The Beauty of Listening

The time period between Thanksgiving and the winter break can be challenging for students and teachers alike as we try to focus on learning and teaching. Changing up discussion strategies can be fun; the big challenge is keeping quiet so students can lead the discussion and learn from each other. 

We all experience it this time of year: the growing anticipation of the winter break, the easy distractibility of the students, and even our own easy distractibility. The smaller break at Thanksgiving gave us a taste of the days to come, and we’re eager for a more relaxed pace, some “down time.” This makes December a challenging month for students and teachers like. One of my colleagues and I were commiserating about our early years of teaching, recalling our frustration with December as the students we loved teaching seemed to change into people we didn’t recognize as easily and didn’t always enjoy. It took us both a few years to find the approaches and strategies that kept our students engaged in December.

One strategy I’ve used occasionally the past few years throughout the school year is that of Socratic Seminar. Last week, in an effort to get my eighth graders thinking a bit more deeply about the major themes within A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, I asked them to sit fishbowl-style, in two circles, and asked them to work with the question, “What does Dickens believe is mankind’s business, and how do you know?” The students in the inner circle began answering the question. When students on the outside had something to contribute to the discussion, they “tapped in” by tapping their partners’ shoulders, and they switched seats. I was surprised when my students remained seated and focused on discussion when the bell rang, signaling the end of class. It took several attempts for me to get their attention and send them on their way; students kept adding questions and observations to the discussion. Reluctantly, they finally acknowledged they had heard the bell and me. As they put their notes away, I overheard their conversations with each other:  “Why is class shorter when we do Socratic Seminar,” “I’d rather stay here today; what we’re doing in my next class isn’t this interesting.” A couple of students paused on their way out to tell me, “We need to do more of these. I love Socratic Seminar.” I loved that for about 30 minutes, I had 25 students fully focused on the literature we’ve been studying.

Even with these positive experiences, Socratic Seminar is really difficult for me. One of the first challenges is ensuring I have a meaty, open-ended enough question to engage them in thought and discussion. That’s not always easy; it seems to work best for me when we’re working with a more complex article or story. I’ve also found that having an open-ended question is critical; if I pose a question that seems to have a single correct answer, they don’t engage in discussion as much as a scavenger hunt for an answer.

The bigger challenge for me, though, is keeping my mouth shut. It is really, really hard for me to let go of my drive to guide and direct them. When a student comes up with a brilliant response to the original question, I want to jump in and say, “Yes! That’s it!” As soon as I do that, I shut down the thinking. It is no longer a collaborative effort to more deeply understand a text. Instead, I’ve turned Socratic Seminar into a cooperative learning activity to arrive at a single meaning, and that’s not the purpose of a Socratic Seminar. While my eighth graders were wrestling with the question of Dickens’ message about mankind’s business, they ventured into the motives behind Scrooge’s transformation. One student said, “Yes, he changed. But did he change because he wanted to do better by humanity, or because he was scared of the ghosts?” A “side trip” like this in times past probably would have resulted in me redirecting the discussion. This time, I continued watching and listening, curious as to where they were going with this idea. I saw several students snatch their copies of the novel and turn frantically to Stave 4, looking for evidence to support their own beliefs about Scrooge’s motives. It didn’t matter that they weren’t “on point” for the original question at that moment. Instead, I was observing my students engaged in high-level thinking, using evidence to defend their own positions, and all without any direction from me. Paige Price talks in this video from the Teaching Channel about how one of the best aspects of Socratic Seminar is watching students wrestle with ideas and come to conclusions about them without any help her from; they learn to tackle challenging questions independently.

Socratic Seminar is a wonderful strategy, but like just about any strategy or tool, if it’s overused, it loses its effectiveness. I need to use it at the right times, for the right reasons, and then I need to remember to sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut. What are some other strategies that are engaging, thought-provoking, and provide opportunities for us teachers to listen and observe? Socratic Seminar surely isn’t the only one.

For more information about Socratic Seminars, the following resources may be helpful:

Fellow CTQ blogger Dave Orphal has also blogged about the power of Socratic Seminar in his classroom in a series of posts, beginning with this one and continuing here.

Paideia.org is an organization promote the use of active learning, including Socratic Seminar.

Facing History and Ourselves is an organization dedicated to engaging students of diverse backgrounds in examining racism, prejudice, and antisemitism. It provides a helpful guide to setting up Socratic Seminar.

NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) offers this strategy guide for Socratic Seminar.

Photo: seventh graders engaged in a Socratic Seminar, taken by T. Ebner.

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