Saturday, November 1, 2014

Getting Started with Socratic Circles

I am always looking for ways to build critical thinking in my classroom.  One of the teaching strategies I wanted to try this year was socratic seminars or the socratic circle. I have used literature circles and other small group discussions and a lot of whole group discussion over the years, but I have never used socratic circles.

My first introduction to some form of the socratic seminar was in graduate school.  I studied Business at  Texas A&M for my undergrad so there was very little discussion.  Most of my classes were hundreds of students, so the classes were primarily lecture. For my Masters, I studied Humanities with a focus in Literary Studies.  In most of my classes, we had a book or section of a book to read every week.  Then, when we came to class, the professors expected us to lead most of the discussion.  They would pose questions, but everyone was expected to participate and offer critique.  Participation was usually a chunk of our grade for accountability. I thoroughly enjoyed most of my classes.  Because it was Humanities, often our classes included people of various ages and backgrounds with different interests and specialties.  It always made for interesting discussion.

I started preparing to use Socratic Seminars by reading Socratic Circles by Matt Copeland.

There are different ways to approach Socratic Circles.  One of the more common approaches is also sometimes called Fishbowl discussions.  You divide the class in half.  Half the class sits in an inner circle in the center of the room, and the other half sits in an outer circle. The inner circle discusses a text and the outer circle observes. The outer circle gives the inner circle feedback on the discussion afterward.  There seem to be a couple different approaches.  You can have the outer circle give the questions to the inner circle to discuss.  You can have one person in the outer circle observe one person in the inner circle.  You also can just have the outer circle generally give feedback to the inner circle.

You usually have everyone read the same text.  It often is a short piece of text, so they are forced to analyze very closely.  You can use for History, Science, Math, Poetry, Nonfiction, Fiction, etc. You could use the discussion more as a debate or to work on persuasion.

My classes are small.  So I still divided my class in half.  Half sits in a circle to discuss while the other half sit in their normal tables.  I had each group have a discussion leader.   The discussion leader came up with questions and helped keep the discussion moving.  Discussions were usually 10-30 minutes.  The group observing had to take notes on the discussion and give feedback afterward. My 8th graders discussed short stories during class, and my 7th graders discussed sections of Walk Two Moons. As Walk Two Moons has two different plot lines, I had each group focus on a different plot line for the discussions.

After each discussion, we discuss what went well and what could have gone better.  What I am enjoying about socratic seminars is that the learning and even most of the guiding of the learning is placed in the student's hands. I only jump in with questions when I feel they have not gone deep enough or elaborated enough.  However, I have found I really do not have to jump in very often at all. Each discussion has gotten a little better than the last because they have learned from the feedback they have received from one another. In a very short time, they have gotten so much better at giving feedback and receiving feedback.  Usually students are either rude or afraid to give constructive criticism.  My 7th graders this next weeks are finishing their final essays on Walk Two Moons, so I am excited to see if the ability to give good feedback translates to giving good peer feedback on writing.  They also are getting better at thinking on their feet and speaking up with confidence.

Variations I Still Want to Use This Year with the Socratic Seminar:

1. Use a smaller text like nonfiction articles, poetry, or small excerpts of a text.  Great practice for close reading!
2. Break into smaller groups and then come back as a larger group to discuss. 
3. Have the outer group create the questions for the inner circle.
4.  Discuss creating higher-order thinking questions as a class. 
5. Have students help create a rubric for the discussions.
6. Have an outer circle student observe an inner circle student very closely, and then they switch.
7. Try Socratic Seminars in another subject.

Things I will do Different Next Year To Get Started:

1. Do a lesson on Socrates first.
2. Set up the norms for the discussions a little better.
3. Discuss creating higher-order thinking questions before starting the discussions.

For more ideas on Socratic Circles, check out my Pinterest Board on the Socratic Seminar.   Have you used socratic circles in your classroom?

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