1. Pre-Seminar Components
The pre-seminar activities are for getting the students ready to have a quality conversation. Essentially, these components of the seminar process help students find avenues into the text. They can involve looking up vocabulary words, journaling about a related idea, reading about historical context, etc. Pre-seminar activities can also include mini-lessons on skills that the students need before, during, or after the seminars. When seminars do not go well, the main culprit is often from problems in the pre-seminar.
2. The "Text"
The “text” for a Socratic Seminar can be nearly anything that will promote thinking, typically a poem, a short piece of fiction, an excerpt from a novel, a work of art, a question or quotation, a geometric proof, a movie clip, a song, etc. The text is what anchors the conversation and allows students to develop crucial critical thinking skills through citing the material and justifying answers.
- The text should be relatively short—typically only a few paragraphs at first so that the conversation can stay focused.
- The text should be difficult for the participants to comprehend as individuals so that everyone is needed in order to create meaning.
- The text should have widespread “big idea” appeal.
- The text should have complexities that invite multiple viewpoints and ideas.
- The "text" can include several components collected into a text set.
3. The Opening Question (and Other Questions)
The opening question is the component that usually begins the seminar itself. Because the goal is to have genuine conversation, the opening question should not have a right answer. Instead, it should challenge students to examine the text and to think about it in new ways. A good opening question is immediately provocative and engaging for most students, and leads to conversation. A bad opening question will immediately polarize students and cause arguing and debating.
When your opening questions falter or flop, ask procedural questions in order to rescue the situation. This gets them talking about the seminar itself and not necessarily about the text, but at least they are conversing. Ask a question like, “How can we make meaning out line 6?” Or perhaps, “What do we need to do in order to get unstuck?” Questions of this nature help pass the responsibility of the seminar over to the students and help get them involved in the process. Follow-up questions are a vital part of getting the most out of the opening question.
4. Teacher as Facilitator
Socratic Seminars require the teacher to shift to the role of facilitator, and one of the easiest ways to begin is to only ask questions. As a facilitator, the goal is to gradually release responsibility to the students. This often involves modeling a skill, letting the students practice within a structure like Socratic Seminar, and then moving on to model new skills. Good facilitators demonstrate tremendous passion and ask questions from genuine curiosity and wonder.
An important aspect of shifting to the role of facilitator is being mindful of the power dynamics in the classroom. For example, students will often say something in seminar and then immediately look at the teacher for some kind of endorsement. Socratic Seminar facilitators should remain neutral and poker-faced to allow the group to decide the merits of the idea.
5. Students - Engaged
Students should conduct themselves as indicated in the expectations and procedures that you established for your classroom and the seminar. But that is only the beginning. They must participate, listen effectively, pose questions, draw conclusions, summarize and synthesize information, and much more. In terms of basic expectations, I always start by telling my students that they must speak at least once.
Since students are often not accustomed to genuine conversation in the classroom, begin by establishing conversation guidelines for what to do and also what not to do. Things to do might include: taking turns, citing the text, and building upon what others have stated. Things not to do might include: not repeating what’s already been stated, not interrupting, and not telling elaborate disconnected stories.
In addition to the skills, the students must feel safe and have enough confidence to participate fully. Safety must be established by prior experience. The most sensitive students will not speak at all until they first see what happens when (if) others are mocked, whether or not sarcastic comments are allowed, if there are such things as “dumb” questions or comments, etc. Teachers must establish a culture of genuine, safe inquiry in the classroom before attempting Socratic Seminars so that everyone will be willing to contribute.
6. Post-Seminar Components
There are three typical objectives for post-seminar activities: having students connect to previous ideas or themes, having students reflect on the seminar and their participation, or having students further research and explore. To be simple, think about these as connecting to the past (previous work), the present (the seminar), or the future (extension work).
Post-seminar components often involve writing assignments in various forms. Many teachers prefer not to grade the seminars themselves, so the writing assignments often provide the bulk of the grade. However, there is obviously a difference between speaking and writing, so only using writing to evaluate students does not create accurate grades.
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