Tagged Socratic Seminar

Civil Discourse: A Socratic Seminar on the Impact of Civility in Public Life

How does civility/incivility impact public life?

This is the driving question for a Socratic Seminar I hosted for teachers through the ESC of Central Ohio and PBL Ohio this Wednesday, October 26.  Here is a link to this and other upcoming events I will host in collaboration with them.

To begin conversation, here are two short news clips and a link to a letter.  After viewing/reading each one, write down initial impressions based upon the question: What is the impact of civility/incivility in modern, public life?  Also record other questions these news items evoke for you around the topic of civil discourse.

  1. Watch this two-minute summary of the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump which CNN named the “Scorched Earth Presidential Debate in Two Minutes.”  Also included on this same link is a montage video of Trump interrupting Hillary in another debate and a video titled “60 Seconds of Pure Vitrol” where Clinton and Trump insult one another.
  2. Also check out this three-minute video called “Going Beyond a Civil Discourse” from Fox News which describes violence and threats made to both parties during the 2011 healthcare debates.
  3. Lastly, here is the recently released letter that George Bush left in the Oval Office for Bill Clinton after he had lost the election.

At the workshop, we used this entry event to generate a list of questions together.  They are as follows:

  • What is civil discourse?
  • What is the current level of interest in civil discourse in our society?
  • What is the impact of social media on our civility?  
  • What is the impact of our modern lifestyle on civility?  (The immediate gratification culture)
  • When is civility more difficult and why?  
  • What is the future of civil discourse?  
  • Have we become less civil?  
  • Where is the line between public and private life?  Does this line impact our civility? Explain.
  • How can we stay engaged in the discourse when we have been disenchanted and do not want to do so?  
  • Why do I want to engage in this modern discourse?
  • Where is the line between civility and incivility?
  • Is incivility necessary and when?  
  • Why does there appear to be greater public response when the discourse is not civil?  
  • Which is worse, secret judgement that is civil or uncivil, outward judgement?
  • How does public discourse influence private behavior?
  • Should we, as educators, model and expect civil and/or uncivil discourse from ourselves and students?  
  • How do we model civil discourse as teachers and role models?   
  • How does civility, or a lack of, influence production?  

Read more

The Crucible: A Socratic Seminar on Human Cruelty and Groupthink

The witch hunts in The Crucible can easily be tied into modern day research group think and events in the news during Socratic Seminar.   Photograph: Allstar Collection/Cinetext/20 C/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

The witch hunts in The Crucible can easily be connected to modern day research on groupthink and current events in the news. Photograph: Allstar Collection/Cinetext/20 C/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

I’m not the only kid who grew up this way, surrounded by people who used to say that rhyme about sticks and stones, as if broken bones hurt more than the names we got called, and we got called them all. So we grew up believing no one would ever fall in love with us, that we’d be lonely forever,that we’d never meet someone to make us feel like the sun was something they built for us in their toolshed. So broken heartstrings bled the blues, and we tried to empty ourselves so we’d feel nothing. Don’t tell me that hurt less than a broken bone, that an ingrown life is something surgeons can cut away, that there’s no way for it to metastasize; it does.

-“To this day, for the Beautiful and the Bullied” a TEDTalk from Shane Koyczan

The Crucible‘s themes of victimization of outsiders and humanity’s ability to enact terrible cruelty when condoned by the group are universal and timeless.  To capitalize on the richness inherent in these ideas and their relevancy to modern day, Sam Bosse and I planned a Socratic Seminar with the following essential questions:

Essential Question: How can fear, suspicion, and ignorance lead to cruelty and destruction in society?

  • What allows individuals to be cruel to one another?
  • What are some of the effects of this cruelty on the individual?  On society?  Have you seen examples in your own personal experience?
  • From where does prejudice and suspicion come?  What are the effects on the individual who is experiencing prejudice?  The one who is prejudice?  How does prejudice add to the cruelty of society?
  • What role does ignorance play in cruelty, destruction and prejudice in society?
  • What are the causes of mass hysteria?
  • What is groupthink? Describe positive and negative effects of this phenomenon.  How does it impact society?  The individual?
  • How does modern technology affect groupthink in positive and negative ways?
  • What are some modern day examples of a “witch hunt”?  Why do they exist?  How might one be caused?
  • Is human cruelty implicit or is it something that can be overcome in the individual?  Provide examples to support your thinking.
  • What are some methods to alleviate fear and suspicion in society?
  • What are some methods to alleviate human cruelty in society?

To answer these questions and find support, students were given the following list of non-fiction sources to use in addition to evidence from the play.  These resources are also listed in the handout for students at the bottom of this post.  


