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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