I had a great discussion with my students today. A couple of them asked me why I don’t grade participation in Socratic seminars. I used to. I stopped because I find that grading participation is slippery. If you quantify it, you run the risk of encouraging shallow participation for points. In their reflections, students share what they have learned as a result of the seminar. I think part of the concern the students shared is that their reflection must include a summary of ideas discussed in the seminar, and the students who raised the concern did not earn full points for their summaries. They argued that if they are trying to capture the discussion in their notes, they will not be as present in the discussion.
What I told the students is that grading is a means of communicating their learning, and if they would prefer to be assessed on participation because it helps them learn, then I will do what helps them learn. I asked that we have a discussion about it as a class. We had that discussion this morning, and I was really impressed with how the students were able to articulate what works for them in assessing seminars and why. They have a strong sense of what kind of assessment feels equitable and what does not. They were able to articulate why setting goals and assessing progress toward the goals was helpful, and why grading participation didn’t work for most of them.
I pointed out that the skills of note-taking and listening are important for success. Students need to listen to their teachers and peers—now and later in college—and be able to take notes on what they hear, so my rationale for assessing these skills is that they are skills that are important to practice. Yet, I understand their arguments as well. We cannot have a good seminar if students do not participate. On the other hand, their classmates insisted that participation was not a problem in our first seminar. At one point, they asked me to display our discussion map from last time (thanks, Equity Maps!). Did we actually have a problem that needed solving, or was our discussion working without grading participation?
The class consensus was to leave the assessment as is, particularly as they have only experienced one seminar so far and judgment based on one experience would not tell the whole story. I don’t think everyone was happy, and frankly, the discussion did become a bit heated. I don’t think that made the students feel comfortable. I asked them if they felt heard—not agreed with, because that’s not the same thing—but heard. I think the net result is that students appreciated the opportunity to share their ideas. I was super impressed with them, and I shared that feedback with them.
We have our second seminar tomorrow, and it will be interesting to see how this debate informs the discussion. In the end, the compromise/consensus seemed to be that students want to be assessed on making progress on their goals. Part of their reflection is to identify their goals for the next seminar. This means I need to go back into their last reflections and refresh my memory about what their individual goals are and ensure I give them feedback on their progress toward meeting their goals. They also asked for feedback on their contributions, though they recognized that one person’s idea of an insightful comment may differ from another’s.
The bottom line is that it’s important to engage students in the assessment of their learning. Some of the best discussions I have had with my students have centered on grading and assessment. They have a lot to say about assessment, but they are not always a part of the conversation about how they’ll be assessed. It was a good exercise for my students today to hear others’ perspectives on this topic and take those perspectives into consideration.
This is one of those books, sort of like Understanding by Design, that makes such a clear, compelling case in such an immediate way that you wonder how you’ve been teaching all your life without using the techniques the authors describe. You can quite literally take the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) described in this book right into your classroom.
Rothstein and Santana argue that students learn better, retain more, and are more engaged if they are trained to ask questions. The way teachers can facilitate this learning is to give students a prompt, which the authors call a “QFocus” or “Question Focus.” I decided to try this out in my short Emily Dickinson unit in AP Literature.
I knew one thing I wanted my students to take away from reading Dickinson’s poetry is that word choices are important. I brainstormed potential QFocus ideas in my notebook. I started with the obvious “word choices.” That wasn’t enough, but I was encouraged by reading in Make Just One Change to start with the basics to generate ideas. Then I wrote “word choices matter.” Just to be contrary, I added: “word choices don’t matter.” In the end, this is the full list of QFocus ideas I came up with (including some quotes I found online while looking up authors’ ideas regarding word choice):
word choices matter
word choices don’t matter
words have power
you can use the power of words
“The secret of being boring is to say everything.”—Voltaire
“Good words are worth much, and cost little.”—George Herbert
You have to wrestle with word choice.
“I never knew what was meant by choice of words. It was one word or none.”—Robert Frost
“Writing a poem is discovering.”—Robert Frost
“Words have weight, sound, and appearance.”—Somerset Maugham
I ultimately decided on “word choices matter” as the QFocus that would best help generate questions about word choice without being too obtuse or unnecessarily provocative.
