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?

Scaffolding and Organizing Jigsaw Discussions

I’ve been experimenting this semester with different ways of encouraging meaningful academic talk between and among students.  I think giving students opportunities to engage in meaning making for themselves is important at all levels, and after reading Cris Tovani’s wonderful No More Telling as Teaching, I have been more intentional about ways to help students have opportunities to talk and share that help their growth and support that of others.  Some students relish these opportunities; others do not  always embrace them as joyfully.  There is also the challenge of helping students find the sweet spot of discussion and talk with others where the conversation stays on track and students don’t overtalk or undertalk with each other.

While my Honors students tend to be stronger with class discussions than my other sections, I try to give all my classes these learning experiences.  However, even my upper level classes sometimes struggle or get in a rut.    Last Friday, I decided to do a jigsaw discussion with one of my 11th Honors ELA classes in order to try to shake things up a little and incorporate more individual accountability for participation and contributions to a small group discussion.  On Wednesday, students took a grade level performance final exam; after the exam, they had class time to read an excerpt of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  They were asked to complete summaries of each section and to answer seven short answer questions by the beginning of the next class on Friday.

When students arrived, they could choose a seat anywhere.  I had desks arranged into four groups of seven and one seating cluster of four desks.  Once students were seated, I passed out numbered task cards so that we formed “birds of feather” clusters.  Students could move anywhere in the room to work with their fellow assigned task card group members and collaborate on answers to the questions on the task card for about 20 minutes.  For example, if you received Task Card 2, you met up and worked with fellow Task Card 2 recipients.

Students then broke for lunch; when they returned, we organized ourselves at the seating areas so that someone from each group–Task Cards 1-7–was represented.    They took about 5 minutes to follow these organizational instructions:

We then reviewed the procedures for the jigsaw discussion:

Students then had about 20 or so minutes to participate in the discussions and take notes on what each other had to say.  In spite of growing excitement about a possible early release due to snow, most students stayed on task and made a good faith effort to participate and contribute.

When students finished, they were asked to create a poster based on their discussions and collaborative thinking:

Students then were asked to turn in their task card work plus their jigsaw discussion notes.  Their individual assignment for homework was to compose a paragraph and choose the transcendentalist theme they felt the selection best represented and why; they were asked to provide at least two examples of textual evidence and accompanying commentary to support their response.

What are your favorite small and large group discussion strategies?  How do you scaffold student talk?  How do you nudge those who are reluctant or less than enthusiastic about participating?

Recommended Reading: