"I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think." ~Socrates
My favorite class days tend to be those during which the students engage in discussions. While I've tried a wide variety of Socratic discussions, I will focus today on how to start using them if you're trying them out for the first time or looking for new ways to approach discussion. Socratic discussions can feel terrifying for teachers because there are a wide range of uncontrollable variables. However, I would argue that end results are always worth the initial trepidation that both the teacher and the students might feel. These kinds of discussions lead to a rich form of learning as the students guide one another (and themselves) toward discovery of new ideas and beliefs. They are truly in charge of their own learning, and they often discover that they have their own thoughts and voice, and that others both respect and value their opinions.
When first beginning, it is best to give clear guidelines and structure. Students do better when they prepare for the discussion ahead of time and when the discussion is rooted in the close reading of a text that they have all read and understand.
They also need to know what is expected. I usually ask them to comment at least three times with meaningful contributions (with a cutoff on the max number of contributions as well--usually 6 times). When they are generating the questions, I require that they each ask at least two questions. I have seen teachers use different ways to help students gauge their discussion--I just have them keep a tally on their paper, but some students use beans or cards or other methods to help students count down the number of things they need to do.
We always sit in a circle for these discussions. When possible, we go to a different space (the library for example) so that it feels more formal and breaks up the routine of class. When we participate as a whole class (which seems to work best, at least until students get the hang of these kinds of discussions), I take notes on what everyone says. I let a student facilitate the discussion.
We have a Socratic discussion at least once per major work that we read. For example, for Romeo and Juliet this year, I used Dana Huff's idea of focusing the discussion around the question "Who is most responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?" When preparing for that unit, I only read through her information on teaching Romeo and Juliet, but on her site she has other great information about Socratic seminars and ways to use them in class. For other ideas on teaching Romeo and Juliet, refer to my previous post.
For Of Mice and Men, the students first participated in online discussions using schoology.com, and then we used those questions as a starting point for the verbal discussion. They moved from those questions (for which they had already prepared answers) to their own questions about the text.
In our most recent unit on Night, we actually had two Socratic discussions. The first was shortly after they watched the Class Divided documentary (see the previous post for comments on this activity). For that discussion, the students silently answered a series of questions addressing tolerance and discrimination. A few students who finished the reading for the day early wrote down the questions on big paper and we posted them around the room. Students wrote their responses and contemplated the issues before having the discussion. The second discussion focused on the memoir itself, and the students generated their own questions for that discussion. They began by discussing three questions I had asked them ahead of time, and from there they asked their own questions related to the text. For the second discussion, I broke each class into two smaller groups and had a scribe and facilitator for each group. This was remarkably successful in most classes.
If the students are going to create their own questions, they need models and guidelines. They will typically begin with plot-based questions that can be answered directly by the plot events. Once they begin to understand that the best questions will not have a single answer nor will they be something that can be right or wrong, they will start formulating questions that lead to better discussions. Through their creation of questions, they will make their own inferences about the text and will require their fellow students to make inferences as well. I always encourage them to create at least 5 questions of their own prior to the discussion since there are often duplicates, and if there is a significant lull during the conversation, I prompt them to pause and create one new question that they are willing to posit to the group.
Another vital part of these activities is self-reflection and self-evaluation. After each discussion, I ask students to thoughtfully reflect on their participation. I have them give themselves a score from 1 to 10 with a justification. (As an aside, I use self-evaluation frequently and find it to be helpful with many activities. I do guide them on how to score themselves, so in this case, I remind them that a 1 equates to a 10%, and that the only people who deserve a 1 would be those students who are passed out on their desks, drooling. One of the benefits of this kind of activity is that no one is completely disengaged--no one deserves that low of a score. I tell them that a 10 means that they were focused the entire time on what everyone said, and that they spoke neither too little nor too much. I know teachers are often reluctant to let students self-evaluate, but I find that their scores often reflect mine, and that if they are different, the students are often harsher on themselves.) In their reflection, I also ask them to comment on what they did well and what they could do to improve. I also ask them to write about what they learned from others throughout their discussion (what comments were most salient and/or impacted the way that they view the issue discussed or the world).
Students love these discussions, and they always leave them feeling energized and interested. They are a way for me to recharge as well, since students often say the exact things that we as educators long for them to think and say, and they come about those discoveries on their own. I also love the way they look out for each other and encourage each other to speak and participate (which becomes a more prominent feature of the discussions each time we have them). They are a wonderful way to have a cumulative assessment in addition to the written assessments we traditionally give, and they are a good way to let students demonstrate what they know about a text if the written assessment uses cold readings and application of skills.
