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Try a Socratic Seminar

Encourage peer-to-peer learning and increase student engagement, learning, and agency

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Student-Led Discourse

When All Voices are Heard

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Student-Led Discourse

What would happen if students led the discussion?

When All Voices are Heard

Jaimee Rojas, a 9th grade Humanities teacher, shares the initial steps to introduce Socratic Seminar into your classroom.

Audio Transcript

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Jaimee Rojas: Hi, I'm Jaimee Rojas, and I'm a ninth grade Humanities teacher at High Tech High International. I've been using Socratic Seminars in my classroom for the last 10 years. I have really seen such a major change in my classroom in terms of a shift of power and status. I really do believe that it is a great equity activity to make sure that all voices are heard in your classroom.

Now, you may think that Socratic Seminars require so many hours of prep and are really difficult to pull off successfully. But I just want to give you an overview of them so that you know that you could make them happen in your classroom with really little to no prep once you do your first few. Socratic Seminars have been around for a long time, so why should we keep using them? I really do believe that they are excellent avenues for critical thinking, for deeper thinking. But more importantly, I really think they're an exercise in empathy. The way that our world is today I hope and I know that our collective responsibility is that our students become more empathetic towards each other and towards different perspectives.

I want to just help you look at Socratic Seminars as a possibility. And help you to know that Socratic Seminars allow your students to really be the ones who feel empowered in the classroom. They're not teacher centric. These seminars are definitely student centered, and with a few steps you can make them possible in your classroom. Socratic Seminars are student-led discussions that help us create more democratic classrooms where students are the main voice in the classroom. They not only allow our students to analyze complex text and to share personal connections to that text, but they really help encourage and foster discussion skills, and bolster their listening skills. So they're my go to equalizing activity when I want them to share their thoughts on a rigorous and complex topic or issue.

I really, really believe that Socratic Seminars can be used in any classroom with any age, with a few modifications, of course. There are three basic parts to holding a really worthwhile Socratic Seminar. These parts are areas where you will have to do some setup, but after the third or fourth rendition of your Socratic Seminars, the students can really be empowered to take over when it comes to the prep. The three main parts are first, the physical space, setting up the physical space. Second, the text, and third, the handout.

First, with the physical space, most Socratic Seminars are done with an inner circle and an outer circle. The outer circle would observe and the inner circle would be in fact, the ones discussing. I would like to offer the idea that having one inner circle will actually help make everyone feel included. I believe that the setup of the large circle will actually help to foster a great conversation. When we start Socratic Seminars, the first thing that you really have to look at is what type of circle is conducive for eye to eye contact, and active listening.

In the Socratic Seminars that I have run, we use two sitting formats. One, a large circle, which is how you start your seminar. And then there's a point in the activity where you would break up into smaller groups. I explain this a lot more in-depth in the Take Action tab, which is right next to the Innovation Playlist on this site. So, after you breakup into small groups, you go back to the large inner circle. There's basically those two types of sitting arrangements, inner circle with the whole class, and small groups of no more than four, within the classroom. Then, back to the large circle. So that's the first to do item on the list, to set up your physical space so everyone can see each other. And to really teach the students how to move from a large group of ... let's say, 26, 27 chairs, to small groups of four.

Second, you really want to focus on finding the right text. They should be short and complex, relevant and accessible, and again, can really be used across disciplines. Give them time to read and annotate during the seminar. And third, the hand out, make it simple. A two pager is always a good goal and help the students to see that the seminar works best when they've been given some thinking time. And I put a sample of a handout that you can copy tomorrow if you wanted to go ahead and start a Socratic Seminar in your class. That's over in the Innovation Playlist section, under the Take Action tab.

I know that Socratic Seminars can seem daunting, and I know at first I did not want to try one. Because there were so many resources online, I really did not know where to begin. I thought I had to be Socrates in order to pull one off. But hopefully my resources that I've shared with you on the next tab and just these few points help you to know that it is something you should try. And it is something that, again, will empower your students and help lead to a more democratic classroom.

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