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Socratic Seminars: Teachers, Shut Up Already!

Bronx Classroom Tales

Socratic Seminars: Teachers, Shut Up Already!For years I’ve heard administrators tell me that I’m working too hard. They aren’t referring to my coming in early, staying late, or aggressively calling shotgun on committee seats. They’re talking about the way I plan and execute my high school English lessons.  


“Tabernacle, let them do the work. You just guide them.” 


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But they’ll miss that allusion to the King James Bible or Star Wars, Episode IV, I think to myself. They’ll misinterpret the word “wherefore!” 


“They’ll learn it better if they figure it out on their own,” they tell me. 


I could buy into the theory but my own high school English experience kept me from visualizing it in practice. It took me years to begin to distance myself from the white board, slowly giving my students more rope to lasso their own meaning, regardless of whether it be a meaning agreed upon by contemporary literary scholarship. 


Recently in my AP English class, the students participated in their first Socratic Seminar (although I didn’t introduce it as such). Common in many classrooms across the country, these seminars aim to give voice to students in an organized experience. I told the class to read James Joyce’s short story “Araby,” the night before and to mark up their texts with questions and observations. When they arrived Friday, I instructed them to form their desks in a large circle.


“I’m not going to talk today,” I told them. I heard a murmur of “thank god,” and an adjacent giggle, which I saw coming. I asked for two volunteers to act as historians and take notes on the discussion about to commence and two others to guide the discussion by eliciting questions and responses from their classmates. 


The rules were brief and simple. Be respectful, share the discussion, and don’t look to me for answers. I took a seat in the back of the room outside of the circle with a pad of paper. What followed was one of the best educational experiences I’ve ever had. They talked with each other for 35 minutes straight about a challenging text with each other’s questions and observations as fuel. 


Was it the most insightful discussion I’ve ever heard? Certainly not. Magdelena asked an excellent question about ‘blindness’ being a possible motif, but it was quickly trumped with Kevin’s sincere and eager response: “Yeah, I know and there is a simile on page 363!” Poetically perhaps, they never got to see the importance of blindness to the story’s theme. 


Overall, I was very proud of their first attempt and they seemed satisfied in the end as I gave them feedback on what they did well as a group and what they need to work on. This first venture into letting go and working less in the classroom has got me really rethinking what I do in my 10th grade classroom. I’ve heard of 4th grade teachers running Socratic Seminars and I while I was initially skeptical, after going through it once (albeit with senior honors students) I’m putting more stock in the practice of student centered work instead of merely agreeing in theory.                  


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