conversations for learning

Growing Our Conversation Skills with Socratic Seminar

We are continuing to grow our discussion skills in my 8th grade classes with a variety of conversation strategies.  Prior to Thanksgiving break, we engaged in a Socratic Seminar over a variety of related texts.   If you want to see some additional interesting twists on Socratic Seminar, check out this great blog post.

While I’ve incorporated Socratic Seminars into my middle and high school classrooms in the past, this year I used new resources to scaffold student thinking and help them feel prepared.  I primarily used these resources from Write on with Ms. G., but I also utilized some materials from The Daring English Teacher.  I highly recommend both, especially for students new to Socratic Seminar.

I first gave students two class days and a weekend to complete the discussion prep materials.  I provided two sets of examples to help students generate their own thinking related to one or more of the following texts (these depended on class period since classes voted on some of the reading choices for texts related to identity, family, and culture):

  • “Names/Nombres” by Julia Alvarez
  • “The Medicine Bag” by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
  • “Peaches” by Adrienne Su
  • “I Ask My Mother to Sing” by Li-Young Lee
  • An assortment of nonfiction articles students read related to identity, family, and culture

In addition to the prep work, we watched a video of an 8th grade Socratic Seminar (about a 5 minute clip) and discussed what we saw happening in terms of content, conversation skills, and discussion manners.   I think this step was important to help my 8th graders visualize what we would be doing since most have never been part of a Socratic Seminar discussion before now.

During the seminar, each group had two tools to help them during their inner circle participation.

I reminded students they would not be talking to me, but instead, they would be talking to each other.  I made it very clear my role was just to facilitate beginnings and endings and to be the most excellent observer taking notes of their discussion since the activity was a performance assessment.  I used the following codes to make my notes and help me remember what each student did:

In addition to the codes, I wrote out notes and observations of both the inner and outer circle in the white space on the front and back of each roster sheet.

We were able to complete our seminar discussions right within the 50 minute time frame.   I also decided who was in the inner circle first and projected those names on the board to get things started as soon as possible.

In all classes, we had just enough time to complete the first mini self-assessment right after the seminar (see below) while things were still fresh on the students’ minds.

The next day, we did an extended self-assessment with the following form; in addition, we completed a digital reflection with a Google Form for each class period.  On all assessments, students were extremely honest and spot-on with their self-assessment and observations.  I was truly impressed by their candor and critical thinking about their work.

The response to the seminar was overwhelmingly positive; even students who wished they had participated more in the discussion shared they would like another opportunity to be part of a seminar.  I do have students this year who are struggling why shyness or fear that others will make fun of them.   Others have expressed they get scared and nervous when speaking in front of their classmates even when it is not a formal speech or presentation.  This is the first year I’ve had a noticeable number of students in each class who struggle with these issues, so I am hoping that TQE discussions will be a gentler entry point for those learners.

Overall, I was thrilled with the great dialogue my students engaged in during the seminars.  While there were a few who struggled, most made a good faith effort to participate by sharing questions, listening and responding to others, and inviting others into the conversation.  I appreciated the leadership that many students showed in the seminar as well.  What strategies do you like to use to support high quality Socratic Seminar discussions?

Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat: Read Aloud Reading Partners

Reading partners is not a new concept; many literacy experts have written about this concept and offered best practices for implementing them into classroom life, including Smokey Daniels.  Though I don’t implement them as much as I’d like to or probably should, I do love watching students in action when time and opportunity present themselves to do so.

Recently, one of my classes had the opportunity to work with a reading partner.  I gave students three choices:

  1.  Read alone (I try to respect those who are introverts and work better alone).
  2.  Read with a partner.
  3.  Read in a “triangle” (group of three).

I had taken a copy of “Raymond’s Run” and marked in up into three sections.  After reading the first three sections together with a wonderful audio rendition of the story and completing our reading reflections graphic organizer, I gave students the option to finish reading the story alone, with a partner, or in a group of three.  I provided these general guidelines for working with reading partners in addition to the fundamental principles of being an active and respectful listener/participant.  We also talked about the rule of “knee to knee, face to face” talk meaning we were actively facing each other as we read so that we could focus and hear each other.

