Although this is my 15th year of teaching, I have always struggled with discussions. It’s not that my students and I don’t have engaging or thought-provoking discussions. We do. But I often put the pressure on myself to lead (dictate?) our discussions, and I’ve never been confident that I was making the most of our time in class. I tend to do a lot (of the talking), and though my questioning techniques have gotten better over the years (I’m particularly good at playing devil’s advocate), I’m not sure how much better my students’ discussion skills have become.
I’ve taught Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried for a few years in my AP Lang & Comp class, usually as a summer reading. Anyone who’s read Tim O’Brien’s novel knows how rich and complex the text is. There is just so much to discuss, so much you can do, that I often feel overwhelmed. Worried I’ll make out discussions overly complicated, I tend to simplify. Worried I’ll be reductive, I tend to do too much.
This year I decided that rather than be the one to lead each class discussion, I would get out of the way and take my cue from my students. In the past, one approach I might have taken with a book like The Things They Carried would be to put students in groups, assign each group a short story from the novel, give the groups time to discuss and determine the story’s themes, and then present their findings to the class. While that technique has its advantages, I wanted to move from the practice of presenting ideas to discussing them.
Socratic seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions. Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others. – ReadWriteThink.Org
Ever since I first learned about Socratic seminars many years ago, I’ve always wanted to integrate them into my instruction, but for various reasons, I never really committed to the format. Part of me was always afraid it would just flop: students wouldn’t know what to say or do and awkward silences would follow. Another part of me worried that students wouldn’t cover what was important in the text, or that discussion would end up being shallow. On a personal level, I was very shy when it came to speaking in class when I was in school, so being forced to engage in Socratic seminar discussion in class would have horrified me. And honestly, as I said earlier, my students and I have had great discussions over the years: why fix something that wasn’t broken? But perhaps the biggest reason I had hesitated for so long was the simple uncertainty of it all―how could I know it would go well?
Yet the longer I’ve taught, the more I’ve realized how much teaching requires―no, demands―that I just let go and take a chance (That may seem like an obvious point, but anyone who has taught knows that there are often many forces, in and out of the classroom, that actually make teachers more risk-adverse than risk-taking). So I took the chance and ended up with some of the most insightful and rich discussion I’ve ever had in class. (And as a bonus, I also integrated some tech tools that worked really, really well.)
First, taking a cue from Ariana Sacks’ work in Whole Novels for the Whole Class, I gave my students the novel and two weeks to finish, including one week of in-class time to read (I was also away for a week, so giving the students time to read in class was ideal, though I would do it this away again even if I weren’t away). As Sacks writes, by reading the entire novel before students begin any discussion, “we honor the nature of the literary art by having students look at the whole work, not breaking the experience down into little pieces.” Though this whole novels approach works for any book, it is especially useful for a work like O’Brien’s in which each story’s power is revealed through its connection to others.
As students read, I asked them to mark passages (using sticky notes) in the text that stood out to them, particularly for their vivid or thought-provoking descriptions. We had been recently working on “show v. tell” strategies in descriptive writing, so O’Brien’s novel was a natural follow-up. Specifically, I asked students to note the techniques O’Brien used in those passages and how/why they were effective.
After students finished reading (and after a quick “did you read” quiz), I wrote down the names all the stories from the novel except for the title story on the board. I excluded the title story because I knew I would be spending more time on it as a whole class later. I then invited students to come to the board and gave them 5 minutes to cast a vote for their top three stories. The three stories with the most votes would be the focus for our Socratic seminars. My students’ top choices in my two classes were “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and “On the Rainy River,” with “The Man I Killed” in third place in one class, and “How to Tell a True War Story” in third place in the other.
I erased the names of all the stories from board except for the top three. I then added another category called “And all the rest” for students to discuss the other stories in the book (again, except for the title story). I asked students to come up and sign up for a group, which turned into a mad dash for the board. (Next time, I’ll use a random student generator to have students come up to the board one at a time. Students literally knocked over my coffee on the front table in their eagerness.)
To sum, there were now four groups: three for individual stories and one group that could choose to focus on any of the other stories in the novel. With 27 students in each class, I ended up with three groups of 7 and one group of 6―a great size for discussion (on a side note, I only allowed up to 7 names per group when students signed up at the board).
For homework that night, students needed to reread their assigned stories and take additional notes. Specifically, I gave students the following directions:
- What did you notice in the reading, both when you first read and upon rereading?
- What patterns or motifs have you observed?
- What can you say about the writing in this particular story? POV? Diction? Syntax? Details? Repetition?
- How does this story relate to others?
- Support all of the above with specific passages and quotations from the text (you should direct the group to specific passages and reread as needed during your discussion).
- Generate your own list of questions about this story.
