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Socratic Seminar: The Importance of Reflection

socratic seminar photo
Photo by jrobertsplhs

I have been using Socratic seminar as a method of assessment of student learning in my classes for some time, but last year I started asking my students to complete a simple reflection after the seminar and hand it in the next day. As a result, I really have a window into what my students are learning in the seminars.

In the past, I assigned the essential question for the seminar, but I have learned to give control over formulating the question to the students. My AP Lit students recently had a successful seminar discussion on Shakespeare’s King Lear and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. The question they designed was, “Was justice served in the end?” Justice (and its lack) are a major theme of the play. Students were able to pull in ideas about what happens when the natural order of things is upended and people are not compassionate for others. Every student was able to contribute thoughtfully to the seminar itself, but when I read their reflections, I understood exactly how much thinking and learning had taken place.

One question I ask on the reflection is “Explain how the Seminar influenced your thinking about the topic or the text(s).”

It changed my opinion on what justice is. I sort of went in not having my own clear definition of what “justice” meant in King Lear, but I thought we’d all be thinking on the same track. The range of definitions, all of which influenced my own, surprised me. I never thought of justice being done to someone in that way, nor did I see justice as when a character finally realized his or her mistake. After the discussion, it influenced my own definition because I took into account that a when character realized their mistakes it was because enough harm had been done to others around them or to them themselves.

Changing views of the definition of justice were a theme in the reflections. In most cases, students said that another student’s comment had changed their minds, made them think about things in a different way, or influenced their thinking in other ways.

[Student 1] said something along the lines of … “justice didn’t care about individuals, it just wanted the natural order of things restored.” I never really thought of this in terms that the individuals didn’t matter.

Another student shifted gears based on a comment another student made.

Throughout the seminar, I mostly considered the sense of justice as individual characters. I thought about the evil characters and their tragic ends. However, [Student 2] pointed out that we should instead inspect the text as a whole and look at the entire book in order to see if justice was served or not. This actually changed the entire course of what I had in mind of the texts and the Socratic seminar. It changed my viewpoints as I started looking at the natural order and the essence of what role [the] god[s] played in the texts.

It always intrigues me when a single student’s comment shows up in the reflections of several peers, and in the case of this comment, the student, whom I have called Student 3 throughout this post, is one who has made excellent progress with each successive seminar. It is exciting to me that his comments were so influential in the thinking of his peers this time.

[Student 3] said that justice isn’t just about the punishment, but also includes a revelation. I thought that this was interesting, since I usually tend to think of justice as being a punishment to fit the crime.

I ask students to reflect on how they did and make goals for the next seminar, both for themselves as individuals and for the group. The student mentioned in the comment above, who influenced his peers with his definition of justice, wrote the following:

I thought I did really well on this seminar and achieved my goals I set for myself from the last one. Next time I think I should try to include more people in the discussion by asking questions to them. I think I should ask more clarifying questions to the group in order to dig deeper into the text, and to become more specific on certain topics.

Another student, an English language learner, who was able to contribute more comments in this seminar than he previously has done in other seminars, reflected that

[Student 3] had lots of great comments this time. The most impressing one was the one he spoke at the start of the conversation. He said the justice is served not only means the justice is served physically, such as bad people being punished by death or being killed. He talks about the deeper meaning of justice, bad people eventually acknowledge what they have done and try to remedy for their bad behaviors…

Before this Seminar … although I knew there were two ways which justice can serve on bad people, I couldn’t come up with all of them. However, after listening to what other people said, especially [Student 3] and [Student 4]’s words, I was inspired by their words and generated lots of innovative ideas during the seminar and eventually spoke a lot because I had so many ideas.

I could almost feel this last student’s excitement. His reflection was much longer than his previous ones, and I could tell the discussion had excited and invigorated him. He was inspired.

When it was suggested that we define the word justice, I never thought of different meanings behind it. I mean I realized that everyone had their own opinion, but didn’t realize it would be from a totally different definition and meaning that would change the way to interpret the play and it’s [sic] characters. [Student 3] said that the way he interpreted justice was justice was served if people learned from their mistakes. I never thought of justice as learning from their mistakes. Although I believe justice is that they get caught, pay for it (karma), and go on with life, I still don’t necessarily agree with him, but it is an interesting point of view. It changes everything, when interpreting the book from [Student 3]’s definition of justice and makes both books seem like less justice was served.

