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I am guilty, I admit it.  I often do not give my students enough credit…to understand, comply, step up, or wrestle with difficulty.  Yet so often when I do challenge them with something hard, they do it. Frequently, they do the task in brilliant ways I would never have anticipated.  In all honesty – it’s not just frequently, it’s invariably.  You would think with 35+ years of teaching, I would have learned this lesson.
Case in point – Socratic Seminars with my 6th-grade students.  I had tried them before in other grades with limited success.  Sometimes the discussion was lively and fascinating, other times it was painful and laborious.  I thought long and hard about whether my young charges were up to the task of facilitating their own discussions – my goal being to remove myself from the mix and let them handle it on their own.  Since I have the luxury of seeing my students every day this year,  I decided to try it and see what might happen.
Since school started, we have had weekly Socratic Seminars on Fridays, completely run by the students.  They are amazing. We have explored topics including:
  • Does rap music have a negative impact on youth?
  • Animal testing: Is it necessary?
  • Censorship: Who should decide what young people read?
  • Junk food: should schools sell it?
  • Is the death penalty justified?
  • Teen smoking: Who is responsible?
  • High school dropouts: What can be done?
  • Should students be paid for performance in school?
  • Are kids responsible for stepping in to prevent bullying?
  • Should school be a place for debate?
We use information from the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) to find information about our topics.  You can download the materials here: http://wordgen.serpmedia.org/s_weekly2016.html 
Each interdisciplinary unit has facts and discussion around the topic through different disciplinary lenses: language arts, math, science, etc.  As the week progresses, we work through the information so that students can determine their point of view for the Friday seminar.
A few summers ago, during the National Writing Project’s Summer Institute in the Valley (https://shenandoahwritingproject.org/)   I learned a technique where students are provided cards for the Seminar to add structure to what can be a completely new form of discussion. Each student receives 4 color-coded cards;
  • Opinion
  • Response
  • Example
  • Question
The class is divided in half (we did it by using our writing partners) with one half on the inside circle and the other half on the outside, sitting behind their partners. One student is chosen as the facilitator. One student is chosen by the facilitator to start the discussion. Each time an inner circle student speaks, he/she hands the corresponding card to his/her partner on the outside.  When you run out of cards, you stop talking!
The outer circle participants are watching, encouraging, and prompting their partners. They keep track with a written reflection sheet of the number of times their partners speak as well as any particularly brilliant responses. At the end of the first round, they debrief their partner and switch places.
From the first week, students have taken this as their own and astounded me. Not once have they asked for help, clarification, or assistance. Not once have they run out of things to say. Not once have they failed to use at least one of their cards (most use all of them).  Not once has the discussion been less than thoughtful, insightful, and compelling. Not once has the discussion become disrespectful, even when heated.
Not once has the Seminar ended when I failed to say to myself, “Look at what these kids can do!”

Block 3 Rocking the Seminar