“If you’re doing more work than the students, then you’re doing too much. The students should always be working harder than you.”
Although I recognized the value in this adage from a former professor, I never acknowledged it as a practical piece of advice. I thought it was one of those suggestions that sounded good in theory, but I was worried about this approach actually working in a high school classroom. I figured I’d spend the rest of my life working too hard and caring too much, because that’s what teachers do…right?
Right. But also wrong. Let me explain this paradox. As teachers, we are wired to devote our time to our students. It’s just what we do. It’s what we love. We know what’s best for our students, and we know that takes more than just showing up to work during contractual hours. But I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes, we probably do too much.
I’m not talking about working so hard that we sacrifice our own health, family needs, or social life. These are valid concerns, and we all know the constant struggle of finding balance. I’m not sure I will ever reach a perfect personal vs. professional equilibrium in my life, but that’s okay. What I am talking about is the effect of our work on students: when we do TOO much for them. When we work too hard, we can inadvertently limit their learning, by stifling natural opportunities.
Granted, I teach high school, so I’m already all about fostering independence through scaffolding and a “gradual release” approach, but I think this sentiment rings true for nearly all grades: We shouldn’t be working harder than our students.
Easier said than done, right? Now, I think this motto has its strings attached: It’s directed toward instructional time, not planning, grading, and everything else that goes on behind the scenes of teaching. What it means is that we need to carefully construct lessons that will foster independence and social learning. After all, we aren’t simply teaching content or skills; we are teaching kids how to learn.
I’ve known this since I started teaching, but it wasn’t until I really took the plunge and “backed off” during a few lessons or activities that I found out how what I was missing (or, more accurately, what I was missing out on from the students). I gradually implemented the “less is more” approach, but the activity that fully confirmed my suspicion that I was “doing too much” was the Socratic Seminar.
The Socratic Seminar is named after Greek philosopher Socrates, who believed in the power of social learning and deliberate discussion. Socrates believed that humans learned best from questioning and discussion. He believed discussion helped individuals critically think through complex ideas and learn better than they could on their own.
You can think of a Socratic Seminar as an “intellectual discussion,” but you can also see it as a conversation where you “think out loud” and “talk it out.” Essentially, it is a student-led discussion over a text or big idea. Instead of you facilitating the discussion by asking questions, students take charge of their own learning in this activity by creating and asking the questions. A Socratic Seminar is truly a student-centered and social approach to learning. For you, this means it is less prep work. It’s one of those lessons that teaches itself. You literally can sit back, relax, and watch the magic happen. (Well, that’s not entirely true–you may want to assess them during the seminar, but it’s still just as magical).
While that sounds appealing, it also probably sounds a bit scary. If you are nervous about it, that’s natural. I was too. Although I had enjoyed these in my AP classes in high school, I had never tried one in my regular-level classes, mainly due to my fear that it would flop. Anything that is incredibly open-ended and student-centered certainly does have the risk of flopping. But I realized that I could stop the flop by providing just the right amount of structure and scaffolding going into the seminar.
The first one you have in your classroom will be a learning experience for all of you, but each seminar will get better and better, and you’ll find yourself wondering—as I do—why you don’t do these ALL THE TIME!
Here’s a step-by-step game plan for how I facilitate Socratic Seminars in my classroom. I know different teachers have other approaches, so it’s worth noting that, like anything, this might not be a one-size-fits-all plan. Your students may need more scaffolding, or perhaps they are ready for more independence, but this is what has worked for me in a regular-level American Literature course.
1 OR MORE WEEKS OUT
I informally introduce the idea of a Socratic Seminar weeks in advance, to let my students know what is coming. I think planting the seed in their brains is essential for a successful seminar later on. Also, I often hold seminars in lieu of tests or essays, so they usually are my culminating assessment. Many students like this, because it is a different way for them to demonstrate their learning. It’s one of those game-changers (or should I say “grade changers”) that can help make things fair for those kiddos who are poor test-takers. Talking about the seminar weeks in advance will motivate them to take charge of learning. Oftentimes, I have students brainstorm questions as we read the primary text.
1-3 DAYS BEFORE
I review specific expectations and give my students time in class to brainstorm questions, find textual evidence, and prepare notes in response to their own questions.
I structure this preparation phase by reviewing types of questions, because I’ve found that the students don’t always understand the difference between close-ended/open-ended, comprehension/analysis, etc. (You can check out my resources for this here: Socratic Seminars for ANY text!) I count this “prep work” as half their grade, to make this assessment equitable. Student HAVE to speak up during the seminar to get a passing grade, but adding in an equivalent preparation grade provides a buffer to those kiddos who are painfully shy.
You don’t want to your seminar to flop due to poor questions, so providing scaffolding during this time is crucial. This is the time when you do want to work hard to ensure the students know the expectations. I usually give them the majority of a 45-minute class period, and then the rest is homework. Sometimes, for my own peace of mind, I will check their questions beforehand. You can also let them brainstorm questions with partners or in groups.
1 DAY BEFORE
I arrange my desks into a giant circle and print off copies of my rubric.. I write students’ names on all of my rubrics, and have them ready to go, in alphabetical order.
RIGHT BEFORE CLASS
I arrange my rubrics, in alphabetical order, on my desk, to where I can see the top of each rubric. I need to be able to easily access my rubrics during the seminar.
DURING THE SEMINAR
I sit at my desk—OUT OF THE CIRCLE. Before I let the students begin, I quickly review my expectations and let them know to completely ignore me during the class period. While my students discuss, I go into assessment mode, scribbling on the rubrics while listening attentively. (Don’t worry: You’re a teacher, so you already know how to multi-task. This isn’t as difficult as you may think.) I usually make a checkmark every time a student adds meaningful insight, and I circle the categories on the rubric as soon as I have evidence for them. For some students, you can tell early on that they have mastered certain components of the rubric. Toward the end, there are some students who have satisfied all of the requirements, and I remove their rubrics to focus on the remaining students—the students who haven’t said much or whose comments haven’t yet reached the level of thinking I am expecting.
I know it sounds crazy trying to assess 25-30 students at once, but I find that it’s actually less difficult than grading essays. You are listening to the students think out loud, and you, as the professional, will know a) who read the text, b) who understands the text, c) who can analyze the text. Socratic Seminars provide me some of the best qualitative data to inform my instruction.
AFTER THE SEMINAR
I have the students complete a self-evaluation. I also go back to my rubrics and add in more specific comments that I didn’t have time to write during the actual
seminar. I do this as soon as I can, so it is fresh in my mind. I also make a point to discuss the success of the seminar with the class. We talk about what went well, what we could have done better, and what we will do differently for the next seminar.
Like I said, this is just one way to host a successful Socratic Seminar. You may choose to provide more or less scaffolding and structure, depending upon your needs. My complete resource pack, with everything I’ve referenced above, is available here: Socratic Seminars for ANY text!
If you’re looking for some twists on traditional seminars, check out this blog post: http://bsbooklove.blogspot.com/search?q=socratic+seminar
What else do you do with Socratic Seminars? What are your favorite lessons that foster independence and social learning? When is the last time you did less and saw more from your students? I would love to hear from you in the comments below!