  This led to many students thinking of their own younger siblings and relatives and of their future children.  Almost all students changed their minds during the course of the 40 minute seminar and concluded that the bill would be beneficial to the youth of California.  After the seminar they wrote a paragraph reflecting on the process and tracing their thinking.  They later wrote argument papers and used the evidence from the text and discussion to support their claims.  All of this and I hardly spoke a word.  These students took control of their own learning, proving that even at 14 they could think critically about important issues and participate in thoughtful discussions in a mature way.  I had never been more proud!

One of the changes the Common Core State Standards has initiated and I applaud, is that of a de-emphasis on lectures and “sit and get” instruction.  While direct instruction certainly still has a place in teaching, the emphasis on student-directed learning will prepare our students to become critical thinkers and productive, collaborative citizens.  If you are unsure at how to move towards a more student-centered classroom, implementing a Socratic Seminar is the perfect starting point.  The next two blog posts will highlight two ways to approach the Socratic Seminar.  The first will be Christine Parr’s more controlled seminar-style.  This may be the perfect place to begin to help students become acclimated to speaking up in class and to focusing on the text.  The second will be Tina Centoni’s more traditional-style that is much like the one I described above.  Please note that there is no “right way” to conduct a Socratic Seminar.  The students can sit in a circle, or not.  They can have an “inner” and “outer circle, or not.  They can have a leader, or not.  As with any teaching tool or activity, find what works for the students you have in the classroom in that moment.  The only two constants are the text and the preparation.  The discussion must be based on a common text (remember a text can be an article, a book, a movie, music, a cartoon, a piece of art…anything that can be read and discussed) and the students must prepare ahead of time so that they can explore the topic through meaningful conversations.  STAY TUNED FOR MORE!


Click below for more information on Socratic Seminars.

Not just for the humanities! Socratic Seminar in math:


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