I then let students know that the next day, one of their groups would be chosen to get together to discuss their story in a “fishbowl” format in the middle of the class while the rest of the class observed and took notes. Students would not have a chance to talk in their groups first―their first discussion of the story happens “live” in the middle of class. As such, students could see how preparation was going to be important if they were going to keep the discussion lively and interesting. I did allow the “And all the rest” group five minutes in the hallway to decide on 2-4 of the remaining stories to focus on for the rereading and discussion.
The next day, students came to class prepared with their notes and books marked with passages for discussion. I decided to start discussion with “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” although any of the individual stories would work. I saved the “And all the rest” group for last because they would be benefit most from hearing the other groups’ discussions.
After our daily notebook writing (we were simultaneously doing some freewriting for an upcoming essay), we had about 30 minutes of class left for discussion. I spent a few minutes reminding students of the qualities of effective discussion techniques (I had already posted these reminders the night before online). Because my students and I have already been in school for two and a half months together, both of my classes had developed a positive rapport and were very supportive of each other. Still, the reminders are useful I think. I then had students in the discussion group pull their desks to the middle of the room, so that I ended up with a set-up like this:
As you can see, I usually have my desks arranged in sets of four (quads) placed in a U-shape facing the front of the room. As luck would have it, we started our discussion of The Things They Carried at the beginning of a marking period, which is when I change students’ desks. Because I had four groups, I simply rearranged students so that each quad had a student from each of the four discussion groups.
Why go to the trouble? At the end of each fishbowl discussion, I had students go back to their quads and debrief with each other on how the discussion went and what points were most powerful. This worked especially well because the other three members in each quad were from the other groups each time we did this. (I wish I could say that I planned it all this way from the beginning, but honestly, I came up with this solution as I was driving to school that morning. 🙂 )
MAKING THE MOST OF TECH: THE BACKCHANNEL
As soon as students in the inner circle (the fishbowl) got their desks arranged and notes out, I introduced one more piece to the discussion―our backchannel discussion.
In other variations of the Socratic circle, sometimes a desk is left empty in the inner circle for a student in the outer circle to temporarily enter the conversation to make a comment or ask a question. Although I’d never tried that option before, I was afraid that 1) it would be too distracting to have students entering/exiting discussion, 2) students would fight over trying to enter the circle, or 3) students would be hesitant to enter and the chair would remain empty, the elephant in the room.
Still, the thinking behind the empty chair is that it gives those in the outer circle an opportunity to participate. I had been to a few workshops at conferences where the presenters encouraged audience members to participate in a backchannel discussion via Twitter, so I thought that something similar could work for my class.
I’ve used the Socrative app in class for a few years, and I have always appreciated its simplicity. If you aren’t familiar with Socrative, the app is a great tool for gathering responses and assessing student understanding. Students use their devices to enter your online Socrative classroom to answer teacher-designed questions. I set up my Socrative classroom with one open-ended question and posted this prompt: “As you listen to the inner circle’s discussion, post any related questions or comments you have for the group.”
I then gave students my Socrative class ID number, which they entered on Socrative.com under the student login tab. Our school is BYOD, so students were encouraged to use their smartphones for this activity. Students in the outer circle could then participate by asking questions and posting comments. In addition, students in the outer circle also took notes on the discussion to use for their reflections that night.
After the backchannel opened and I took a seat at my desk in the back of the room, the discussion unfolded for the next twenty minutes―and I didn’t say a thing. Instead, students in the inner circle discussed the story, sharing what they found interesting and thought-provoking, rereading passages from the text, and building on each others’ ideas. Meanwhile, students in the outer circle began posting questions and comments, many of which were folded into the inner circle’s discussions, either directly or indirectly. And because I allowed students to post comments anonymously, I was also able to sneak in a question or comment when the opportunity presented itself.
During the last 5-10 minutes of class, students in the inner circle rejoined their outer circle groups and debriefed on what they found most interesting in the discussion. Then, for homework that night, all students, both in the inner circle and outer circle, typed up a brief reflection. Specifically, I asked students to focus on the following three questions:
- What did you find interesting? Include specific ideas that stood out from the discussion to you and why. Be specific, citing whose idea it was, and explain your reasoning. How did this discussion deepen your understanding of the story?
- What questions do you have? Include specific questions, ideas, issues, concerns that you are still struggling with and why this is still an issue for you.
- How did the discussion go?
- Inner Circle: Evaluate your personal, overall participation: how prepared were you? What were your strengths during discussion? Areas of improvement? Be specific.
- Outer Circle: How do you think the inner circle did? What were the strengths of their discussion? What points were developed well; conversely, what points were dropped? Be specific.
The next day, we began the whole process over again with a new group.
Overall, I was very pleased with how the Socratic Seminars went. I was impressed with the students’ level of engagement and critical reading as I read their nightly reflections. I will definitely keep the nightly reflections as it motivates students to actively listen to the inner circle’s discussion and encourages students to think more deeply about the stories that they were not necessarily assigned.
