Socratic Seminar

I don’t often apologize for a lack of posting.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, my philosophy of blogging is that one should only do so when one has something to say.  This philosophy is freeing, in that I don’t litter my blog with posts I don’t care about just so I can keep readers.  The year is winding down, which is stressful anyway, but it doesn’t help much when external stress is brought to bear by someone who could control him/herself if he/she wanted to.  Such is the education life, though, no?

With that inviting introduction, we move into what I really wanted to talk about, which is the beauty that is the Socratic Seminar.  You may recall my students participated in a Socratic Seminar earlier this year centered around the question of who was most responsible for Romeo and Juliet’s deaths.  You can read about that seminar here, along with my reflections about the amazing job they did here.  Another class of mine recently participated in a Socratic Seminar centered around the question “What’s wrong with Holden?” after reading The Catcher in the Rye.

A Socratic Seminar can be based upon any book.  All you have to do, as the educator, is figure out what larger theme or question you want the students to discuss.  Students do all of the other work, but they need guidelines.  First of all, in my experience, students have never heard of a Socratic Seminar, and even those who have heard of one are not sure what to do.  Just outline it for them.  You can use my handout, changing all the relevant information: Socratic Seminar handout.  I culled some of the information on this handout from Greece Central School District’s website.  I think if students are given a similar handout, they will know what they need to do to prepare.

I try to give students at least some class time to prepare.  If the truth be told, it isn’t strictly necessary, but it allays some of their concerns if they can run questions by me first before the seminar.  It also gives those who are having a hard time with the task a chance to see what other students are doing to prepare.  You may need to do some modeling with middle school students, but I haven’t found this to to be necessary with my college prep and honors ninth graders — of course, your mileage may vary, so keep in mind who your students are and what they will need.

The most beautiful thing about Socratic Seminars is that they enable the teacher to assess a student’s understanding of the book, while at the same time ensuring that the student does all the work him/herself.  It is hard to bluff through this assignment without having read the book.  Students have to mark passages so they can defend their assertions.  Their audience is their toughest one — their peers — and their peers will call them on it if they try to BS.

One thing you may notice, as I did, is that Socratic Seminars will give students a chance to shine — a quiet girl who rarely talked in class until the Socratic Seminar simply came out of her shell and contributed a great deal.  I think the Socratic Seminar helped her realize she has valid and interesting things to say.  Another thing that may impress you is how hard the students will work.  They will look up quotes, read criticism (even if it is just online), jot down notes, and the like.  One student told me that even though he’s read Catcher twice, he basically re-read the book just to prepare for the seminar.

Tips for conducting a successful Socratic Seminar:

  • If you’re like me, it will be hard for you as the teacher to remain quiet while the students talk, but it’s essential.
  • Allow students to use hands if they can’t restrain themselves.
  • Supply post-its if students can’t mark in their books.
  • Make sure students are aware of expectations — that each of them must contribute both as a speaker and a listener.
  • Put chairs in a circle.  My chairs are not connected by desks, but if yours are, put desks in a circle.

You might be surprised with what your students come up with when they are put to the test, and the best thing about it is that they do all the work — you just have to listen.

[tags]Socratic Seminar, literature, education[/tags]

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3 thoughts on “Socratic Seminar

  1. We are in the midst of R&J. Your handout on Socratic seminars and the guilt factor is going to be a lovely finish — thank you, thank you — I just hope we have time with all of the end of the year craziness.

  2. I've been thinking about doing a Socratic Seminar with The Catcher in the Rye, so I was delighted to find your blog. Would you be willing to share the questions you used as the basis for that seminar? Thank you so much for your wonderfully organized site and rich, creative content. Fun blog to read, as well!

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