Socratic Seminars: How to Prepare

I posted last year about Socratic Seminars and how I was planning on using them in my classroom. Needless to say, I was apprehensive in doing this because of its somewhat complicated structure and my always-denied but apparent perfectionism and my struggle to avoid it. However, I attended an in-house Avid training by one of our district’s teachers about what the seminar is and how to use it, and I felt pretty comfortable trying it out.

This post is going to be a how-to on how to prepare yourself and your students for a Socratic Seminar! Woo!

Prepare yourself:

1. Decide your end-goal for the S.S. Is it a reflection? Project? In my case, the summative assessment was the actual Socratic Seminar due to time constraints. Students had to demonstrate their learning via participation, the notes they took, and the reflections they wrote. This came out of the graphic organizer that I modified from the Teaching Channel link below.

2. Familiarize yourself with the content and process of the S.S. I suggest watching this video from the Teaching Channel. It is one teacher’s rationale for S.S., and shows it in her class in action.

3. Understand what your students need to prepare for the S.S. In most cases, it is the ability to generate high-level questions via Costa’s Level of Thinking and Questioning. I knew that my students were not there yet, but I also had to learn what they were and decide how to incorporate them long before the actual seminar. Why Costa’s? It gets students’ metacognition running when they are asked to ask a question. This is a relevant college and career-ready skill. I remember when I was in college and was expected to come to class armed with questions to contribute to discussion. If I were to ask a low-level question when a high-level one was expected, I wouldn’t be on-target and would likely be further confused.

costa's levels of questioning

Retrieved from Englewood’s District Avid Site. Below is a better link to the PDF form that I give my students.

PDF Link: Costa’s Levels of Questioning

Prepare your kids: 

1. In the weeks leading up to the Socratic Seminar, we discussed what the three different levels of questioning are, and why it is important to be able to distinguish between each. It is very difficult for students who are just learning leveled questions to distinguish between Applying and Processing, primarily because they are not used to asking those type of questions. They are very used to the “Gathering” type of questions, and also “Processing,” because those are the ones most often asked to them. But they are rarely encouraged to ask “Applying” questions.

2. To keep it simple, we started with asking leveled questions based on photographs. We practiced it frequently as warm-ups and exit slips. Eventually, I would have them do this with excerpts from texts we were reading as warmups too. To scaffold, I used this handout: Sentence Starters—most students needed this clear through to the seminar, and that’s OK for the first one. Note: It’s the students who ask the questions, not the teacher. The first time I did this, all the students started answering Gathering questions I hadn’t even asked. To practice questioning, any photograph that is evocative is best–try National Geographic’s photojournalism:

1214-indonesia-dead-snakes-coiled-market-670

 Gathering Question: How many snakes do you observe in this photograph? 

Gathering is “right there” questions, meaning they can only be asked based on what can be seen. Many students will ask Processing questions instead of Gathering during your first practice. With words, this gets a little more dicey.

 Processing QuestionInfer why the snakes are all in the same position.

The snakes are all rolled up. Most look dead because their heads are thrown to the side. By using what I know about snakes in general and how they look, I’m pairing the text and my own prior knowledge in asking and answering the question. This is important with Processing: you couple “right there” with “already know.”

Applying QuestionPredict what will happen to these snakes. 

Applying questions are abstract and require thought beyond the text. They are the ones that actually many small children ask before school beats the wonder out of them.

3. Mark the Text! Have students use your procedure for marking the text, whatever it may be, and make sure they are organized and keep the text you will do the seminar with.

4. Graphic Organizer: This is the “meat” of your seminar, and it will be done before the seminar. It’s what students will refer to when running it, and it’s where their counterclaims are readily accessible. Here is my version of the organizer from the lesson you saw on the Teaching Channel for when I taught Elie Weisel’s Night. Note that students must create claims based on the higher level questions that we have wrestled with throughout the unit as well as counter claims–all supported by textual evidence. The blank space you see at the bottom is for each “group” (I used pairs of students for this, and these same pairs are partners for the seminar) and each group comes up with an “Applying” level question to ask the group during the Seminar. Again, all of this is completed before the seminar begins. I usually give students about 1.5 hrs to do this total. They will need time to leaf through their notes and texts to gather evidence.

5. Show your kids how it’s done: Both times I did the S.S. this year, I showed my kids the Teaching Channel video. I think it’s great for them to see other kids in action using appropriate language and supporting their claims. If you don’t have access to an LCD projector to show them, you can set up a ‘mock’ session with some students that catch on quickly or may have participated in something like this before. If this is their first exposure, I have them discuss why the S.S. is important after they watch it in action. I get them excited about doing it themselves. We reflect on what could be difficult about this and how to ameliorate that before we actually do the seminar.

Next time I will share a step-by-step guide to running the actual seminar!

Comment with any questions or tips you may have! I’m no expert, and I would love to hear what you do in your own classrooms with regard to Socratic Seminars or Costa’s. 

Special thanks to the good people at Englewood School District for the Avid Materials and professional development, and of course to the Teaching Channel and the teacher featured in the shared lesson–Christina Proctor. I give them all the credit with materials developed and thank them deeply.

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