May 16, 2022

Week # 5: Student voice and ownership via Socratic seminars

One thing I tried: This is not a new strategy. One of the early professional development books I read was Inquiry and the Literary Text that extolled the virtues of Socratic seminars and I’ve done them in various ways ever since. What I was interested in this year was finding a way to elevate student voice and ownership in the classroom and the seminar is a logical fit. Students had been reading a variety of texts pointing to the theme of Friday night lights, the culture of high school sports (see our reading plan here). A seminar allows everyone to come back together and share their thinking and research. It’s a dialogue, discussion, and debate where the ideas and our essential questions are at the center.

I used to set requirements for participation but I have stopped that in recent years. I set a goal of 3-4 meaningful contributions, but if some don’t reach it I do a mini-seminar a few days later to see what they were thinking but didn’t get to say. If that doesn’t work I have them write. Relieving some of the compliance burden tends to open up the discussion and I like that. There are many formats, but I favor the large circle where we all engage with each other.

What I liked/didn’t like: I always leave seminars with a renewed hope in my classes, in today’s students, and in humanity. Students typically rise to the occasion and to the complexity of our topics and questions with thoughtful reflection, genuine care, and meaningful dialogue. The best moments are when students divulge their stories. In Bell 6 I learned that someone’s mom used to work for the Seattle Seahawks, that one student had to quit his sport after three surgeries, and that another student attends workouts after school that last until 9 pm (each night). These are pretty priceless moments that don’t happen in the normal flow of guided academic discussions. The seminar provides space, though, for academic and personal revelations.

Discussion-based learning is messier because it’s student-driven (see Dr. Jonathan’s Sauer’s work for the virtues of DBL and the Harkness method, specifically in math classes). I do not guide the discussion and so each class follows different strands and streams of conversation. This ends up making it more authentic. We ended up discussing whether high school sports should be a lifestyle or a hobby, whether coaches really mean it when they say they want multi-sport athletes, whether or not chess is a sport (and lively discussion about what defines sports v. arts v. activities), and the ways sports have helped students grow. We also got to some weightier issues like CTE, mental health challenges sports pose, and playing while injured to please someone else’s expectations.

What’s next: We are wrapping up this unit with some writing. Students selected one of the essential questions and are building an argument in response. Then we will begin designing the next unit together (the culture of American violence).

Nathan Coates

Nathan Coates is an English/Language Arts Teacher at Wm. Mason High School. This article is cross-posted with Mr. Coates' personal reflection blog. You can view his blog here. Twitter: @MHSCoates

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