As teachers, one of the most exciting things to see in the classroom is students taking ownership over their learning through conversations, respectfully and effectively communicating their ideas. While every classroom conversation provides an opportunity for such student ownership, a Socratic Seminar is a group discussion protocol specifically designed to put the heavy cognitive lift on students.
In a Socratic Seminar, students are responsible for collecting, presenting, and assessing evidence from the text or texts in response to seminar questions. Students not only push themselves to think critically and actively participate, but have the opportunity to push their peers to do so as well. A seminar allows students to work together to analyze ideas and issues, developing a deeper understanding of the text, and build their communication skills as they present and defend their thoughts.
So, now that you understand why a Socratic Seminar is such a special type of classroom discussion, you might be wondering how to engage your students in one effectively. At Fishtank, we recognize the importance of preparing for every lesson, especially a Socratic Seminar, so we’ve developed guidance and resources to help you prepare for, engage in, and reflect on a Socratic Seminar.
Before Engaging in a Socratic Seminar
Before you can engage your students in a seminar, you first need to determine what students are going to discuss. You may select a portion of a unit’s core text, multiple shorter texts, or a combination of both. Once you’ve chosen the text students will focus on, you need to provide them with the text-based seminar questions you want them to discuss. Discussion questions should be open-ended, allow for multiple interpretations, and encourage students to make connections across texts and content they’ve learned thus far in class. You can use our sample Socratic Seminar Discussion Questions to get started.
After selecting the text and discussion questions, you can shift the preparation work to students. Students should have at least 1 to 2 days to prepare for the seminar, during which they review the text, the seminar questions, and gather evidence. To support students in this preparation, you can provide them with Fishtank’s Student Pre-Work Graphic Organizer previewed below.
For each seminar question, students should record their initial ideas, at least 2 pieces of evidence from the text that support their ideas, and their justification for selecting those particular pieces of evidence. Remind students to record where in the text they found their evidence so that they can easily reference it during the seminar, allowing other students to follow along.
While Engaging in a Socratic Seminar
When it's time to begin your seminar, review expectations, norms, and the Socratic Seminar Rubric with your students. You can determine what expectations and norms you want to set, but you might consider things like every student will speak at least 3 times, every student will be actively engaged the entire time, every student will be focused on the person speaking, etc. The Socratic Seminar Rubric provides additional details on how students will be assessed and can help inform their participation. It can be helpful to post the rubric and conversation norms in a visible place for the duration of the seminar.
Once students are ready to begin tackling the first seminar question, you may decide to read it aloud and select one student to start the conversation. You can also select one student to guide the conversation by reading the questions aloud throughout the seminar. Students should have their texts and their pre-work in front of them to help ground their ideas.
As students present evidence and reflect on the ideas of their peers, there may be times where you need to step in with support. If students are getting distracted or the conversation isn’t moving forward, you can use these prompts to help get students back on track in the conversation. If you notice that some students are struggling to jump into the conversation, you may step in and remind those that are speaking often to take a step back and create space for other voices. You can also provide Sentence Stems to students to help them feel more comfortable and confident speaking up.
Throughout the conversation, it is important that you take notes on student participation to better inform your assessment of students. A Participation Tracker can help you more easily jot notes about the number of times a student spoke up, the type of contribution they made, and any additional notes on their engagement during the seminar.
After Engaging in a Socratic Seminar
Once the seminar has come to a close, you can utilize the notes from your participation tracker to complete the Socratic Seminar Rubric and assign grades to all students. Beyond the grades you assign, it is also important for students to reflect on their own participation in the seminar. For some students, this type of discussion protocol will be completely new and maybe even a little scary.
By providing students with the opportunity to self-reflect, you allow them to acknowledge their own areas of strength and areas for growth, setting the foundation for progress in future seminars. You can encourage all students to thoughtfully and honestly complete Fishtank’s Student Self-Evaluation based on their participation in the day’s seminar. You can also encourage students to complete a Peer Evaluation to further a culture of collaboration in your classroom.
Looking for more tips and tricks for your ELA classroom? Dive into Fishtank’s library of Teacher Tools to find guidance on Supporting English Learners, Providing Access to Complex Texts, Vocabulary Instruction, and more! Upgrade to Fishtank Plus to unlock even more resources and additional curriculum resources.
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