First Day of Socratic Seminar Coming Up
The first class in which I will use Socratic seminars is coming up in a matter of hours. I am both excited and nervous about it. From what I’ve learned about Socratic seminar, though, it seems like that is natural, largely because when one allows the students to control the dialogue, the result is always going to be unpredictable. That means, of course, that I can’t really know in advance how well this is going to work, but the unpredictability is also quite exciting, and I think it will add a lot of freshness to the class.
Of course, I know it isn’t all left up to chance. Here are some things I have done and am doing to try and scaffold Socratic discussion for students. I am betting that only a few of the students have done classroom discussion this way; by a show of hands last class, only two had, and they don’t’ recall much about it (so it may have been early in their learning career). Therefore, there are things I am putting in place to try and support discussion during the critical first few weeks.
First, after explaining what Socratic seminars are (and I’ll review that again today), I gave students an “inner circle worksheet’ to complete while they do the reading for today. It asks them such things as to describe (succintlly) the author’s overall case and at least two arguments the author uses to support it. It asks them to find two things about the readinig that either strike them as very wrong, very right, or just interesting in an “this may be worth asking the group about” way.
I want students to do these sheets with their readings for maybe the first two weeks, to get them paying attention to othe readings in a way I think Socratic discussion will demand.
I will also give the “outer circle” a sheet of paper to guide their observation of the “inner circle’s” discussion. It asks thiings like whether there were any parts of the discussion that flowed particularly well or could use improvement in that area, whether there were any points or questions that were particularly productive to the conversation, etc.
Also, I will be passing out name cards so that students can write their names down to display in front of them. I want students (and myself, because I am horrible with remembering names) a way to refer to fellow students by name. It seems to me that this will potentially aid discussion, or at least it won’t hurt.
Next, I have made sure that this week’s reading is not only a relatively short one (six pages, actually) but that I have a good number of questions at the ready in case discussion stalls. I’ve been told that the first few times are generally the toughest, and as a teacher, I will likely have to resist the urge to “fill the silence.” For discussion to work, I think students have to be the ones to struggle with and get uncomfortable during those silent moments. I’ve heard it said that a student will never learn to get out of boredom if they never experience the awkwardness of boredom that drives them to find a way out of it. I feel like silence during discussion is probably the same way. But I do have several of my own questions at the ready if they are needed, and I’ll use them judiciously.
The next thing I did was to be quite honest with the class: I’ve never run Socratic discussions in class before, and I have no idea how it is going to go, but how it goes depends on all of us. They also know that I want them to tell me if they see or think of something that needs improving or should be done differently. Not only does this let them know that we will all be figuring this thing out collectively, but it is actually kind of a weight off of my shoulders. Normally, we teachers are squeamish about making mistakes in front of students, probably for fear that it might undermine our authority. But Ii do believe there is a certain kind of authority that comes from letting students know that you are trying something new and that there may be missteps that we can all help solve together. (Maybe it doesn’t hurt that I am an Education professor, so missteps can often be opportunities to reflect on things like how to improve at different aspects of teaching.) But being honest about fallibility gives me a sense of freedom, also, because the less squeamish I am at making mistakes in front of students, the more I can feel free to try things; in order to find what works, you must allow that certain attempts will not work.
Lastly, before we get into the Socratic discussion, we are going to watch a brief youtube video example of a Socratic discussion (and there are many to choose from). I want to start class by watching that and talking about it a while before we get into our own discussion; that way, students have an idea not only of what the discussion miight look like, but so that outer circle students have something to measure their observation against.
So, I’m both nervous and xcited. I have prepared what I can to scaffold discussion during these first few weeks, and resolved to myself that I will be persistent (so if discussion doesn’t go as well during our first class, I won’t throw in the towel, which would obviously be the easier route). But I am really looking forward to what is coming up ahead.