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Socratic Seminars

Socratic Seminars

2 April, 2016

Creating and implementing efficient Socratic seminars is a multistep process that involves building a classroom community, instilling communication skills, and devising meaningful, reflective assessment protocols.

Planning Your Socratic Seminars

The most significant part of a meaningful Socratic seminar is the planning embedded throughout the year.

  1. Let’s get comfortable.

There is no Socratic seminar without risk. And there is no risk without trust. An effective Socratic seminar happens because of the thousands of invisible connections already built among students and teacher.

At the beginning of the year, establish classroom procedures, routines, and expectations. At the beginning of every discussion, do the same. Hold students responsible for demonstrating the utmost respect for each other.

  1. Let’s get academic.

Use anchor charts to teach, model, and reinforce target vocabulary every period. Establish a way for students to acknowledge each other’s academic vocabulary use (snapping, tracking). This makes sure that students both identify and apply the target language, while offering ample opportunity for practice.

Practice gradual release of discussion leadership throughout the year. At the beginning, model strong facilitation skills and verbally label them for students. Collaboratively create anchor charts of what makes strong discussion leaders, participants, and conversations. Reflect on the day’s discussion: strengths, weaknesses, modifications. Eventually poll students to find who wants to take a more active role in leading class discussions.

Directly teach, model, practice, and assess analytical and text-based questioning. The top resources for this are from AVID. This skill is vital in reading comprehension, high-level discourse, and critical thinking. What works best is delineating between right/wrong, yes/no questions and those that produce discussion. Additionally, text-dependent questions ground students in the work.

  1. Let’s get prepared.

Choose a rich text that offers cross-content and real-world connections. A whole novel is used as the basis of a Socratic seminar.

Create prep work based on learning objectives and student data. Whether students are in 9th grade Intro to Lit or AP Lit, prep work is found to allow them to feel confident going into the Socratic seminar.

Repeatedly explain the purpose and expectations of the Socratic seminar. A contract is used to clearly outline expectations.

Implementing Your Seminar

Once the culture and preparations have been established, it’s time to set the scene for the actual Socratic seminar.

  1. Let’s get physical.

A Socratic seminar is best done in a circle, where students are equal and the facilitator is outside. There are two ways to do that based on the class size and dynamics: one giant circle for all students, or fishbowl style (where the participants in an inner circle have a discussion and the participants in an outer circle coach the inner circle).

  1. Let’s get ready.

When students arrive on the Socratic seminar day, create a five- to 10-minute activity to check for prep completion. Students are not allowed to participate if they’re not 100 percent complete with the prep. At the beginning of the year, this is harsh. But as the year goes on, students rise to expectations and accept that the rule is designed to ensure a better discussion (and often grade).

The first Socratic seminar of the year begins with many direct instruction going over what makes a good Socratic seminar, what makes a bad one, and how students can get an A (targets). These targets — which can change throughout the year — are based on standards and can include active voice, upgraded verbs, academic vocabulary, transitional phrases, textual evidence, clarifying questions, etc.

  1. Let’s get better.

Practice gradual release of Socratic seminar throughout the year. Early on, the teacher should insert his or herself into the conversation frequently. These interruptions can be feedback about strong performances or ways to improve, lessons about conversation strategies, highlighting impressive questions or insights, muting dominant voices, soliciting reserved voices, and/or pausing the dialogue so that students can self-assess and adjust moving forward. As the year goes on, these interruptions occur less often as students internalize expectations and step up as facilitators.

Follow-Up and Assessment

Evaluate student performance at the conclusion of your Socratic seminar. Clear expectations and guidelines are the key to the assessment.

  1. Let’s get assessed.

Establish clear metrics for success (e.g., using and explaining quotes, expanding on a peer’s idea, asking questions that keep the conversation going) and ensure the class is aware of them. Socratic seminars can move swiftly — to make sure that your grading keeps pace, create a list of codes for successful interactions and use the codes to keep a running tally of student performance as they talk. You’ll be confident that you got it right, and you can even show the students your methodology.

  1. Let’s get reflective.

The final element to any meaningful Socratic seminar is reflection for both students and teacher. Provide prompts for students to use to reflect on and discuss the seminar, and then have them plan adjustments for future seminars.

Effective Socratic seminars creates the feeling of a college class. All students deserve this.