Preparing for a Socratic Seminar

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How might we structure Socratic seminars so they are powerful for students and ask them to dig into the big ideas of our courses?  Teachers with 10 or fewer years of experience discussed this question at a recent gathering, and we want to tap into the expertise of our staff to answer it.

Over the next few weeks, I will share tidbits from Socratic seminar trainings and teachers’ experiences about how we might create engaging and mind-opening discussions for our students.  More importantly, I ask each of you to share your insights, exemplars, and questions about each stage of the Socratic seminar process.

This week, we hope to learn more about the preparation for a Socratic seminar.  Here are the essentials we have heard from teachers so far:

  1. Teachers should clarify the purpose of a Socratic seminar versus other discussions.  A Socratic seminar’s purpose is to hear other perspectives.
  2. A Socratic discussion typically has at least one common text at its core.  That text might be a primary document, a piece of art, music, an article, a fictional work, a video, or another source.  (Dense texts might require time to unpack prior to a discussion–in small groups or partners.)
  3. Many teachers use an entrance ticket for participation in a Socratic seminar.  These tickets might be graphic organizers, answers to questions, or written reflections based on a text that connects to the question for the seminar.  Students who have the entrance ticket sit in the inner circle and have a discussion.  Those who don’t have their ticket take notes on the discussion (i.e., What were the questions that were posed?  How did students respond to the different kinds of questions?) and write a reflection about their discoveries.
  4. When you are writing a question for a Socratic seminar, consider drafting with a partner.  There will be many revisions in this process.
  5. A good Socratic question connects to the world; has a universal idea; avoids yes/no constructs; avoids judgments of right or wrong; seeks diverse opinions; might ask students to role play; is not too specific.

What insights can you share about preparing for Socratic seminars?  Which texts have you used with students as a basis for their discussion?  Do you believe in entrance tickets–why?  How have the questions you have posed to students changed over time?