The first Socratic seminar I ran went badly—very badly. Students were either dead silent, staring off into space, babbling incoherently about topics that were not related to our text, or yelling over each other. I sat stunned, wondering what went wrong, and how this teaching technique that was praised by so many teachers I respected and admired could possibly produce deep and coherent thought. Since that day, I have had other seminars that went badly, but I have also had seminars where I was blown away by the insight my students showed and the connections they made. I now teach seminar in a three-step process which I’ve cobbled together from many resources. I have found that preparation is key to creating the culture of seminar, and solves many of the problems teachers face in running a seminar. Think of the three steps described below as the “bones” of a Socratic seminar; they give students the structure and support they need to succeed in a discussion about a difficult text.
For those new to Socratic Seminar, it is essentially a structured discussion format in which the teacher attempts to channel Socrates by posing provocative questions, and the students deepen their understanding by answering those questions through discussion amongst themselves. In a Socratic Seminar, a key distinction is that we are engaging in a dialogue rather than a debate. No one “wins” in a Socratic seminar; rather, we work together to explore ideas, challenge assumptions, and ultimately come away with a new understanding of the text or issue we are discussing. What this usually looks like is a small group of students seated in a circle with their teacher, texts in front of them, discussing the questions posed by the teacher.
In this step, students are given the text, and asked to annotate, or “work” the text. The first time I said the word “annotate” in the classroom, I faced 25 blank stares. Now when I teach annotation, I give students the following tasks:
This list gives students clear and concrete steps to follow. I’ve found that using it consistently in the beginning of the year leads to automatic annotators—now students in my class annotate texts even if they are not preparing for a seminar.
Once students have “worked” the text on their own, they need to come together and make sure they understand the text on a basic level. The goal in coaching a text is to make sure students all understand the main ideas. This keeps the seminar from being a discussion about what happened, and opens up the space to delve into the deeper questions of a text. In a coaching session, I generally put students into groups of three, though pairs work well, too. With an extremely difficult text, we will sometimes coach as a whole class to model the process and guide the students through the argument.
Once students are in their groups, they work paragraph by paragraph (or page by page for longer texts) through the following steps:
Write them on an index card, and pass them to the teacher. (I often get my best seminar questions this way!)
During the coaching process, students should be writing even MORE notes on their documents.
Now that students have read, annotated, and coached, they are ready to discuss. My key responsibility as a leader is to come up with questions prior to the seminar that can be used to guide students into a deeper understanding of the text. Writing questions, for me, is by far the most time-consuming part of this process. After a few seminars in which I felt unprepared, I now make sure to leave myself ample time to craft questions carefully, so that they will be accessible and interesting to students, while also hitting the themes I want students to uncover. I use the Paideia model (Strong, 1997), which recommends three levels of questions:
1. Opening Questions: These are the “big” questions that hit the overarching themes of the text. I generally only ask one or two of these, but usually have 3-4 prepared. Ideally, you would ask one question only, and the ensuing discussion would encompass the core questions. In reality, this rarely happens! Some examples of opening questions I have used:
2. Core Questions: These questions are focused on guiding students into a more detailed interpretation of the text. They often focus on specific passages, quotes, or ideas in the text that relate to the ideas in the opening question. These questions are used to build layers of understanding that will eventually come together to answer the opening question. I often have 8-10 of these prepared, and ask 3-5. Some examples of core questions for the same texts are:
3. Closing Questions: Closing questions ask the students to connect the ideas to themselves, bringing the ideas they have discussed back into their own lives and contexts. I usually only ask one of these, but have 2-4 prepared. Some final examples:
Apart from asking the prepared questions, I also try to focus on clarifying student thinking and asking follow-up questions, with the goal of pushing students to articulate their thoughts carefully and clearly. I will often question logical inconsistencies, or take a student statement to its extreme conclusion. It is important to set student expectations for this—early in my seminar practice I ran into students who felt attacked by this type of questioning. Now, before the first seminar we do, we talk about the purpose behind these questions and why I ask further questions during a seminar.
These steps are only the beginning to crafting a culture of seminar. The more I run Socratic seminars with my students, the more I realize that the processes involved—close reading, careful attention to text, generation of questions, listening, and respectful dialogue—are teachable. I am still honing my craft, but I hope that these ideas may be helpful to others as they prepare their students for Socratic engagement.
Strong, Michael (1997). The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice. Chapel Hill, NC: New View Publications.