Using Socratic Seminars to Increase Investment Through Rigor

Oct 19, 2014 | by Janice Smith

Take a minute to watch the students from Damion Clark’s 10th grade English class at KIPP San Francisco College Prep. When you’re done, take a look at what Dr. Clark has written below, breaking down exactly how he created this kind of academic discussion below. Don’t hesitate to use the comments to point out what you loved, or share questions you have!

Additional context, written by Dr. Clark, about how he prepared students for this type of conversation in his class.

Getting students fully prepared for Socratic discussion takes time, requires norms, and very specific scaffolding. Here are a few ways in which I have helped my students find their academic voices through discussion.

1. I make discussion a part of every class.  At the start of the year, this discussion would pivot through me.  I would model the ways in which participants should push, challenge, question, and build knowledge off each other’s work through my own participation. I would stop students and require evidence for every claim they made in discussion, and offer Socratic participation points only for students who can back up their claims with evidence from the text. My students earn one Socratic grade for the week.  If they earn at least three points during the week, they will receive full credit, but they have the full week to earn it.  This allows for multiple “at-bats.” Eventually, I work on releasing the discussion to them.

2. I establish discussion norms.

  • Be respectful
  • Always cite evidence*
  • Call on each other
  • Leave no topic until it has been fully exhausted
  • Push, challenge, and question each other.

*Once students have internalized the need for evidence, they naturally desire it from others.  I no longer have to call for evidence; students call for it from each other.  After 6 weeks of classes, I only step in to ensure students are not moving on until the topic is fully-discussed, clarify incorrect information, or to pose a question to get the discussion back on track (if needed).

3. Scaffolding is key.

When students come into class, they grab a Do Now, which is always a writing assignment based on a prompt.  They start the class with 10 minutes of focused and silent writing. I find that this helps students to focus their thinking for the day.  Just jumping into discussion does not work, because students might often begin with scattered and unfocused thoughts about the text.  But if they spend 10 minutes writing on the same prompt, the discussion gains focus and clarity.  An example prompt might be: “Based on your reading from last night, is Grendel a flat or round character? Provide at least two pieces of evidence from the text and explain your answer.”

For homework, I make students annotate only for a specific goal. An example of this might be, “Annotate for characterization of Grendel in Beowulf.” I then check their annotations every day while they work on their writing-based Do Now.  The annotation check ensures they have read, and helps them find their evidence readily. The focused writing helps them really develop their arguments for the day.  I always base the Do Now on what I had them annotate for the night before, and what I will be having them discuss in class.  Without these scaffolds (focused homework, purposeful writing, and discussion norms), it would be more challenging for students to have a productive discussion.

This takes time. I could not fully release discussion to them before they had been prepared to do it.  But after about 6 weeks of preparation, students will have internalized how a discussion works, and I will be able to step back and watch them soar. We are now 9 weeks in, and my students are starting to push me out of the discussion.  They are starting to value their own academic voices over mine. And that is a beautiful moment.

Dr. Damion Clark

Dr. Clark began teaching at the University level, where he spent 6 years at the University of Maryland and at Georgia State University, teaching courses in writing, literature and film.  After that he spent three years teaching 11th, 12th and AP English at Democracy Prep Charter High School in Harlem, New York, where he earned the Big Apple Award for teaching excellence.  This honored him as one of the top 11 teachers in NYC for the 2013-2014 school year, and allowed him to serve as an ambassador to the NYC Department of Education.

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