How I am learning to give up control and trust my students

This summer I was in the AVID Summer Institute and I raved on this blog about the awesomeness that is Socratic Seminar.

Well, our first week back to school isn’t yet done, and my Modern American History classes have each already done their first.

In this post, I’m going to share how I am learning to give up control and trust my students.

I ran a few Socratic Seminars last year, and I was never really satisfied with them. Today, I think I know what went wrong: I ran them. I. The teacher.

After Summer Institute, AVID sent me a video “Boost” series to reinforce my learning from the summer. On one of those videos, I got to watch a Socratic Seminar in action, and I saw the teacher let go and let a student lead the session. It was amazing!

I had to try it.

On Wednesday, we had our first Seminar. But, wait. Let me back up.

Our first project in Modern World History comes from my old friends, William Bruce Wheeler, Susan Becker, and Lorri Glover. In their latest edition of Discovering the American Past, the last chapter comes from Texas, 2010. Called “Who Owns History,” the chapter is about the controversy surrounding the Texas State Board of Education adopting, along party lines, a conservative Christian revision of American History. In three week, my students will turn in their papers answering the questions, “What should K-12 children learn about history and who should get to make those decisions?”

To introduce the project, I gave them a copy of an op-ed piece claiming that Texas is trying to teach children that Moses is one of the Founding Fathers. Now the article is from a biased source, but I’m okay with that, because it was ripe for deep thinking, rich questions, and vigorous discussion.

The night before our Seminar, I charged my students to read the article, marking it up using their Critical Reading Strategies. They were to:

  • Number the paragraphs
  • Circle all new vocabulary, using their computers to find a synonym for every unknown word.
  • Highlight key words and phrases
  • Underline the main idea of the article, and
  • Write a two-sentence summary of the article.

In addition, they were to write two questions about the article they wanted to share.

On the day of the seminar, I gave my students a few minutes to finish their preparations. Elbow partners checked each other’s work. Students ask, “Is this question good?” We had reviewed Costa’s three-levels of questioning and they want to make sure that their questions were level two’s and three’s.

While the students were doing that and getting our desks into a circle, I asked one to be the student leader for our session. His job would be to:

  1. Review the Rules
    1. 3 Before Me (let others talk before you talk again)
    2. Reference the text (“So, when I read… in paragraph seven, I thought…”)
    3. Build upon prior speakers (When Sarah said… it made me think…”)
  2. Ask everyone, going around the circle, to share one of his or her questions and then pick the first question for discussion
  3. If the discussion gets off track, remind folks of the rules and if the discussion dies, pick a new question.

And…. Go!

It was a rocky start. My leader didn’t remember his job. I interrupted the discussion four times to remind the group of our rules and model a comment. Also, as they were talking, I was at my desk, keeping track of who talked. When a half-hour was up, I closed the seminar and asked them to put the room back into it’s normal configuration.

Here is the talk web we made.

As you can see, three people dominated the discussion, a few students had side conversations, and lots of students didn’t participate.

That’s OK.

It was their first time. We debriefed the session. The three dominators each acknowledged that they needed to step back more and make room for others to talk. Another student noted that we had good things to say, but that we didn’t refer to the text very often and we didn’t really acknowledge what others had said (building upon prior speakers).

For my part, I shared that I need to not interrupt the seminar. I need to let the students have their conversation and not try to control it as much as I had done that day.

All in all, I was happy with the results. We have a good start. We have some goals to work on. Most importantly, we have enough buy in to have another seminar.

Stayed tuned, dear reader, I’ll be sharing about that shortly!

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  • Mark Frey

    group discussions

    Very interesting article. I want to experiment with this in my classroom. It is hard to take yourself out of the spotlight, but I see the value of it!


    • DaveOrphal

      Love to hear about it!

      Hey Mark! 

      I saw your post on FaceBook – your classroom looks ready for school! Go Titans!

      If you try Socratic Seminar, please comment back – I would love to hear how it goes!

      Please tell all my old colleagues “Hello” from North Carolina!

