As I wrote previously, I planned to conduct a Socratic Seminar focused on this question: Who was most responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet? We held our discussion today. One student arrived early to help me move the desks to the side. We put the chairs in a big circle. The students came in and took their seats. I gave them the Self-Reflection from Greece Central School District to complete at the end, but told them they could jot down some of their thoughts as we held our discussion.
After I opened the discussion with the question, the students took over. Aside from having to stop and make sure that students who had been waiting to speak had a turn, I didn’t say another word until the end of class when I told the students what a wonderful job they’d done. They did become heated at times. There was a solid camp who asserted it was all the fault of Friar Laurence, whereas others said no one person was to blame — so many factors came into play. Still others insisted Romeo and Juliet really had no one to blame for their deaths but themselves. They argued their points well, frequently turning to the text. Several times I heard students make this argument: “We can’t deal with ‘what ifs’; we have to go based on the text, and Shakespeare clearly says in the Prologue that it was fate — they were destined to die, and nothing could have prevented it.” It was so impressive to listen to, and I was very proud of how much they had learned. They were really getting into the text, and it didn’t feel like work or assessment, yet they truly showed me how much they knew through this exercise — much more so than a multiple choice test (do you hear that, NCLB test-happy bureaucrats?). There were times when students were passionate and had trouble taking turns or making sure everyone got a chance to speak, but by the end of the discussion, all of the students had had a chance to speak (with the exception of one student who had been absent and so wasn’t prepared — more on this in a moment — and another who just wouldn’t be drawn into the discussion). I heard from students who do not normally speak during our class discussions, and it was great to see this side of those students come out. I think everyone felt safe to share their opinions, even if everyone didn’t agree.
If you plan to hold a seminar, it might be helpful to know a few things about the students in my class. They are college-prep ninth graders. I have nineteen students in this class, six of whom are girls. The boys in the class are fond of sports and are masters at figuring out how to write about sports for every essay assignment for which they are given any amount of freedom regarding topics. Our class was a double block, but it was cut short due to Long Tefillah (prayers) — Purim is this Saturday, and some Jewish holidays call for extended prayers. We began class something like 10 or 15 minutes later than normal, but we managed to maintain our discussion for a full hour and 10 minutes. After this, I gave students time to fill out their reflections. One student said it was the quickest class period he’d experienced all year, which I took to mean he was so engaged he didn’t think about the clock. It was a great class.
What should you do if students are absent for any part of this assignment, either for preparation or the seminar itself? I gave students two class periods to prepare, and they used it well. We also had a bargain that they would use it well or I’d put them on the spot and make them talk right then. If students were absent for one class, I didn’t change any expectations; they were still expected to speak up at the seminar. If they missed both, I asked that they set up an appointment to meet with me and discuss their ideas one on one so I could hear what they would have said in the seminar. It’s not ideal, as part of the seminar is the exchange. If students just won’t participate, I offer them the same deal; I understand being a shy kid, for when I was really small I would have rather died than speak up in front of my peers. Students should be aware of how they will be graded prior to the assignment. This assignment is great for teaching students to dig deeply into a text for evidence to back up their assertions, and it is also great for critical thinking skills and speaking/listening skills. It’s also very easy to evaluate. The students do all of the work!