I was truly blown away by how focused and engaged students were whether they chose to work solo, with a reading buddy, or in a group of three.  Their positive energy, their conversations about what they were reading, and how they encouraged each other truly brought joy to my teacher heart!

How do you incorporate time and space for reading partners in your Language Arts classroom?

Active Learning and Thinking: Walk and Talk Partner Discussions

Right after the first of the year, one of my favorite teachers and literacy leaders, Sarah Brown Wessling, posted this video about taking her class on the move.  Last year, I crafted and incorporated many learning activities for my high school students that involved movement, and I’ve continued that with my 8th graders during the 2018-2019 school year.  After watching that video, I decided I wanted to try the partner “walk and talk” discussion strategy soon.

Part 1:  Frontloading the Work with Individual Self-Assessment and Reflection

Flash forward to this past Friday.  On Wednesday and Thursday, my 8th graders received a copy of their December Quarter 2 benchmark essay, a writing task that asked them to read two articles and write an expository/informational/explanatory essay in response to the two articles.  We began on Wednesday with the following warm-up:

Nearly every student chose the correct answer, D, but many struggled to actually do that on the benchmark assessment even though we had deconstructed a model essay similar to the benchmark writing task prior to the benchmark assessment and engaged in several hands-on activities to review how to respond to that type of writing assessment and prompt.  In each class, we explored the reasons for the disconnect between understanding the prompt and actually executing it.  We spent the rest of the class on Wednesday and all of Thursday engaging in some self-assessment and reflection to analyze their strengths and weaknesses in their essay response:

As students completed the first reflection, they came to me for a quick 1:1 conference about their reflection work before moving on to the additional reflection activities.  All of these became part of their literacy portfolio along with the copy of their benchmark essay.  In addition, we spent the last 10 minutes of class on Thursday adding some additional pieces of student work and reflections they completed prior to the December break to the portfolio as well as an updated Lexile/SRI reading progress report.

Part 2:  From Individual Work to Collaborative Work and Discussion

On Friday, every table group arrived to find a pastel folder with a set of 2-3 student benchmark writing/essays in the folder.  All identifying information was stripped from each piece of writing and assigned a number; I also ran copies of these pieces of writing on different colors of neon paper by table or “station” group.

I did several variations of the table/station work for this blind peer review of essays.  My main goal for this activity was for students to read a range of writing from their peers and to apply the self-assessment criteria we had used for our own writing earlier in the week to these pieces of writing.  For my 1st period team taught class, students were asked to read the essays/writing pieces in the folder at their table and then use this evaluation tool to assess the writing.  For my 4th period class, students read the pieces of writing individually but to evaluate the writing collaboratively.  For both classes, table groups then voted on the best piece of writing and explained what made it the best one at their station/table group.

The activity generated great conversation within the table groups as they analyzed and shared their reflections to come to a consensus on the best pieces of writing.  It was interesting to hear students debate “top” writing choices at some of the table groups and to hear them make their case for those choices using the writing/rubric criteria.  This aspect of the activity generated the most critical thinking, and I think students benefited from it as well as the act of reading work from their peers and seeing that range of quality in the writing.

Between 4th period and my final classes (Period 5 and 6), we have a break in the day known as “War Time” (we are the War Eagles).  This is a recess period, but we also have make-up time for different subject areas each day as well as detention for students who may be struggling with points on our discipline system in our building.  As we were standing outside on Friday during War Time, I was struck by how mild the weather was (mid 50s) and what beautiful weather it was for January and better than what was forecasted for the day.  I also was pondering the fact that it was Friday afternoon and wondered if I might do yet another variation on the station activity for my final two classes of the day.  It hit me that this would be the perfect opportunity to do a partner walk and talk, but instead of staying inside the building, we would GO OUTSIDE!

When we returned indoors to begin 5th period, I asked my students if they would like a chance to go back outside  Of course, 8th graders love being outdoors and enthusiastically responded YES.  I explained to them we could do the 2nd half of class outdoors but if and only if everyone was laser focused on the first half of our indoor time work.  Talk about the ultimate carrot!  I explained they were going to read the essays and complete the evaluation sheet.  If they finished early, they could begin the “blue ribbon” best of essays reflection.  I set the countdown time clock to 20 minutes on my computer and projected it on the board, and they began.  Everyone was super focused and working intently.  Once time was up, I instructed students they would need all their evaluation forms, including the blue ribbon reflection even if it was not quite finished; they were also instructed to take their neon colored essay handout with them outside.  I repeated the same instructions and procedures for 6th, and they also jumped right into their work.


