Last fall, I shared my frustration with Socratic seminars. Regardless of how strong my class has been in the past, I found the discussion stilted. Too many big pauses. Lots of uncomfortable people. I gave the students more guidance and modelling, but I still wasn’t happy.
Other teachers raved about their seminars, so I went to visit one on a prep period. The seminars were fine, but I still didn’t see a natural discussion happening. Students followed the rules, took turns posing questions and waited awkwardly while others answered their questions. Yes, they were guiding the discussion and thinking for themselves, but I was watching the clock. And I wasn’t alone.
This year, since I’m always tweaking, I tried something new. I’m actually still in the middle of it, but I thought I’d share anyway.
BUILDING BETTER SEMINARS:
My students are reading independently and using reader’s notebooks to record ideas, observations and questions they have as they read. The last time I looked at the notebooks, I saw that a lot of students were posing some really interesting questions. So I asked them to choose one of them and to write down a little detail about how it came out of the text they were reading. Then, I asked them to pose the question so it could apply to everyone’s novel. They were given the organizer to the right, to record their ideas.
I modelled this process for them first, of course. I grabbed three students that I knew could go with the flow and demonstrated how I wanted the discussion to go. First, I told them I’m reading Pride & Prejudice with my IB class. and that my question was How does one find the strength to stand up against a strongly entrenched societal belief? I told them a little about Lizzy Bennet and how she views marriage, just giving them enough detail to show where the question came from. Then, I asked, “Do any of the characters in your novel have to stand up for their beliefs? How do they find the strength to do so?” My guinea pigs answered, using details from their books. We got a bit side-tracked and talked about real life too.
That was the prep work. I told each person to prepare their questions and then for the next five days we did “mini”-seminars. I am lucky to have a small seminar room off my classroom, so while the rest of the class read, I took groups of five into the group room for their seminar. I grouped them with those they were most comfortable with, and off we went.
The result was just what I had hoped for. Not all groups were amazing, but all were good. The conversation flowed, the answers were detailed, and it felt like a real book club discussion. Minus the wine.
The best — and most surprising part — came today. There’s a guy named Zach, who sits at the back of my class and doesn’t participate much at all. When called upon, he gives me a sweet smile and an almost imperceptible shrug. He’s passed in next to no work and, as a result, he’s failing. It was his turn in the seminar room today, and to be honest, I didn’t expect much. Thankfully, he blew me away. He came prepared, he was animated in discussing his book, and he gave great, detailed answers to his group mates. I sat there, amazed. When I looked at him, eyebrows raised, afterward, he knew what I was asking. “I don’t like speaking in front of the whole class, ” he said.
Now, you most likely don’t have a seminar room attached to your classroom, but I bet you have a Zach. It may not be easy to find a quiet space to have these discussions, but if you do, the results will be worth it. There are creative solutions that will allow your students to do the speaking activities we require of them in a way that doesn’t make them too uncomfortable. For example, many of our teachers conference with their students, and they just take them into the hallway while their students read. Mine were reading while the group was in the seminar room, and every now and then I had to open the door and give them the stink eye; but for the most part, they read quietly. A seminar in the hall might be unconventional, but it just might work.
This was the happiest I have ever been with Socratic seminars. Never once did I look at the clock, and not one student indicated that they were nervous about the assignment. Now, there will be times when my students have to address the whole class –there’s a speech and a debate on the horizon–but hopefully the success they experience in the mini-seminars will give them more confidence when that time comes.
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