How to Use Socratic Seminar in Middle or High School Classrooms

socratic seminar tips for ELA classrooms

 

As English/Language Arts teachers, we are always looking for different strategies to help our students engage with the literature in our curriculum. One way I have found huge success with this is to use Socratic Seminars. 

Socratic Seminar is a method of discussion and dialogue that follows Socrates' teaching methods. The method stresses the importance of students taking on the responsibility of their engagement. So, instead of a passive approach to the study of literature by simply reading for answers, Socratic Seminar or Socratic Discussion focuses on student-led inquiry and discussion.

Socratic Seminars give students agency in their learning by asking them to come to the discussions prepared with in-depth discussion questions driven by their curiosities and wonderings. I've used Socratic seminars with tremendous success with low and high-level classes, and it is always one of the high points on my annual student evaluation forms. It's a great tool to have in your toolbox!

Reasons to use Socratic Seminar: Student-led questioning leads to meaningful reflection and connection. Higher-level analysis questions engage students in critical thinking. Supporting answers with textual evidence is fundamental to good writing. Lively dialogue can bring even the most reluctant student into the lesson. Students learn essential communication skills in which multiple viewpoints are expressed. 

How to Facilitate a Socratic Seminar: 

Step 1: Assign students to read and annotate a particular text or section of text. All students must read the same text. 

Step 2: When students come into class on the assignment's due date, start by discussing the Seminar's norms (basically, the ground rules). These can be crowd-sourced in your classroom, which really adds buy-in from students. After they understand the purpose and objectives of the Socratic Seminar strategy, have them collectively create the norms for discussion. Studyguide.com has some great advice for discussion norms including: 

Remember not to dominate the discussion. 
Everyone needs an opportunity to talk. 
Ask for clarification if you ever feel confused. 
Be sure to speak clearly and loudly for all to hear. 
Stay on the particular topic being discussed unless it is clear that the conversation on it has ended. 
Listen carefully to your classmates. 
Be brave!

Step 3: Have students form two circles with their desks: one large circle on the outside and one smaller circle on the inside. Each person in the inner circle should have two supporting speakers in the outer circle. I found that arranging the desks before class or marking the floor with painter's tape helped expedite this process. 

Step 4: Have one of the students in the inner circle volunteer to pose the first question. 

Step 5: Allow students in the inner circle to have a couple of minutes to discuss the question with their supporting cast in the outer circle. As the discussion facilitator, you simply observe, take notes, and only occasionally intervene if a question needs tweaking or clarification or if things have gone too far off-track.

Step 6: Give students in the inner circle the opportunity to discuss the question, citing textual evidence. At any point, students in the outer circle can pass notes to their counterpart in the inner circle to help continue the discussion, but they may not participate verbally. This keeps everyone engaged and the discussion organized. It also supports struggling students and developing English learners. 

Step 7: When the question has been exhausted, have students rotate in their triad so that the student in the inner circle switches with one of the two supporters in the outer circle. 

Step 8: Continue the process with questions from other volunteers. 

 

Example: Recently, I read Lord of the Flies with my college prep sophomore class. In addition to the comprehension check questions, and literary analysis activities, I also held Socratic seminars at the midpoint and end of the novel. One of the gems that came from the midpoint seminar was from one shy sophomore girl who asked: "In chapter 5, the group discusses the beast at a meeting and Simon suggests that maybe the boys only have to fear themselves (Golding 96). Should they be more concerned with internal or external forces?" 

This sparked a spirited conversation about the dangers of island life and the perils of adolescent bullying as seen in the novel up to that point. In the final Socratic Seminar, the topic arose again. This time, the students knew how the book ended, so it brought a whole other layer of understanding, complete with comparisons to Fahrenheit 451 and Julius Caesar, which we read in the first semester. (It was one of those heartwarming moments as an English teacher when I realized that they were really getting it!) 

As a facilitator, I took notes on the questions posed and used them to guide later instruction. After the Seminar, I also used several minutes to praise each student on something I noticed that they did well. This took focus and time, but the way they all reacted when they were each praised for their contribution made my day!  

I was also then able to use student questions to form the options for the end of the novel essay. After participating in the seminars, students found it much easier to form a clear thesis and support it with evidence from the novel. Their essays reflected the deeper critical lens that they gained from participation in the class discussion. 

Do you use Socratic Seminar in your classroom? What has been successful for you? We'd love to hear your advice or even answer any questions you may have. 

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