What an incredible insight. How much they learned about the notion of justice in these two books through talking with each other. By the way, I think it’s important to note that I said nothing. I don’t even look at the students when they are talking because otherwise, they look to me and talk to me. A student acknowledged the difficulty of planning a seminar and running it without my interference:

I think we have been doing a great job with structure. This time we started pretty weak jumping everywhere, but after the first few comments, I sorted things out and we found a structure that worked for this seminar. Actually, structuring a seminar without restricting it too much is not easy. I think it should be our task prior to the seminar to imagine how it could be structured based on the question.

Another student acknowledged a difficulty the class is still wrestling with:

I still think we have side arguments and sometimes we went off topic. It will be better if we can all try to answer the main points of the questions. Besides, some people always just talk too much and did not let others to say anything, so I think we should acknowledge this problem so that quiet people can speak more.

As the teacher, I can see that she is right in her criticism, though the group has made progress in this regard. I know they have more progress to make. So do they.

I believe that this was our best discussion yet, in terms of everyone contributing, but I still believe that as a class we have room to grow.

But they also know they are getting there.

I feel like as a group we made a lot of progress compared to the last seminar. We were able to include everyone in the conversation and for the most part organize its structure or at least set a framework for the topics being discussed. Because we were more organized this time around, the material we discussed was much easier to understand.

If I hadn’t asked the students to reflect, I wouldn’t know any of these takeaways. I also think actively setting goals keeps those goals at the forefront during the next seminar. The students in some cases mentioned the goals they made last time and their progress toward reaching them. Last year, a student of mine noted that another student had tried to speak, and he thought that she had been interrupted and shut down. He said he wanted to make sure she had opportunities to speak next time. I suggested on his reflection that he might try sitting next to her for the next seminar to facilitate helping her, and not only did he move his seat for the next seminar, but he sat next to her for the remainder of the year.

I did not create the reflection form that I use. I borrowed it from the Greece Central School District (see Socratic Seminar Reflection, and be sure to check out their rubrics, too). I have found their resources helpful ever since Jay McTighe introduced their rubrics for me about ten years ago.

Another tool I use in my seminars is an iPad app called Equity Maps. Full disclosure, I am acquainted with the developer. He facilitated Critical Friends training in which I participated at my school, and he showed us this app at that time before it was released. Though my class has more boys than girls, according to the gender distribution in all three seminars my students have done, the girls are speaking more. I can also tell for how long and how many times a student spoke. I can record the conversation and take pictures. I can also make notes as the students talk. I use the notes feature to mark instances of good use of textual evidence, asking questions, building on comments, and making particularly insightful comments. The app has a few limitations, but it works quite well for keeping track of the discussion.

The best thing about Socratic seminar is that it completely student-centered. They create the focus question (I step in if they need help), they run and contribute to the discussion, and they reflect on the learning and progress they have made. Students love it. I think they genuinely look forward to seminars, and they take them very seriously as the wonderful learning opportunities they are.

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Slice of Life #9: Reflections on the Beginning of the Year

Slice of Life

I’ve been back in the classroom for about a week. I’ve learned my students’ names, which thrills me because it’s always hard at the beginning of the year when I want to have discussions and don’t know their names. I know most teachers can relate. I am trying as much as possible to call them by name in class discussion as well.

I’m thrilled to be off to a good start to AP Literature this year. We have so far discussed the AP rubric and tried our hand at evaluating some writing, practiced with thesis statements, and chosen Socratic seminar discussions for our Socratic seminar on Rebecca. We will have the seminar and do a timed writing this week. I have a great, hardworking group of students, and I’m impressed with them.

My American Lit students have read and discussed Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” in a Socratic seminar as well. I have one class that is somewhat quiet, and I am working on ways to draw them out. I have some ideas, but if you know of some tried and true methods for working with students who might lack confidence and are somewhat quiet, feel free to fire away. I had a class a few years ago that was very quiet. Sometimes it’s just the mix of students, but I also am keeping in mind that it’s the beginning of the year, and some classes need time to feel comfortable. I know several of them are English language learners, which is also a factor. I have noticed they are a bit reluctant to work with partners or in groups, so I have a hunch they don’t really know each other outside of my class, or at least not well. I’m using my wait time, that’s for sure.

