Reflections on 8th Grade Socratic Seminar

I’ve avoided Socratic or Harkness style seminars in my class for a number of years because I had honestly had very little experience with them and didn’t know how my students a discussion without me.  Kind of sad, I know.  This year, I made it one of my goals after hearing how successful it was in other classrooms, including the 8th grade Global Studies class that I frequently connect with.  I also have a group of students that love to discuss anything and everything, so I thought it would be a good year to start.  It hasn’t always been an easy process, but I’ve really started to feel like it’s working in the way I was hoping it would.  I thought I’d share my process and reflections on how I’ve incorporated Seminars into my English 8 class this year.

Practice Seminar 1:

  • I decided to start out with a practice seminar so that students could learn my expectations and also so I could figure out what I wanted to do before I assessed them.  We had been reading A Long Way Gone, so I based my questions off the memoir.
    • Prior to Seminar: I started by reaching out to my English department colleagues for resources and received a plethora.  These included planning guides, reflections, and rubrics, which I adapted to fit the need of my class.  I gave students about 35 minutes to work in class and one night to plan for the discussion.
    • Student Seminar Process: I have two classes of 18 and one of 9, so I created two questions for the bigger classes to discuss.  Thus, each seminar was a group of 9 students. For the larger classes, while one group discussed, the other group participated through an online chat. Students started the discussion by creating a group goal and then were free to go.  After the discussion, students reflected on their performance in a somewhat informal way.
    • My process: I created a chart of things I was looking for in the seminar (participation, building off a point, using evidence from the text, etc.) and tallied the student’s performance overall.
  • What Worked? What Didn’t?
    • Students had a good discussion because of the preparation they put in.  After talking to them, I realized that the students wanted more time to prepare.
    • Although I liked tallying the students performance and saw some benefit when I tried to create a grade, I felt like I couldn’t follow the conversation and see the depth of thought very well.  It was also very difficult to keep track of the conversation on paper.
    • Some of the students found it hard to find their voice and some found their voice too much.  Though creating the group goal did help somewhat, I realized I needed to do more work with students surrounding what it actually means to have a good conversation.
    • I found it really hard to grade.  Even after the students reflected, grading them individually was a real challenge, even if this was just practice, so I basically just didn’t!
    • Students that were not actively in the seminar but discussing online did a good job, but it was hard to follow the conversation, and it was also very easy for some students to get distracted by other online activities.
    • All in all, a decent start but still some work to do.

Practice Seminar 2:

  • I chose to do another practice seminar since the first one didn’t go as great as I would have liked and because I still felt like I needed to try some things with my students before I could adequately assess them and give them a good sense of what I was looking for.  For this seminar, students would examine the essential questions for The Book Thief prior to reading the book.
    • Prior to Seminar: I gave the students more time – a couple of nights and some time in class to prepare for the discussion.  I gave them the opportunity to use the same planning guides as I had before but also allowed them to use their own system if my resource didn’t work for them.  To help students think of ways that would help them answer the question, I gave them the opportunity to explore news media and social media to look for possible answers to our essential questions.  Students were also strongly encouraged to seek out evidence that didn’t match their opinion.
    • Student Seminar Process: I once again separated the students into groups of 9 but for the larger classes, students who were not in the seminar group took notes on a partner’s performance.  After the seminar, the outside group would then give feedback to the seminar group.
    • My process: Instead of tallying the student’s performance, I took notes on what each student was saying, thinking that it would allow me to reflect on the conversation and help me better assess the student individually.
  • What worked? What didn’t?
    • Again, the preparation was good.  Students had a lot of evidence and a lot to say.  It was sometimes hard for them to use the evidence to back up their opinion and they relied on lot on vague ideas, but they did have good plans.
    • I really liked having students observe other students.  After each discussion, feedback was given and it allowed the students to see that their were issues in their discussion, and particularly that they weren’t listening to each other or building conversation.  It also kept the non-discussing group very focused on the discussion at hand, and I could tell that they wanted to jump in.
    • It was helpful to transcribe what the students were saying but again it didn’t make it easy to grade.  I found it really challenging to be able to observe listening, participation, and behavior for 9 students accurately, so once again, I didn’t actually give a grade.  Thank goodness this was also just for practice.
    • After the seminar, I had students reflect on what would make the seminar process better and got a lot of good advice.  Students were also able to see their own problem areas.
    • One of the biggest thing I noticed in this seminar was a tendency for certain voices to dominate while others remained extremely quiet.  In addition, some students started to get dismissed or cut off if their voices weren’t loud enough.  Some changes needed to be made.

