As English teachers, we are always looking for different strategies to engage our students in the core literature that we’re teaching. Today's strategy spotlight is on the Socratic seminar. I’ve used Socratic seminar with low and high level classes with tremendous success and it is always one of the high points on my annual student evaluation forms. It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox along with the other amazing resources and assessments from Simply Novel. Be sure to check back all summer for more strategies and freebies all year long!
Reasons to use Socratic Seminar:
- Student led questioning leads to meaningful reflection and connection.
- Higher-level analysis questions engage students in critical thinking.
- Supporting answers with textual evidence is an important underpinning to good writing.
- Lively dialogue can bring even the most reluctant student into the lesson.
- Students learn etiquette for polite conversation in which multiple viewpoints are expressed, which is an essential life skill.
Step by Step How to Facilitate a Socratic Seminar:
- Step 1: Assign students to read and annotate a particular text or section of text. All students must read the same text.
- Step 2:When students come into class on the day that the assignment is due, start by discussing the norms of the seminar.
- Step 3: Have students form 2 circles with their desks: one large circle on the outside and one smaller circle in the inside. Each person in the inner circle should have 2 supporting speakers in the outer circle. See diagram at the bottom of this list for a layout with 30 students. (Teacher Tip: I found that arranging the desks before class or marking the floor with painter’s tape helped expedite this process)
- Step 4: Have one of the students in the inner circle volunteer to pose the first question.
- Step 5: Allow students in the inner circle to have a couple of minutes to discuss the question with their supporting cast in the outer circle.
- Step 6: Give students in the inner circle the opportunity to discuss the question, citing textual evidence. At any point, students in the outer circle can pass notes to their counterpart in the inner circle to help continue the discussion, but they may not participate verbally. This keeps everyone engaged and the discussion organized. It also supports struggling students and developing English learners.
- Step 7: When the question has been exhausted, have students rotate in their triad so that the student in the inner circle switches with one of the two supporters in the outer circle.
- Step 8: Continue the process with questions from other volunteers.
Sample Classroom Set-up
Socratic Seminar Example with Lord of the Flies:
Recently, I read Lord of the Flies with my college prep sophomore class. In addition to the comprehension check questions, literary analysis activities, and assessments from the Literature Guide, I also held Socratic seminars at the midpoint and end of the novel. One of the gems that came from the midpoint seminar was from one shy sophomore girl who asked:
"In chapter 5, the group discusses the beast at a meeting and Simon suggests that maybe the boys only have to fear themselves (Golding 96). Should they be more concerned with internal or external forces?"
This sparked a spirited conversation about the dangers of island life and the perils of adolescent bullying as seen in the novel up to that point. In the final Socratic seminar, the topic arose again and this time the students knew how the book ended so it brought a whole other layer of understanding complete with comparisons to Fahrenheit 451 and Julius Caesar which we read in the first semester. It was one of those heart warming moments as an English teacher when I realized that they were really getting it.
As a facilitator, I took notes on the questions posed and used them to guide later instruction. I used student questions to form the options for the end of novel essay. After participating in the seminars, students found it much easier to form a clear thesis and support it with evidence from the novel. Their essays reflected the deeper, critical lens that they gained from participation in the class discussion.
Are you using Socratic Seminar in your classroom? We'd love to hear your advice and answer any questions you may have! Leave us a comment and we'll be sure to start our own discussion right here!
Emily Guthrie has taught junior high and high school English in Southern California for 8 years. She currently teaches grades 9-12, including AP English Language and Composition. She specializes in working with technology to enhance curriculum for English learners and enrichment students. She also blogs about fitness and motherhood at TheBusyMomsDiet.com.