8th grade: The one with the socratic seminar

I tried a socratic seminar today. Not sure why — I’ve never been impressed with the idea of a socratic seminar before since they always look/seem so incredibly dull, but we had a topic that I really wanted to discuss and it felt very appropriate. So I said “why not,” and did it.

It was scary. Actually, the scariest part was getting up the nerve to try it. But I’m cool with making myself uncomfortable or I wouldn’t spend five days a week with 13 year olds.

My classes range in size from 21 to 30 students. Behavior ranges from asleep in my first hour to a complete zoo in 6th hour. The others are somewhere in between. I decided that for this first socratic seminar, I would blend the concept with a group discussion. Rather than have the whole class contribute, which I see doesn’t work for some of the students in each class who would rather I jam toothpicks under their fingernails than call on them to speak (I have no toothpicks, so don’t worry), I decided I would split each class into three large discussion tables. I assigned a group leader and provided a set of questions for the group leader to ask. I created my rules and explanation — what students could do and what they couldn’t. I also, at the last minute, decided that students should spend 5-10 minutes before the seminar preparing themselves for the discussion by filling out some guided notes on the topic. This was the best thing I did all day (that shows you how novice I am, BTW; a veteran teacher would know that students need this type of preparation before any discussion).

Our topic was pretty focused. It stemmed from something that happened in the book we’re reading at this point, where a 13 year old sports phenom is suspended from play by his mother. I chose this as the topic because my wildest class — the zoo — is full of kids who play sports. I figured this was one of the few ways we’d get a valuable, focused discussion into the mix that these kids would engage with.

We started with my 1st hour class, which is small and unbelievably quiet. I went over the rules, assigned leaders, let them go at their own pace, and allotted 15 minutes for the discussion, although I decided I’d go to 20, if they needed it. I walked from table to table as they spoke and listened in. They used about 18 minutes, interrupted each other frequently but mostly stayed on task. In fact, it was the first time I think I heard some of the students in that class willingly say a word about school. Overall, I was okay with it but we didn’t have as much time left in the class as I had hoped so when I tried to start out instructional section on “theme,” it fell apart. I made a note of that.

Second hour — my 30-person class. We started quickly and the students focused pretty fast. It’s an incredibly diverse class with different learning styles, abilities, lexile levels, and more, and each group required a full 10 students, but most experiments like this work with them. The seminar was no exceptions. My takeaway from this class was that the pacing was off and that I still wasn’t doing a good job of getting each student to contribute, but overall I was happy with how it went. I chalked it up as a success.

Third hour. This is normally a really big class but there were a lot of missing students today. For this class, I required each question be discussed for two minutes with no exceptions. It took longer, so I gave up on the “theme” instruction we were planning after the seminar. Still the two-minute requirement meant everyone participated. Everyone. No question. Even students who I didn’t think were doing anything more than going through the motion of reading the book actively engaged in the conversation. Students questioned each other, and conversation felt natural.

Fourth hour went well, too. They’re a high achieving class, but can frequently get sidetracked when they’re moved into casual conversation environments. This was no exception — a few of the best and brightest were distracted to the point of incapacitation. We did, however, finish early so we ended the hour with a group discussion.

Finally, we got to sixth hour, the one I fondly refer to as my “zoo” class. Everything about this class points to distraction. This is the class that I hate testing new ideas on because so many of them shut down at the thought of change. They were the only class to complain when they learned they’d be doing work in my class on computer rather than paper, the only class to be happy when I switched things up one week and asked for a paper reading log, even though it meant the students would need to complete the assignment a full day early. They’re the only class that wants everything to be familiar.

The class is also so full of “watch-me, look-at-me” types that I couldn’t separate the distract-ers and I had no fewer than three at each table of eight. Incidentally, creating a seating chart for this class is impossible. Even some of the really great students are incapable of remaining focused in here.

The experiment was meh at best for this class. It worked surprising well for one of the groups, possibly because their leader was this incredibly strong girl who is very capable of shutting down the clowns in the class. This exercise was no exception. Her group stayed on task the entire time. She is my hero.

The other two groups? Eh, not so much, but I can’t blame the leaders. It was an uphill battle that no one was going to win.

Overall, however, I never regretted trying the experiment, and we’ll keep working with the idea of the socratic seminar and ultimately build to a real one on a class-by-class basis. Some classes will be ready to try quickly. Others may take until May.

I felt like students got more out of this discussion than any other discussion we’ve had in class thus far. As I listened to each group, I had to restrain myself (not so effectively at times) from telling students how fantastic his/her/their answer was and how impressed I was by the depth of their thought. This, btw, NEVER happens when I’m running the show (depth of thought? Oh that’s out of the window).

Some students had incredible evidence from the book that they recalled to prove a point; one of my SPED students even grabbed a book to show other students the page he was referring to. Students who wouldn’t normally share a “why” were defending their ideas and beliefs publicly. I had one class about to start fighting, which I reminded them wasn’t allowed since this wasn’t a debate, but I was happy they were so truly engaged that they cared to sling empty threats.

The experiment worked far better than I would have ever imagined.

I also learned, however, that in some classes, I need to take a more active role in the discussion until we’re a bit more versed at respect. In my sixth hour class, for example, we’ll work with assigned seats during the discussion (it became weirdly handsy by the end for some of the students — all male, which I guess is what 8th-grade boys do. Hmmm.). I want to move to a bigger group, especially in that class, but my wallflowers aren’t going to have that, so I’ll need to determine how to make this work. Still, it’s only October, so there’s plenty of time.

Lessons learned (because I don’t want to forget):

  1. Add “don’t interrupt” to the rules. Bad oversight on my part.
  2. Ensure I’m overseeing each groups (if only there were three of me).
  3. Always have guided notes to work with.
  4. Pick topics that have a little controversy. That’ll be easy.
  5. Continue with timed questions — but bring a buzzer rather than rely on me shouting it’s time for the next question (a few groups moved on whenever they wanted to and it didn’t work so well).
  6. Hand pick the groups. That’s for 6th hour only.
  7. Work harder to find the right group leaders. Again, 6th hour. I can’t have my rockstar leader do everything every time, sadly.
  8. Try again in about two or three weeks … I think. If I can find the right topic.


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