6 Tips for Effective Socratic Seminar Management
Let me tell you, socratic seminars are THE. BEST. They bring students (and you) out of their comfort zones, and if done well, can provide students with a safe opportunity to express their personal thoughts and opinions.
Although I have done socratic seminars with my students for several years now, this year has made the most impact on me. I usually do these types of activities with my ‘higher’ classes, but this year I decided to give it a try with my inclusion class. I was slightly nervous about how it would roll out, but thought if it went to hell in a hand basket, we could always go to Plan B.
Great news, though-Plan B never happened! In fact, the seminar itself made me feel like I was queen of the teaching world. More details about that later. First, I want to share the 6 things I did that contributed to me being filled with those magical teacher tingling feelings when the class was over.
A note about the text I select: Give students a text that evokes some type of emotion and/or opinion and is slightly below or right at their reading level. I do not want them to feel frustrated and check out before we even begin. I usually do important vocabulary, reading of the passage and pre-discussion questions one day, and the seminar the next.
For my 8th grade inclusion class, I gave them a 6th grade level text about the 15th Church Street bombings from Common Lit. Although we practice various annotations in class, I had them annotate just reactions. It was important they understood their feelings about the subject. In addition, I had them underline a sentence they thought was impactful, important, or significant since they would need it for seminar.
The 6 Tip for Effective Seminars
1. Prime the Pump: I give about 5 of the 10 questions I am going to ask during seminar ahead of time. As they finished reading and annotating, they answer these questions in their notebook. Since this will end of being like notes and talking points, I allow the students to answer the questions in bullet points. This step is super important for students who hate feeling put on the spot, or ones that struggle thinking on their feet. I’s a scaffold that provides a little confidence!
2. Set Those Goals: I’m a goal person. I love them. I make them. I work toward them. I believe we work harder when we have a goal written down, staring us in the face, demanding attention. Before we start seminar, I have the students write a personal goal at the top of their text. This goal can be anywhere from I will contribute to the discussion 2 times to I will talk no more than 5 times (for the ones who want to dominate) to I will focus and actually read the text. The first time we do this I give them examples of goals to write, but they are totally free to come up with their own.
3. Set the Expectations: Go over basic seminar etiquette. We discuss how only one person can speak at a time. Also, it’s important to share with them that’s it is ok to disagree, we just have to do it with respect. I give them discussion prompts, like: “I understand what you’re saying, (name), but I disagree with you because ____________. I also show what it looks like not to follow seminar etiquette. I always do this over the top and it makes them all laugh, but it gets the point across. In addition, I give them the procedure for setting up for seminar because I’m not doing all that work by myself! This includes how to work together to move the tables and set the chairs in a circle. It usually takes my class under a minute to set up for seminar!
4. Get Everyone Involved: Start with one question that everyone has to answer. This really helps break the ice and gets students used to talking in the circle. Everyone has to answer. Even if there answer is the same as someone else’s. In the most recent class I did a seminar with, the students had to read the sentence they felt impacted them the most and why. When it got to Kevin, he said, “uh. My sentence is the same as Justin.” I said, “That’s great! You still need to read it and tell me why you picked it.” I got a grunt, but he read it and contributed to the discussion.
You will also have students who say they didn’t find anything. I just say the expectation is they are going to share a sentence that stood out to them more than others. I give them a three person pass to figure it out before I go back to them.
After we go around the circle, I start asking the discussion questions. I create questions that are open ended and have more than one answer. The expectation is the students will talk and discuss with each other, and not me. The part they struggle with the most is one person talking at a time and actively listening. It is a skill that needs reinforcing and practice, practice, and more practice (even for some adults, right?!)
5.Flip the Roles:. After the discussion dies down, I pass out post it notes or scrap pieces of paper to everyone. I have the students write their own discussion questions based on what we read. You might have to remind them that the discussion questions need to be open ended and not something where you can find the answer right there in the text. Give examples as needed. For the first couple of times you do this, you can even have students work with a partner to create their question. I then take volunteers to share their questions and we discuss the answers. I make a huge deal out of great discussion questions, praising them for their in-depth thinking and perspectives.
6. Written Reflection: To wrap everything up, we do a personal written reflection. I always ask…did you meet your goal? Why or why not? What is something new you learned? What is an idea you can take away from this seminar? Is there anything you wished you would have said or shared?
And, that’s it, y’all! 6 classroom tested tips that will make your seminars effective and manageable!
Now, if I never would have taken the chance to try the seminar with my inclusion class, I never would have given Noah a safe place to share his thoughts.
A little background: Noah NEVER talks in class. When I say never, I mean never, ever! Sometimes I get a little smile and laugh at my crazy antics. And once in a blue moon he will say hello to me at the door instead of waving. But, contributing to class discussions? Not going to happen.
I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was the prep work he did, maybe it was the expectation of everyone sharing, maybe it was the discussion prompts he had, I have no idea. I can just tell you that Noah shared. He spoke in full length sentences. Multiple sentences, y’all. And he was right on point with his ideas and reflections. I literally almost cried. But I held it together because I didn’t want to embarrass the kid. Not to be dramatic, but it was one of those teaching moments that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It cemented my choice to do seminars with classes that are not considered my high flyers because they all need a place where their voice can be heard.
I hope this gives you a little confidence to try a seminar with your class. If you need more of a guideline or want to slowly dip your toe into the seminar pool, check out the seminars I have prepared for you!!. It has the student sheets, the texts, the discussion questions, and written responses all ready for you to go!
Keep teaching and smiling,