  • Sharon


    I have found Socratic seminars to be extremely useful.  I was trained in Mortimer Adler's Paideia method of Socratic seminar (, which seems very similar to the AVID method. For middle school students I facilitate the discussion (though this year I hope to pass that job over to students as well). I have found that very often the students will ask each other the very question I was about to ask them.  There are a few things that help me facilitate.  I try to never add my opinion, even subtly, and only refer to ideas that the students have stated. For instance I might point out two contradictory ideas that students have presented and ask what everyone thinks. I cannot be afraid of silence.  Sometimes a question requires a long amount of time for students to process. By keeping my head down and tracking the conversation as you did, I find that the students do not need my facilitation very often as they get better at the discussion.   I have noticed 2 very powerful benefits of these seminars.  By requiring the students to agree or disagree with the ideas of fellow students AND also refer to specific passages in the text and then agree or disagree with the author, I have found that students learn how to separate their own thoughts from those of the author.  Before seminars, my students were more likely to say the author said or believed something that actually was the student's own thinking rather than that of the author's.  By seeing the author as just another person at the seminar table, students seemed better able to more closely read the author's words and then agree or disagree. The second benefit is an anecdote of how seminars affected class outside of seminar lessons. I was teaching American history in a Southern school using Socratic seminars once every other week in a homeroom type class.  The whole school spent one class period, in groups of 14 to 16 students, discussing the same prepared reading. After a while, students in my regular history class would raise their hands, and when I called on them instead of asking me a question, they would actually ask if they could ask another student, who had made a comment, a question. What a wonderful turn of events.  I will never forget the day when one student said to another that the other student's ancestors were probably slave owners.  The second student was very offended by the accusation. His family had done research and in fact his ancestors had NOT owned slaves.  The first student said he only said "probably" and so did not mean anything by the comment. They were arguing back and forth about whether an insult had been issued when a third student slid out of his seat and went to the dictionary (ok, this is a few years ago). He looked up the word "probably" and said it meant "almost a certainty." (In seminar students are taught to clarify definitions as needed.) Having settled the argument about the accusation, the students then began discussing whether or not people should be held accountable for the actions of their ancestors.  This discussion then involved the whole class.  I stood there having one of the best days of my teaching career, and the students were doing all the work!



    • DaveOrphal

      I cannot be afraid of silence.

      What a great line! How often have I moved forward too quickly becasue of this very fear! Wait time is so important! People need time to think.

      Thank you for your comment!

  • Anonymous

    I do something similar with

    I do something similar with my classes- Socratic circles. Inner circle holds a Socratic seminar while the outer circle remains completely quiet and evaluates the inner circle's seminar details (text referencing, respectfully debating, asking thought-provoking questions, staying on topic, etc.) Then the circles swap. So not only are they covering material/texts, but they are cognitively aware of the skill of public debate/discussion. I even do this with 4th/5th grade gifted students, and their insight never ceases to amaze me! 

    • DaveOrphal


      We just did that today – though we called it “Fishbowl.” We had the 5 students who read and took notes on a letter from an Evangelical Minister to the Texas State Board of Education in the “bowl.” They talked for about 20 minutes about their document while those outside the circle took notes. 

      It went rather well. In one of my classes, I stopped them after 20 minutes and we debriefed. I mentioned that I was curious about how they hadn’t gotten to a particularly juicy quote. Their response, “Mr. Orphal, we ran out of time. Could we have another five minutes so we can talk about that?”

      Oh! How I love my students!!

      • Mary Cunningham

        Oh how I love my students

        Thank you for that!  That one line makes me want to follow all you do over the year!  It is so important that we remember why we do all of these things and try these new (and sometimes scary) ideas.  It is because we love our competent, curious and capable students – and they all are!


  • Peter Newbury @polarisdotca

    Earlier this year, I
    Earlier this year, I experienced a crisis of loss of control in my class. Well, I think it was loss of control. I turned to my Twitter peers who humored my public metacognition and helped me work it out. What feels like a loss of control on the surface – the students are the ones talking and deciding the direction of the conversation. I took solace in the fact that I’d set up and then “choreographed” the lesson.

    You can read my Storified metacognition here:


    • DaveOrphal

      Thank you!

      Thank you for the reply, Peter, and thank you to the link to your story about losing control over your class’s conversation. I posted a reply there for you as well.

      For me – we did our third SS today. Again, I had a student leader. Again, I kept my mouth shut for 20 minutes and let them have their discussion.

      Did they cover all of the points my lecture would have? Nope. 

      Was their conversation more authentic than any lecture I could ever write? You betcha!

  • Alysia Krafel

    Let’s Students Lead

    I am teaching a 6th grade math class that uses CPM. CPM is based on student teams who discuss and solve together the problems at hand. I have never taught this way. I have always used teacher led instruction in math. I have been frustrated by how slow the students seem to proceed through the problems. One day, I decided to lead the whole group through 2 "discussions" on 2 of the problems to speed the class up. What happened was the pace of moving through the problems whole class was that it actually took the same amount of time, with the students being alot less engaged because I did most of the talking and the questions mostly came from only the slowest students. The rest were bored.  I examined why I thought I could speed it up. I realized that my problem was that I did not trust the kids to be able to create understanding on their own. They can. I just have to get out of the way. The next day, I changed my stance and what a difference!  Because I trusted them more, they got more done. I did not expect that.

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