In my top left desk drawer, in hurried scrawl, a wrinkled index card reads:
“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”
I wrote that quote down seven years ago, in my first months of teaching. I had come across it in planning a Socratic seminar for students, and I thought it would serve perfectly as a reminder of my true purpose in a classroom– lead learner, facilitator, but never, really, teacher. I never, though, led my students to have a Socratic seminar that year. Or any other year of my career. Until last week.
The huge amount of planning and preparation for a Socratic seminar was another reason I avoided the strategy, but a wonderful colleague directed me to these resources on the Teaching Channel. Not only were the resources aligned to the Common Core State Standards (a label anyone can place on their lessons and resources), they were clearly designed around them. The standards for the lesson included:
- Reading: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain. (R.11-12.1)
- Speaking: Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue, resolving contradictions when possible. (SL. 11-12.1)
- Listening: Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used. (SL.11-12.3)
Esther Wu’s resources erased my excuses about the overwhelming task of preparing a seminar for my students, and gave me the opportunity to overcome my other fears of failure. Examining the reading, speaking, and listening learning targets for the lesson forced me to see that the standards required much higher expectations than I dared hold my students. It was completely ridiculous for me to so ardently champion high standards for learning while simultaneously refusing to implement them in my classroom for fear of failure.
It was time for my first Socratic seminar.
I was nervous when I presented the expectations, norms, academic transitions, and roles for the seminar to my students. Although no one was outwardly excited about the prospect of sitting in concentric circles and talking about a text for 45 minutes, they didn’t complain either. I spent the first weeks of school setting a high standard for learning in my classroom, and although I thought this might push the limits of that standard too far, it didn’t.
I had spent previous lessons helping students ask questions about an author’s rhetorical choices in a text, and another lesson guiding them to thoroughly annotate texts, but for some reason, I doubted the scaffolding I’d provided and the data I’d culled from formative assessments. Of course my students were capable of having a Socratic seminar.
My students came to class prepared with discussion questions the next day, and they were ridiculously well-written. The students’ good questions sounded like ones I would ask. The best questions were ones I would have never thought of.
My most oppressive Socratic seminar fear was that kids would simply refuse to participate. A few did. One student, Alex, stands out in particular. When the discussion leader, Oliver, asked him to share his opening question, he quickly refused. “I don’t have any questions written down,” he claimed stubbornly. I could see his questions from where I was sitting, as could his peers, and my temptation to intervene was overwhelming. “All right, Alex. Thanks for nothing,” Oliver transitioned, and proceeded by sharing one of his own questions. No one laughed. No one prodded Alex or complained. Later, after half-time (when students are coached by a peer on their performance during the first half of the seminar), Alex not only offered to share one of his core questions, but he also began making relevant and helpful contributions to the seminar.
During the discussion, students went beyond asking text-based questions; they challenged their peers’ reasoning. “Why did you think that?” they pushed. “How did you come to that conclusion?” “Where did you see that in the text?” They listened carefully and purposefully to each other. They agreed and disagreed with each other’s ideas without agreeing or disagreeing with each other. They discussed without debating. They fearlessly attacked the ambiguity in the text, freed from their hesitance to be wrong by the support of their peers.
Before the seminar, I thought that I would spend the time during the seminar either guiding the conversation, or maybe, if I was lucky, catching up on grading. I didn’t expect, though, to be so absolutely captivated by my students’ performance. I couldn’t stop watching them or thinking about how proud I was of their insight, their listening skills, and their ability to synthesize each other’s comments. They shared new ideas that they couldn’t have formed without benefiting from the discussion. It was beautiful. I was so fascinated that I almost missed the moment in the video below, in which my students effortless transition from discussing evidence in the text to making arguments about the author’s purpose.
“I’ve always been a passive reader, just soaking up the text and hoping something happened to my brain to make me remember the plot or make me smarter. I hated the idea of the seminar at first, but during the discussion I was so happy. Now I realize that it was because I was actively participating in my own learning. I never really knew what teachers meant when they said they wanted me to be an active learner or active reader or active listener. The Socratic seminar made it so clear.”
Katrina Boone currently works in a hybrid role – spending half of her time in teaching English at Shelby County High School in Shelbyville, KY and working half-time as a Teacher Leader on Special Assignment with the Kentucky Department of Education. She is a co-editor of this website and editor of this blog. Follow Katrina @katrinaboone.