I have facilitated over two thousand Socratic Seminars and observed many more. One thing has become abundantly clear to me: when seminars don't go well, when the conversation is flat, when students don't participate, when only a few dominate the dialogue, the main culprit underlying everything is usually the pre-seminar.
There are many reasons why a seminar conversation might not work very well, but it starts with not having enough things to talk about. Students need multiple entry points into the text so that they all can begin the thinking process. The pre-seminar's job is to activate curiosity, to get students engaged in wondering, to get them to notice things. The dialogue then is for the students to put disparate pieces together into a meaningful understanding.
The pre-seminar component of Socratic Seminar is for preparing the text as much as possible for conversation. Most often, this involves close reading strategies or “talking to the text” by annotating and generating questions. When possible, students should write on the paper or in the books, but they can also use sticky notes or write on small white boards. Typical annotations include putting a star in the margin for something important, underlining vocabulary words, using a question mark for identifying confusing passages, and using numbers to label sequences.
Socratic Seminars fail when the participants don’t know what to say, so the pre-seminar is all about creating multiple talking points. Though most teachers focus on the academic aspects of annotating and close reading, there are many other annotations that should be included in the pre-seminar procedures in order to invite everyone to participate in non-threatening ways. These are usually opinion-oriented tasks such as:
- Circle your favorite word.
- Underline your favorite sentence.
- List your three favorite ideas.
- Identify a word that you’re interested in knowing more about.
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