Socratic Seminar: Best Practices

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What are your favorite Best Practices for Socratic Seminars?

I didn’t try to organize a Socratic Seminar for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how it works. So here is my list of best practices, especially for beginners:

  • Watch this video: https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/bring-socratic-seminars-to-the-classroom
  • Have your students also watch the video (it helps them to see students their own age actually doing this).
  • The best set-up is with two circles, an outer and an inner (see picture above). The outer circle students observe the inner student conversation.
    • You, the teacher, should set up the partners.
    • If there is an odd number of students, have one student be the moderator (only if the partners are actively observing each other).
  • Give all the students a blank index card, or something on which to record the following information:
    • Partner’s goal for the day
    • Partner’s participation, tallying the partner’s positive and negative participation, leadership, listening, and reading.
    • This index card serves two purposes: one, for the students to give each other feedback at a half-way point in the seminar, and two, for the students in the outer circle to pay attention not only to the discussion but to also learn to pay attention to different types of participation – they might notice that one student hasn’t had a chance to speak yet, for example. They could help their partner get a leadership point by telling them to ask for that student’s opinion, drawing them into the conversation.
    • The card is NOT meant for the teacher to use to grade the student. The teacher should keep their own record of participation types and times.
  • The ultimate goal is for students to practice speaking, but also to practice active listening and including. I have noticed improvements in normal class discussions after implementing this system.
  • Do Socratic seminars as frequently as possible!
    • Different groups have different needs. Some groups might want a moderator. Others might need time limits. Some classes might want to have smaller, simultaneous seminars instead of a whole class seminar. Give the students time to suggest new ideas after every seminar.
  • Make this a low-risk assessment: preferably a classwork grade or half of a homework grade (the other half of the homework grade can be preparing for the seminar by annotating the text or making a list of questions). Students who are more shy need time to find their voice, and students who are too dominating need time to learn how to include others.
    • Students will get better with time. Some will learn to prepare more. Others will learn how to earn participation points by actively including quieter fellow students in the conversation.
  • Use Socratic seminars to make connections between texts across genres, cultures, and time periods.
    • My favorite pairings are novels with poems. For example, The Great Gatsby worked fabulously with “We Wear the Mask” and “We Real Cool.”
    • I  can also see this working well with informational text and fiction pairings.

What are some of your favorite best practices for Socratic Seminars?

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