Once outside, they were directed to find a partner; it could be anyone but someone from their table group!  They quickly found partners, and I lined them up two by two.  I explained that the partner on the left would speak first as they walked and talked.  Our partner talk instructions were these:

  1.  Explain the rubric you completed for each essay you read and evaluated.
  2.  You may point at specific parts of the essay on the neon paper as you talk through the evaluation you completed in addition to anything else you feel is important for your partner to know about that piece of writing.
  3. Talk through your “blue ribbon” reflection even if not quite finished because you can talk through the unfinished parts verbally if needed.
  4. Your partner can ask questions and for clarifications as needed at any time.

Once the partner on the left completed these talking and sharing tasks, the partner on the right would then become the lead in the discussion.  I let them know I would be walking along side and moving about to make mental notes and video notes with my iPhone, so all conversation needed to be on point.  Once we had finished our first round, we swapped partners and did a second round of conversation.  Each round of conversation took about 1.5 to 2 laps around our grassy area in front of the school we have War Time.  My 5th period started and finished strong!


Sixth period did a fabulous job with the partner walk and talk as well though we did have to pause after the first 90 seconds to redirect and make sure everyone understood our purpose and instructions.  Once we did that quick “reset”, my 6th period students were on fire with their thinking and sharing as walked along and discussed our work.

We returned inside after about 15-20 minutes outside, and students had the chance to finish up any written work or to add to before turning in all their written components.  Students commented and shared in their written reflections they enjoyed talking with a partner from another group about the essays they read; several commented this activity also forced them to work with someone they normally would not choose, and they enjoyed that aspect of the activity!

I was so impressed with the quality of discussions from my students in both classes!  Everyone stepped up and really put themselves into the conversations.  Though the elements of being outdoors and movement could have been distracting, I think they actually enhanced the conversation and discussion experience for each round of partner walk and talk.   I hope we will have some milder days ahead in the mornings so that I can give my 1st and 4th periods this kind of learning experience soon though we could certainly adapt and do it indoors in the hallways.  I definitely recommend this activity for any teacher, and you can easily adapt it for any subject area and age group.  This by far was one of my favorite activities I’ve ever done with students and so much fun!

A heartfelt thank you to Sarah Brown Wessling, a master teacher, for so generously sharing her experiences and ideas from the trenches of real world teaching in a public school!  In addition to the links I shared earlier to her Facebook page as well as her website, you can also learn more about her over here at the Teaching Channel and see more videos of her in action.

Give Them Something To Talk About: Collaboration and Conversations with Reflection Squares

Like many of you, I am always looking for ways to engage students in conversation with each other.  After we finished reading Act II of Macbeth together last week, I wanted to give students a conversation structure to help them discuss their review questions as well as some bigger questions related to theme, what they perceived as important passages in the play, and questions or wonderings they were contemplating.

I did some strategic organization of small groups and gave each group one unique set of reflection tasks and then four common reflection tasks; I christened this activity reflection squares.  After reviewing the instructions and providing students with 11×17 paper and Sharpies, they began talking to each other as they worked through their reflection tasks.  This simple structure and set of tools generated some rich conversations and gave every student opportunities to contribute to their group’s understandings and collaborative responses.


After working together for about 30 minutes, groups finished their work and had a mini-poster to present to the class.  Roughly half the groups presented during the remaining time on Friday, and the other half presented their ideas and responses this past Monday.

The beauty of reflection squares is the flexibility and simplicity of the structure.  You can have whatever number of reflection squares you want and plug in discussion/talking points or questions of your choice.  If you are working on a budget and can’t purchase chart or tablet pads, you can easily punt with 11×17 paper.  You can also adapt it to any subject area and most age groups.  Most importantly, students are participating in meaningful dialogue with each other.  As I walked around and listened to what groups had to say, it was clear many were thinking critically; they also were actively listening to differing ideas with respect and responding to each other.   I also love that this activity creates small group conversation that then provides students low stakes presentation/public speaking opportunities to share and field questions from their peers.