The Socratic Seminar has been done many different ways over the years. I have seen versions that maintain the teacher as question writer and moderator; I have also seen and used the “fish bowl” model where some students are participants and others are assessors; there is also a hot seat and philosopher’s chair version of the seminar. The version that I use with my students is a little bit different. I prefer for all students to be active participants and for the teacher to just act as facilitator. This method is easily adaptable to ELA and Social Studies classes; it can easily be tweaked for fine arts, CTAE, and health courses. I have used it in regular, honors, and AP level ELA courses. In its simplest form, a Socratic Seminar is simply designed to engage students in active listening and collaborative discussion about a text or texts while allowing students to teach each other, build their own arguments, use source material, and engage their minds in true critical thinking. Students almost always see its purpose immediately, and they like the fact that it doesn’t feel like “busy work.” It also helps your shy students build confidence and learn to speak to a whole group of people without putting them in a formal presenter role.
First, I prefer to teach students how to write good discussion questions using questioning stems from Bloom’s taxonomy. Students write their own analysis, evaluation, and synthesis level questions and submit them before the seminar (my students write five total). I read them and grade them prior to the seminar to make sure the question will produce discussion and require critical level thinking. Students can easily write and build these style of questions by using a question guide or question stems from Bloom’s. This task helps them build understanding of what higher order thinking is — this is also a transferable skill that we can refer to many times during the course. If students produce low level questions, I might have them rewrite the questions if this is their first attempt or experience writing high level discussion questions. After a while though, critical level thinking becomes more routine.
After assessing questions, we set up the room into one giant circle — I usually wind up sitting outside of the circle because my classes are large (and it also helps students to focus on each other and not on me). I encourage students to use their books and materials during the seminar. We also talk about how to respond during the seminar. I require five total verbal responses with at least two pieces of textual support. At first, textual support is just references to specific events or spots in the text, but later it becomes actual reading of certain parts of the work with page number. Sometimes I show videos of Socratic Seminars from previous classes so that students have a better idea of what to expect. We always have a talk about classroom decorum (head up, eyes alert, mind engaged) and what behaviors will earn deductions in a student’s grade (cell phone use, blurting, movement, distracting behaviors).
During the seminar, I have one student serve as moderator. This is usually the person with the best discussion questions; sometimes I give that person extra credit or candy, but most students just like the praise (and a lot of teenagers like being in charge). The moderator’s job is to begin the seminar by asking the first discussion question, then he or she calls on participants who want to answer the question. Participants answer in turn, supplying textual support as much as possible. Social Studies classes would use textual support from primary and secondary source material; ELA classes use textual support from one literary work, several literary works, a literary work and informational source material, or a combination thereof (really, Social Studies classes could bring in some short literary works as well). The discussion of that question continues until it either fizzles out, it reaches its maximum number of responses (seven responses to one question is plenty as students begin repeating each other), or the teacher can hold up a card to indicate that the moderator needs to call on someone else to ask a new question. While students are engaged in the discussion, it’s the teacher’s job to use a checklist and keep a record of which student did what.
Over the years, I have used signal cards (green to indicate that I am ready to give an update, yellow to indicate that the moderator needs to choose someone to ask a new question and move the discussion along, and red to indicate off task behaviors or inappropriate answers). You can also do thumbs up and thumbs down. Another thing students appreciate is a status update that let’s them know how many appropriate answers and answers with textual support they have made; quick updates really help relieve student fears and pressures. I try to interrupt or talk as little as possible, even when students really want me to answer the discussion question (of course sometimes I cannot contain myself). After the Socratic Seminar is over, I may conduct a debrief if it is needed. I use the checklist to help me complete a rubric for each child on how he or she performed during the seminar. I use the collaborative discussion standards under Common Core and use of textual evidence (Common Core reading standard 1) within the rubric.