What are you doing in your classrooms? Please leave comments here and share your ideas!
“There are those who tell me that I survived in order to write this text. I am not convinced. I don’t know how I survived; I was weak, rather shy; I did nothing to save myself. A miracle? Certainly not. If heaven could or would perform a miracle for me, why not for others more deserving than myself? It was nothing more than chance. However, having survived, I needed to give some meaning to my survival. Was it to protect the meaning that I set to paper an experience in which nothing made any sense?” ~Elie Wiesel, Preface to the new translation of Night
It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon, and I’m running low on imagination… which reminds me of the inspiring speech by Julia Alvarez that I attended this week. I’ve been teaching Night at school, the Holocaust account written by Elie Wiesel. While these two events might seem unrelated, Julia Alvarez’s words helped to illuminate the task of making the Night unit meaningful and effective for my students.
Night has proven to be a challenging text for me because while I feel strongly about the issues of discrimination and the power of personal strength to rise up against oppression, I want studying the text to be more than exoticism of the Other and fascination with a story riddled with senseless cruelty and endless violence. The students love the text, but to a certain extent, they feel comfortable exploring the cruelty of the Nazi regime and the injustice of the Holocaust. They know it was wrong; they feel assured that they would have spoken out and taken action if they had been there. I want the reading of the text to go beyond them acknowledging the horrible atrocity (though there is certainly value in bearing witness to the suffering and deaths of so many millions). It is my hope that they will begin to realize the biases and intolerance in their own world and that they will take steps toward addressing those injustices.
As I'm struggling with this text, in steps serendipity in the form of a lovely and charismatic Dominican American woman. This week at Bridgewater College, Julia Alvarez spoke of the power of stories to change the world. It was a message I needed to hear. She spoke of the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic (a story she recounts in her historical fiction novel, In the Time of the Butterflies) and expressed the way that three sisters (and the story of their deaths as martyrs) brought about the destruction of Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship because of the power of their story. She also talked about the uplifting story that she tells in her most recent publication, the non-fiction book A Wedding in Haiti.
Alvarez stated, “Nothing human is alien to the storyteller.” As she explained what she meant by that statement, she illuminated the fact that the storyteller makes it possible for nothing human to be alien to the reader, either. She said that stories help us navigate through our lives and steer us toward remaining “humane”—that they enable the reader to become the Other. She commented that most problems in our world “come from a lack of imagination,” from people’s inability to imagine a perspective different from their own. I’ve been thinking about how to help students have a little more imagination when it comes to understanding others with compassion.
We watched the PBS frontline documentary called "A Class Divided" about a teacher, Jane Elliott, who wanted her students to experience discrimination firsthand, so she imposed a rule that “blue-eyed people are better than brown-eyed people.” She enforced the discriminatory system by making brown-eyed students wear collars and by continually proclaiming prejudicial statements that reinforced the paradigm. The third-grade students took to the new system instantly.
Two boys got into a fight on the playground, and the boy who did the punching explained that he hit his friend because the blue-eyed friend had called him “brown eyes.” This testimony showed how quickly harmless words can become vicious. We discussed the role of name-calling in discrimination and the damage that derogatory terms can cause.
The second day, the teacher flipped the system, explaining that she had lied to them and that brown-eyed people were superior to blue-eyed people. Again, the students instantly absorbed and reinforced the new paradigm. The students who were now on top were vicious and arrogant; those on the bottom were self-deprecating and despairing. The day ended with a debriefing, during which the students confessed how much the oppression had hurt them and how easy it had been to be merciless and cruel when they were the oppressors.
The documentary resonated with my students, many of whom wrote thoughtful reflections about the ways that they had treated others poorly because of personal prejudices or the way that they had experienced discrimination firsthand and the pain that it caused them. They made connections to Night and to our world today (especially in light of the media coverage of the Boston marathon bombing). However, when the time came for our Socratic discussion addressing tolerance and discrimination, many students, despite their preparations and all of the notes that they had taken to organize their ideas, were hesitant to speak. A few brave students spoke out, but they were often met with downcast eyes and long pauses before the student moderators found a way to transition to a new question. I hope that they were at least thinking deeply about these issues so that one day, when they witness injustice, they are able to speak.
What more can we do to help students discuss these vital issues of prejudice and discrimination? What are you doing in your classrooms to help your students learn tolerance and compassion? Please post your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section.
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.