I find that a whole group discussion, like a Socratic Seminar, can be extremely intimidating for many students. In the past, I have tried to just push my students into one and try and offer support for the shy students, but it hasn't really worked. The confident students still do a great job. They even learn to not dominate the discussion by sitting back and giving others an opportunity to participate, which is an important skill. However, the shy students still find it hard to speak up. To minimize anxiety, I have modified the structure by dividing the class into two smaller groups of equal size. This is the structure I use today.
I divide the class into two groups of equal size and tell students that each group will get 10 minutes to discuss. You can adjust the time as needed during the discussion, but I make sure to give each group an equal amount of time. I tell students that the first group will sit in a circle, forming an inner circle, and discuss while the rest sit around, forming an outer circle, and listen attentively to the discussion. The groups will swap after 10 minutes. Since this first class discussion is this early in the school year, I don't have a sense of how to group students for the best possible dynamics so I let students group themselves. I have 24 students present in class today so I write a list of the numbers 1-12 twice on the board, leaving enough room for students to write their name next to a number. I give students a couple of minutes to go up to the board and sign up for a group.
For further support, I give students a copy of the Socratic Seminar Sentence Starters. I use this to discuss the difference between informal and academic language. I tell students that in an academic discussion, there are acceptable ways of formulating responses and that this paper can help them with that. I give them a minute to look over all the sentence starters and encourage them to refer to it as needed.
I also use a method of accountability to encourage students to make an effort to participate in the discussion. My method is to create a word document where I list all students in each group and I keep track of their participation here. On this document, I record student responses as well as the type and quality of their responses. I do this by using a quick code I developed for myself. I type a 1 next to a student’s name for every generic response, a Q if they ask a question, and an E if they refer the group to evidence from the text. To give them credit for the quality of their response, I type a * next to the Q/E/1 when the given response shows great thinking and pushes the discussion in an interesting direction. I let students know that I will be doing this and that they will get to see this document at the end of their discussion. In later discussions, I plan to replace the 1 with more specific descriptors, such as an A when they agree, a D when they disagree, a C when they clarify, etc. I am still developing this aspect of the activity. This is what the tracking document looked like for the first large group discussion .
Students are now ready to start.
Once students are seated in the inner/outer circle, I tell the inner circle that anyone can start. You will likely get silence in response to this invitation, but someone will begin soon enough. To put pressure on them, I tell them that discussions are worth a ton of points in my grade book and that students get a ton of credit for participating, especially those who show courage by speaking out when no one else wants to. This usually encourages someone to begin.
During the discussion, my role is to keep track of their responses. I only speak in the discussion once in a while and only for the purpose of helping the group develop the habits I want them to develop while holding academic discussions. I may say, "That was a good question. Before we move on to another topic, can someone try and answer that question?" I may also say, "Some of you have done a great job of speaking up repeatedly. Why don't you sit back for a little while and let others step up?" This may lead to a period of silence and I may say, "Silence is often uncomfortable, especially for those of you who are very comfortable speaking up, but let the silence be. Someone will speak up." Someone always does. I may also say, "You guys are doing a great job of sharing your ideas. Now lets try and respond to each other's ideas before sharing new ones. Try agreeing or disagreeing with someone and explain why." These are essentially cues that I give them to guide the discussion in the direction I want. Also, I do have to give a few students who are part of the outer circle "the look" if they try to chat or do something other than listen attentively. I may even interrupt the discussion to make a general comment regarding the importance of the outer circle doing nothing other than listen attentively. I am firm with this expectation and tell them that they can also lose points for not contributing to a respectful and serious environment.
After 10 minutes, I thank the first group for their participation and the groups swap. I tell the second group that they have the option of continuing to talk about a topic that was addressed by the first group and that they have something important to contribute to that discussion thread. Their other option is to start with whatever else they planned on sharing in advance. I have had students in the second group opening their discussion by expressing their thoughts about something the first group discussed. However, this is the first large group discussion in this class and they are still learning to make the discussion organic. Nobody in the second group picked up on an idea already discussed in the first group. I expect they will be able to do that later in the year. This second group experiences the same conditions as the first group in terms of my involvement, the amount of time and the tracking of their responses.
After the discussion, I show students the document I used to keep track of their responses. I project this on the board. Students show great interest in seeing their name and the types of marks I typed next to it. It challenges them to increase their participation next time.
It is important to get students to reflect on this activity. I ask students to reflect on this discusison by writing about the following and I write these on the board:
A crucial next step is to schedule another discussion soon after this one, stressing the commitments students made in their written reflection.