Planning an Effective Text-Based Socratic Seminar

Five years ago, I observed as a novice teacher implemented a Fishbowl Socratic Seminar–a complex and engaging collaborative technique–for the first time. I was inspired by her implementation of the technique and felt confident that the prospective secondary teachers (PSTs) in my methods course would be too. Since showing PSTs a video of the seminar was not an option, I decided to plan and implement my own.

Although it certainly wasn’t perfect, my first seminar went quite well. All of the PSTs remained actively engaged for the duration of the discussion and their contributions  (e.g., remarks, questions) revealed that they had gained a clear understanding of the topic. Based on these and other findings, I concluded that my first seminar—much like the one that had inspired it—was, more or less, successful.

Many teachers have told me that their first attempt at using a collaborative technique is likely to end in disaster; however, the success of these two seminars proves that disaster is not inevitable. I would even argue that teachers can guarantee their success with any technique by utilizing a proactive, step-by-step approach to planning. In this post, I describe the steps I took while planning my first Fishbowl Socratic Seminar.

Step 1: Identify the Content and Desired Outcomes

  • Choose a topic. A successful seminar requires a topic that: (1) aligns with course goals, (2) includes two or more perspectives, (3) invites amicable disagreement, and (4) incorporates students’ interests and backgrounds. I chose secondary literacy as my topic because it not only includes two debate-worthy perspectives, but also holds important implications for the day-to-day work of teachers.
  • Write the objectives. Teaching experts have suggested that the objectives–what students should know and be able to do by the end of the lesson–should be written at the outset of planning. By doing so, teachers can design each learning activity to address the knowledge and skills specified in the objectives. I determined that PSTs should be able to: (1) describe two literacy perspectives, (2) explain how each one  relates to their content area (e.g., English, SS), (3) decide which one is the most valid, and (4) justify their choice with textual evidence and personal experiences.
  • Choose a text. Text-based seminars include a discussion on a particular text; thus, it’s impossible to plan one without choosing a text. I searched practitioner journals (e.g., Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy) and found an excellent article, “Content Area Reading: A Case for the Radical Center.” It aligned perfectly with my topic and objectives; however, I worried that reading the entirety of this difficult piece would overwhelm PSTs, so I chose a two-page excerpt of about 1,000 words.

Step 2: Build Students’ Background Knowledge

  • Address knowledge gaps. It’s crucial that teachers determine whether their students possess the knowledge (e.g., vocabulary, information) to understand a particular text. If not, they can provide opportunities for students to gain the requisite knowledge before reading. I knew PSTs would need clarification on the literacy perspectives and I thought delivering a presentation would be the most effective way to do so. I created a Power Point presentation with three sections (i.e. Introduction, Content-Area Literacy, Disciplinary Literacy), each of which included 2-3 slides. For example, the section on content-area literacy addressed goals, key terms (e.g., writing to learn), and examples of relevant strategies.
  • Engage students actively. Presenting information doesn’t support students’ long-term retention or deep understanding of new information; they must also have opportunities to use/apply that information in meaningful ways. To meet this need, I added a short activity to each section of the presentation. After presenting on content-area literacy, I facilitated a gallery walk with synopses and images of writing strategies. I gave PSTs three minutes to view the strategies and three  minutes to discuss how they would use their favorite strategy in a lesson.

Step 3: Support Students’ Reading Comprehension

  • Set a Purpose. As reading without setting a purpose is often ineffective, teachers should be prepared to do so before students begin. To identify the purpose of the two-page excerpt, I visualized it as a bridge between the presentation, which provided basic information on the two literacy perspectives, and the discussion, in which PSTs would “debate” the merits of those perspectives. Thinking about the excerpt in this way helped me articulate its purpose to PSTs–to use what they had learned to identify and interpret the authors’ claims about each perspective.
  • Specify Tasks and Strategies. Most students benefit from having a task to complete or a specific strategy to employ while reading. Given the purpose noted above, it seemed appropriate to have PSTs highlight/underline important points about each perspective, write their interpretations in the margins, and add any questions that came to mind. However, if I had been working with less proficient readers, I would have also included a chart or double-entry journal for identifying and interpreting important ideas from the text.