Official Seminar 3:

  • I knew it was time to grade an official seminar.  The students would discuss a question from our work with The Book Thief but that would also have them think about current events related to poverty and crime.
    • Prior to Seminar: Before our official discussion, I spent some time really thinking about how to make this better since I had a good idea of what wasn’t working.  Here is some of my process and changes:
      • I discussed various problems and potential solutions with students and had them discuss what they thought would work best for their class.  For example, I did not want to create two EQs for this seminar, so I wanted to come up with a way for students to discuss the same question without copying each other.  We decided to have two seminars going at once for the bigger classes and I would use video to track their conversations.  This would allow me to go freely between the two groups.
      • After talking with our current global studies teacher and my English department, I realized that I needed to stop grading my students individually but instead should grade them as a group.  This would hopefully take away their pressure to perform and would help them have actual conversations.
      • I created seating assignments for groups that tended to have more dominant voices.
      • One of my colleagues suggested I establish a moderator to ask questions and promote equitable discussion.  This person wouldn’t directly be involved in the discussion and would also work with the group to evaluate their own progress at the end.
      • I wanted the students to ask more questions as I feel like questioning is a great way to challenge someone’s point and get people thinking in a different way.  But my students were not good at this and really found it challenging in the previous seminars.  I decided that we would have a conversation only in questions.  We watched a TED talk and did just that.  Not only was it fun, my students realized that it slowed their thought process down, that you could make a point through a discussion, and that it actually added a lot to the conversation.
      • I felt ready.
    • During Seminar
      • I found a large space so that I could examine both seminars but students were far enough apart that they wouldn’t bother each other.
      • Students had had several days and a good chunk of class time to prepare.  I also had given them some sites to explore so that they could see the question beyond the novel.
      • I showed students the rubric I would use to grade them as a group and reminded them why we moved to the group assessment.
      • The moderator led the discussion, asked questions when necessary, and interrupted to make sure all voices were heard.
      • Halfway through the discussion, per the suggestion of my colleague, I had students reflect on points they hadn’t made but wanted to.  At this time, the moderator gave feedback to the group regarding areas of strength and weakness and even called a few students out on too much participation or not enough.
      • Students filled out more formal reflections at the end of the discussion and also completed an individual written assignment based on the essential question.
    • My process:
      • I simply walked around and listened. It was wonderful.
      • In my smaller class, I tracked who was participating so that I could show the group at the end.
      • I occasionally gave advice to the moderator regarding things he could do (call on kids to participate, step back, ask a question, encourage use of evidence).
    • What worked? What didn’t?
      • The  discussions were great, and so many more kids participated. It was clear that the pressure of the individual grade really hindered the students from having a conversation with each other.  Although it was still challenging at times, there was much better flow and I could tell that the students understood they were working together.
      • Students asked great questions.  The strategy we used in class really helped with this, and they even reflected that asking questions was a great way to promote more discussion.
      • I loved the use of the moderator.  Although a little more prep work would help them moderate better, overall it was very successful.  No one could hide in the group, and the moderator also was able to give great feedback.  At the end of the discussion, it was the moderator, with input from the group who evaluated the performance, and because they weren’t participating in the actual discussion, their thoughts were honest and accurate and they were able to help their group members see their strengths and areas to improve.
      • There is definite value to having two seminars at once but also to having students listen to each other discuss.  I think I will try both throughout the year.
      • Students are still having trouble using the evidence that they prepare and using it in a way to support their general thoughts.  This is something we really need to work on and I will have to model for them.
      • I am not stressing on assessing the students through a grade as they will be assessing themselves as a group and then their individual grade will come from their written preparation and their written response.  I not only feel at ease but also feel like their grade will be more accurate.

Overall, I am very pleased at how Seminars are progressing in my class and am so thankful for the advice of my colleagues.  I think it’s going to be a Seminar filled Semester 2!

Would love to hear your thoughts and approaches to Socratic Seminars, especially in middle school.

 

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