Note: I deviated a little bit from the QFT because I hadn’t read very far into the book when I already knew I wanted to introduce the idea, so I took a risk that paid off. Instead of putting students in groups to generate questions, I just wrote “word choices matter” on the board and gave the students the four rules described in Make Just One Change:
Ask as many questions as you can.
Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any question.
Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
Change any statement into a question. (43)
Then I asked the entire class to share our their question ideas rather than generate ideas in groups. It might seem easy, but it is really hard not to try to rephrase questions, and it is also hard not to place a value on the question through encouraging students who ask good ones. If you comment on the value of a question, you are liable to shut down students who think maybe their questions are not as good. And you do need to remind students of the rules. They wanted to dismiss some of the questions. I should back up and add before we generated questions, we discussed the rules and in particular which ones would be hard to follow. Rule 2 was the one they knew (rightly) they would struggle most with because they love to discuss ideas.
They came up with the following questions (unedited):
Why is it word choice matters instead of word choices matter?
Isn’t it ironic that word choices matter in a statement about word choices?
Why are we doing this exercise?
Is this supposed to be about The Hours?
In what context is word choices being applied?
Is this about Emily Dickinson?
Are we still going to see her house? And get lunch?
Do word choices always matter?
Do authors limit themselves to their own writing style?
Do authors limit readers to their (reader’s) interpretation?
In what scenarios does word choice matter the most?
Is word choice very important to all authors or just some?
Do authors disagree about the purpose of word choice?
Are we implying that the effect of words are quantified by how they compare to one another?
Does word choice limit emotion?
What is word choice?
How do authors use word choice to enhance their writing style?
As you can see, some of their first questions revolved around the purpose of creating questions, but they quickly generated an impressive list. The next day, I asked students to get in groups and do three things: 1) classify questions as either open-ended or closed-ended (this is an activity described in the book); 2) rewrite an open-ended question so it was closed-ended and vice versa; and 3) prioritize their top three questions.
There was quite a lot of overlap when groups prioritized their questions, and in some cases, the rewritten questions made the cut rather than the originals. This was our final list:
In what scenarios does word choice matter the most?
How do authors use word choice to enhance their writing style?
Do authors limit themselves to their own writing style?
Does word choice limit emotion? OR How does word choice limit emotion? (The question was rendered two different ways by different groups.)
Why is it word choices matter instead of word choice matters?
In what context is “word choices” being applied?
The project students are completing in this unit is to create a video or presentation in which students explain one of Dickinson’s poems and explore her word choice variants. I asked them to choose one or more questions from this list as part of their project’s focus.
One immediate observation: All of the students were more engaged, but in particular, some students who rarely participate were participating, and not just in the question generation. They continued to participate when discussing one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, which is an activity we did after generating questions.
I will be trying the QFT with my ninth graders next week. We are reading Persepolis, and I plan to show them Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”
As I did with my AP Literature class, I brainstormed potential QFocus ideas and also considered positives and negatives for each.
short and sweet
all stereotypes are bad
too easy to agree with
no stereotypes are good
same, but negative, does reframe
stereotypes are both bad and good
might generate divergent thinking
might not generate a ton of questions
stereotypes are incomplete
ties to Adichie, makes me wonder
might be hard for kids to parse
social groups judge each other based on difference
might be too specific?
we all use stereotypes
sets up challenge to thinker
negative response? argue back?
I was initially inclined to select the last one, but I showed my list to a colleague, and he suggested, “stereotypes are incomplete.” He argued I said myself that it “makes me wonder,” and that perhaps part of my concern about the statement being difficult to parse is what makes it good. The students will have to pick it apart. And it has the advantage of being a direct quote from Adichie’s TED Talk.