Another potential factor is the fact that we are in the midst of a heat wave, and my building doesn’t have central air. The fan helps, actually, but it’s just really hot, and the students are having trouble concentrating. We should be out of the woods by Thursday, and I’m hoping that’s an end of the hot weather until next summer. I detest the heat. I really hated summers in Georgia. I was always miserable. I get headaches and other aches and pains when it’s too hot. I would so much rather be cold. Typically, I live in a pretty good place for the kind of weather I like. This summer hasn’t been too bad until just the end of it. I must be really weird or something, but I have never liked summer very much. Oh, I liked it okay when it was temperate, and I could play outside with friends when I was a child, but as an adult, I have always disliked it. Perhaps it is because of the heat. I enjoy time to decompress, but it’s never been a favorite season with me. I have never been a big beach person (at least, not really), nor am I outdoorsy in general.

I knew once school started, I would be busy, but it’s been a hectic week. I have not had as much time to plan as I’d have liked, which makes me grateful I have the first three weeks planned for all my classes. I hope I’ll be more caught up. I was really smart to do my lessons in Evernote last year because it’s really easy for me to look up last year’s lessons, tweak them, and bring them into this year. I am trying to be more mindful of attaching all handouts and documents to my lessons in Evernote as well so that I have everything I need in my Evernote notebook. I was really good early last year about writing reflections after lessons. Reading those reflections has been helpful for tweaking. I have just taken a few minutes to write short reflections about today’s lessons in my notes. So far, so good, but I’d like to make it a more consistent habit this year.

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NCTE Bound

letter N letter C letter T letter E

I’m starting to get excited about the annual NCTE convention this year. I will be presenting Writing Workshop with two colleagues who are sharing their experiences with student blogging and online discussion forums. Here are our session details:

NCTE SessionI’m also looking forward to visiting all the Folger folks and seeing Julius Caesar at the Folger theater with my friend, Glenda.

Are you going to NCTE?

NCTE image made with Spell with Flickr

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Shutting Down Class Discussion

Dana Huff Teaching

I know I said I would talk about tools on Wednesdays, but something came up. A student left a comment on my book blog post “Do You Hate Holden Caulfield?” It seems he had a rather negative (or I should say perceived it was negative) experience. If I understand his comment correctly, he felt silenced in the class discussion because he did not agree with his teacher’s opinion, and he had previously seen his teacher shut one of his peers down for voicing a contrary opinion.

Obviously I was not a member of the class, and I don’t know what was said. I told the student that what I thought had happened was the teacher really enjoys this book and wants students to enjoy it, too. It can be hard when students don’t love the books we love. But we shouldn’t dismiss opinions because they are different from our own. Students do not have the learning and the background with our subjects that we have, and they can make judgments based on much less information than we have. I think it’s our job to challenge students to explain why they make those judgments rather than attacking them for being “wrong.” I think they learn better from us if they feel listened to. I want to emphasize that I don’t know what happened in that classroom, but it sounded to me as if the student was describing a classroom in which he didn’t feel free to share his own conclusions. What he asked me was whether it was OK or right to hate Holden. I gave him my permission, for whatever it’s worth, and I shared my own journey with that character.

I will never forget sharing in an English Education assignment that I didn’t particularly like T.S. Eliot. I guess I hit a nerve because my professor treated me to an embarrassing public lecture on why I was wrong. I still don’t particularly like Eliot, but I understand his importance, and when he comes up in my curriculum, I teach my students to appreciate his work. But all that lecture did is make me dislike Eliot more, and it’s not poor Eliot’s fault.

So how can we share books we love with students and give them permission NOT to love them? How can we challenge them to justify their judgments? I think you should start by being honest with your students about your feelings for a book. They are surprisingly gentle (or at least, my own students have been—your mileage may vary considerably). I think the last message we want to send our students, however uninformed or incorrect we feel they may be, is that their opinions really don’t matter.

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