Perhaps the most important outcome of this format was the simple fact that the ownership of the discussion rested firmly with my students. In an earlier blog post last summer, I asked myself, “in reading, writing, thinking, and learning, how can I create an environment that develops student agency?” Because they needed to be prepared to ask and answer their own questions about the text, students were active participants. If I had led the discussion, I know for a fact that students would have yielded to me and discussed the text in response to only the points I brought up. In this format, students responded to their own and each others’ questions. Preparation, no doubt, was a key element to the success of each discussion; students were motivated to come to discussion with thorough notes to use when it was their turn in the inner circle.
I surveyed students to see they thought of this format, and they, too, appreciated the chance to hear from and respond directly to each other. Among their responses:
- “I liked how it left us to explore the chapters ourselves and hear our peers’ perspectives. There were enough people in each group that there weren’t awkward pauses, yet the groups were small enough that everyone could talk.”
- “Small groups meant the conversation was local, more exact, more personal, less crowded.”
- “In every discussion, no matter whether you were on the inner or outer circle, everyone learned something new or saw something from a different perspective. That was the most interesting part for me, was seeing the same story from all different perspectives and gaining different takes on the characters.”
- “I liked the size of the groups because it was large enough that conversation didn’t stop, but small enough that everyone could participate a few times. In this format I was able to participate in discussion and also get to just listen.”
- “I really liked this format of discussion. I think that I allowed more student-led learning and created a very comfortable environment that felt kind of like a book club.”
- “I liked that it allowed for everyone to share their own opinions and beliefs, and because it wasn’t a debate, nobody was pressured into arguing or defending his/her position. It was a good way to demonstrate our understanding of the novel through intelligent discussion. I walked away from these seminars with a new look at the book; many of the ideas from the discussions I had never thought of before.”
- “I enjoyed the openness of it and the fact that we as students developed our own format for each one. The discussions had a lot of possibility and there was no pressure to stay on a topic or to stray from it.”
Using the backchannel discussion also made it possible for all students to participate in some way, even when their group was not activly engaged in the inner circle. For example, one student noted that the backchannel discussion was effective because “it closes the gap between the two groups, without making it a group discussion.” Students liked the opportunities that the backchannel offered when they were in the outer circle, and students in the inner circle found that they could use the backchannel as needed to continue their discussion if there was a lull.
The anonymity of the backchannel also had its benefits. Students felt that by keeping the backchannel anonymous, students would not feel as self-conscious about posting a comment for the entire class to see. Anonymity gave students the freedom to take risks to ask questions and comment. That said, anonymity also gave students the freedom to make comments that weren’t necessarily relevant (several emojis and small side conversations made a few appearances). Though these distractions didn’t dominate the backchannel discussion, some students noted that they did take away a little from the seriousness of discussion. Some students suggested removing the anonymity of the backchannel but admitted that the drawback would be that there would not be as much participation.
One idea that a student offered was to find a way for students to be able to “upvote” (a la Reddit style) a comment or question on the backchannel:
I think a sort of “like” feature or an “I agree” button would beneficial as it could organize the public thoughts into just one post rather than have a million other reiterating the same point. As a post gets more hits, it is moved towards the top so it can make it to the verbal discussion.
Unfortunately, Socrative.com doesn’t have a “like” or “upvote” feature, but another app, BackchannelChat.com does have a feature called “message amplification” which allows students to “mark messages that have the most meaning, teachers can use this input to focus the discussion on what really matters.” Backchannelchat.com also integrates Schoology (the LMS that my district will be using next year), so this looks like a promising opportunity.
Finally, the last thing I would change is to simply give students more time to discuss as a whole class. Often, the inner circle’s discussion was going so well that we were left with only 5 minutes at the end of class for students in the inner and outer circles to talk. In their feedback, students wanted more time to talk as a whole class. As one student said, “Sometimes your burning question never gets answered, and that’s what Socratic seminars are for: better understanding.”
UPDATED MAY 31, 2016 —
Since I first published this post, I have used Socratic Seminars using a backchannel with my 9th graders, too. We used a backchannel for our discussions on Lord of the Flies, and then again most recently when we read The Kite Runner. We continued to use Socrative for Lord of the Flies, but we used another application, BackChannelChat for The Kite Runner.
BackChannelChat has a few features that made it more user-friendly for students. Students can “like” each others’ responses, so it is easy to see which comments are getting the most traction. Moderators can easily “pin” more interesting comments to the top of the discussion board so that they do not get lost, especially in a fast-moving conversation. And though I didn’t use them, there are other options for approving each post before getting published, allowing other students to be moderators, and embedding polls directly in your discussion. BackChannelChat also integrates with Schoology, the learning management system my district uses. When used within Schoology, student accounts (w/names and photos) are automatically tied to their discussion posts on the backchannel.