If you are looking for something to read that you can take into your classroom right away, no matter what you are doing, this book will offer you some great tools and advice. Towards the end of the book, the authors quote two great educational thinkers:
Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi and scholar who was a refugee from Nazi Germany, asserted at a White House Conference on Children and Youth in 1960 that in a democratic society we should be assessing our students less on their ability to answer our questions and more on their ability to ask their own questions. The educator Paulo Freire was actually thrown in jail by a dictatorship in his native Brazil for challenging its authority and then spent much of his life after that challenging societies around the world to embrace questions and questioning as a fundamental democratic action. (154)
Something I actually wrote in the margins of my book on page 7, “Wonder if Parkland teachers use QFT.” It would explain the students’ activism and leadership.
All I can say about QFT is my first thought is “Why didn’t I think of this before?” and my second is “This is going to change everything.”
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.
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.
I’ve been thinking about Pam Allyn’s article in Education Week for a couple of days. I read a few of the comments, too. While I think Allyn makes some valid points about putting the right books in the hands of students, I also think that can be accomplished through independent reading and literature circles without eliminating a whole-class novel study. More goes on in a whole-class novel study than just reading books. Critical thinking—synthesizing ideas, analysis, compare and contrast, application of one situation to another, interpretation—the list could go on. Sometimes, students actually do enjoy those books, too. I’ve seen it happen many times, even with books you wouldn’t think. I have had students not want to stop reading when class is over when we studied The Catcher in the Rye. I have had professed non-readers tell me how much they liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. One former student told me when she packed for college, she had room to take three books. One of them was Wuthering Heights, which I had introduced her to (granted, our study of the story was based on the film and I gave her the book to read when she showed interest in delving deeper). Do all students like all books? No. I didn’t like all the books I read in school either. And sometimes I think we try to teach books that students are not ready for. I’m not sure I was ready for The Scarlet Letter in high school, but I enjoyed it when I read it in my late twenties for the first time. Same thing with The Great Gatsby. However, I have also taught students who were ready for those books in high school and enjoyed them. One student who was in my class in ninth grade blossomed in his English class when his tenth grade teacher taught The Great Gatsby—he loved it. Would these students have read The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter if we hadn’t done a whole-class study? I’m not so sure. Sometimes it does happen that a student finds a book that means a great deal to him or her through a whole-class novel study, and I and other teachers I work with have been personally thanked for introducing that student to that book. And students do enjoy whole-class novel discussion. It’s not a novel, but whole-class study of Romeo and Juliet has been a hit every year I’ve taught it.
While I think we really do want to create life-long readers, and establishing independent reading in our classrooms can go a long way toward accomplishing that goal, studying a novel as a class is not a waste of time, and we can and should incorporate more nonfiction and more books that appeal to boys as well as girls. To me, it’s about balance rather than an all or nothing approach—balancing choice reads with whole-class or literature circle selections. One commenter on the original post said, “It’s not the whole-class novel that’s the problem—it’s how we choose those novels.” I agree. The example Allyn uses to demonstrate problems with the class-novel study is of a twelve-year-old reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I read that novel in eleventh grade, and it was the perfect book for me at that time. I taught it for years as a ninth grade text until students began coming to me having studied it in middle school. Even though I see the value in re-reading a novel, I also had to contend with parents who thought I was teaching a middle school text, so I gave that one up. My personal opinion is that To Kill a Mockingbird is perfect for high school students, but there may be some middle school students who are ready for it. So what do we do in the face of pressure to include more rigorous reading in the middle school? What should all literature teachers be doing to foster a love of reading while pushing students forward as critical thinkers?
Well, the commenter I quoted previously went on to say that “[a]ll choice is no better than no choice.” We need to think about what studying a text will teach us that we can’t learn from studying any other text—the first step in backward design, by the way. When we studied The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I asked my students themselves to justify its place in our class. Should it even be taught? Wasn’t it racist? Couldn’t some other book do just as well without exposing students to the n-word over 200 times? They put the book on trial, and the conclusion they came to was that it was important for us to study Huck Finn because it captured a moment in our history that was important not to ignore. We should be thoughtful about why we teach anything that we teach.
Next year, I will not be teaching literature classes for the first time in my teaching career, so this is perhaps not even something I need to chew over very much because it’s not a decision I will have to make. However, I do know that any time I ever teach a literature class, I will always teach the whole-class novel as a part of my curriculum.