Step 4: Structure and Organize the Discussion

  • Brainstorm ideas. Since the seminar I had observed was successful, I replicated many aspects of it. I, too, divided the discussion into quarters and my class into two groups. I also had each group participate in the discussion for two quarters, and observe for the other two quarters. Nonetheless, I also added several of my own touches to make the discussion more interesting and effective. For example, I gave it a sports motif by using sports terms and team names (i.e. Hearts, Diamonds). I also used a structured grouping strategy and revamped the observation form.
  • Write a procedure. Collaborative activities are far less chaotic when there is a clear procedure, so I developed the following procedure for my discussion:
    1. First Quarter (5 min): Hearts discuss; Diamonds observe.
    2. Time Out 1 (1 min): Diamonds provide coaching/feedback.
    3. Second Quarter (3 min): Hearts discuss; Diamonds observe.
    4. Time Out 2 (1 min): Diamonds provide coaching/feedback.
    5. Half Time (30 seconds): Hearts and Diamonds switch places.
    6. Third Quarter (5 min): Diamonds discuss; Hearts observe.
    7. Time Out 3 (1 min): Hearts provide coaching/feedback..
    8. Fourth Quarter (3 min): Diamonds discuss; Hearts evaluate.
    9. Time Out 4 (1 min): Hearts provide coaching/feedback.

I added the procedure to a Power Point slide, which remained visible throughout the discussion, and used a handheld timer for each step to keep PSTs on track.

  • Set clear expectations. To participate well, students must understand the teacher’s expectations. I, too, would have been disappointed in PSTs’ performance if I had given vague instructions like “contribute to the discussion” and “evaluate a peer’s performance.” Instead, I developed my own observation form with a list of the types of contributions PSTs could make. Beside each one, I added a small box for tally marks and a large box for verbatim evidence. Before the discussion, I shared examples of the various types of contributions and explained that PSTs should complete the form whenever they were scheduled to observe the discussion.
  • Use a grouping strategy. To conserve time, teachers can use a well-structured grouping strategy. My go-to strategy involves the use of playing cards. For the discussion, I used the Aces (i.e. 1s) and 2-10 cards from two suits–Hearts and Diamonds. I put the cards in ascending order: Ace of Hearts, Ace of Diamonds, 2 of Hearts, 2 of Diamonds, 3 of Hearts, etc. As PSTs entered the room, they took the top card and sat in the area with the corresponding sign. The Hearts sat at the center of the room, while the Diamonds sat along the sides. Each group was in numerical order and PSTs were paired based on card value (e.g., 2 of Hearts + 2 of Diamonds).
  • Get it started; keep it going. Although seminar discussions are student-driven, there are times when teacher support is required. For example, I recommend that the teacher issue the question that gets the discussion started in the quarter. By doing so, the teacher can focus students’ attention on elements most relevant to the objectives. The focal question can be repeated any time the discussion veers off topic. To kick off my discussion, I asked, “Which perspective do you think is the most valid? Why?” To begin quarters 2-4, I asked for a volunteer to reiterate the final points from the previous quarter or to pose a relevant question.

Step 5: Assess Student Learning Outcomes

  • Hold a brief class discussion. After any collaborative activity, it’s wise for the teacher to facilitate a brief whole-class discussion so that students can summarize key points and the teacher can clear up misconceptions and answer lingering questions. After my discussion, I asked PSTs to indicate which perspective they thought was the most valid.
  • Assign a written task. After hearing PSTs’ opinions, I had them answer the focal question in writing. Consistent with the objectives, they stated and explained their choice and justified it with textual evidence and personal experiences. Upon completion, they affixed their response to their designated square on the “What Stuck With You” board. This course included intensive requirements for reflective and technical writing, so I did not require PSTs to submit formal argumentative essays on topics like this (like I would do in a developmental course or a course on interdisciplinary studies).

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