This is so We” from Psychology Today

  • An articles about how preferences are formed by social phenomenon (ex: music downloads)

The Marathon Bombings: Lessons on Fear, Good and Bad” from Psychology Today

  • An article about the positive and negative effects of fear
  • Discusses some ideas on how fear can be overcome in a society but will always exist

A Brief History of Group Think” from Yale Alumni Magazine

  • An article describing how the term “group think” came to exist and some examples of it in history
  • Describes possible ways “group think” can be avoided
  • First part is good on its own, but it also has a collection of academics views of “group think” at the end of the article that could be broken into separate pieces

Bad to the Bone: Are Humans Naturally Aggressive” from Psychology Today

  • An article analyzing whether violence has a psychological and physiological basis

The Evils of Yes Men and Group Think” from CNN News

  • This article describes the problems caused in corporations when leadership does not seek truth over flattery

Prejudice Can Cause Depression” from the Association of Psychological Science

  • This article describes the link between depression and hate for self and others
  • It is really interesting and addresses deep-seated connections between self-loathing and prejudice of others

What Causes Prejudice Against Immigrants and How Can it be Tamed” from Scientific American

  • This article defines prejudice and its causes; it explains how “foreign” can equal threat, and it addresses options for how to alleviate prejudice in society

Europe’s Roma Face Witch Hunt After Reports of Child Snatching” from Time Magazine

  • This article outlines a modern day witch hunt based upon race through examining the plight of the Roma in Europe (from 2013)

Peter King’s Modern Day Witch Hunt” from The Washington Post

  • This article describes a very modern and applicable use of the term “witch hunt” in American society against Muslim people


To this day, for the Beautful and the Bullied” a TEDTalk from Shane Koyczan

  • A man talks about how he came to be a bully.  It is a very personal take on the article on the effects of “prejudice” on the individual, as he experienced bullying growing up because of his weight.

The Wisdom of Crowds” from PBS

  • This video explains how crowds can accurately estimate information to come up with correct answers whereas one individual is unlikely to be able to come to the same conclusion

The Code- The Wisdom of the Crowd” from BBC

  • This video has the same information as the one above, but has a different tone.

The Power and Danger of Online Crowds” a TEDTalk from James Surowiecki (16 min.)

  • This video explores the blogosphere as a form of “collective intelligence” and also addresses potential problems
  • It provides some examples about how groups think more effectively than individuals.

Although students had already participated in a Socratic seminar earlier in the year, we used the Students Coaching Students model, which was new to them.  To this end, they answered the following question through a quick write and then shared via class discussion:

In what way can communicating with others (particularly peers) promote your personal growth?  What are some of the types (modes) of communication that are most valuable? 

They then watched a video on the Teaching Channel showing the new model.  Students were given a list of questions to note differences in the roles and types of sources from what they had experienced in the past (See this video for the example).

Before the seminar, each student had to choose three non-fiction sources to read in preparation.  They took notes over the sources using a “summary sheet” created by Melissa Larisch (see the bottom of the post to download).  In addition, students were given the half-time feedback sheet and a list of advanced transitions to use during the seminar (also at the bottom of this post).

During the first day of the seminar, Bosse and I facilitated together.  We were both very pleased with the use of textual evidence and students’ overall engagement in the discussion.  In addition, the richness of the ideas presented reflected deep thinking from students.  Overall, I have found this method of Socratic seminar to be a very dynamic, student-centered approach.

Here are resources to use for the seminar:

Conversations with Texts: Annotating Non-Fiction Articles

note taking

Atkins, Sue. mvc-002s1.jpg. June 15, 2004. Pics4Learning. 24 Feb 2014

Kristina Claytor wanted her students to read non-fiction texts in preparation for a Socratic Seminar over themes in Divergent; She also wanted them to practice annotation strategies. To this end, we planned a lesson where the teacher modeled metacognitive annotation and then students practiced the skill independently and in small groups.

For the seminar, students will read and annotate Divergent and additional non-fiction texts dealing with the development of identity in teenagers.  Here are some of the essential questions for the seminar.  (Students also wrote their own.)

Primary Question: What is identity?  In other words, what makes you who you are?


·       What external factors (things outside of yourself and your control) make you who you are?

·       What internal factors make you who you are?

·       Is identity able to be changed or is it unchangeable?

·       What struggles do teens face when trying to establish who they are?

·       How can teens overcome these struggles?  How?

·       What role does technology play in defining you and your relationship to others?  How might this change your

identity compared to someone in Divergent?

·       Do other people’s perceptions define you, or do you define yourself?

The lesson had the following learning targets:

  • žI can interact and “converse” with a text through the process of annotation.
  • žI can note important elements of a text, which I may have to reference later in class discussion or in my writing.
žWe started with the following quick write question:
  • What do you do while you are reading?  What is your reading process?


  • How do you know what is important?
  • What do you do when you struggle to understand something?
  • What is going on in your brain while you are reading?

After students wrote about the topic, we had a class discussion about responses.  Many students admitted to struggling with comprehension.  However, some were also able to identify coping mechanisms, such as using context clues, pausing after paragraphs to think, and looking at text in bold or italics again.  We also discussed how reading non-fiction texts differs from fiction; there isn’t a “narrative” to grab the reader with informational texts.  We analyzed the purposes of each text type (to entertain versus to inform) and how each changes the reading process.  Annotation of non-fiction texts was introduced as a way to “converse” with the ideas presented since “visualization” (as in with a story or narrative) wouldn’t be as easy.  Annotation can therefore assist with comprehension and engagement with texts that provide unique challenges.

After the quick write, we went over a handout providing metacognitive annotation symbols (see bottom of the post for the handout).  We also gave them a Sample Text to Annotate and modeled annotation with them using the symbols provided.  To do this, we opened the file in Word on the LCD projector, highlighted text, and then used the “insert comment” function to put in our annotations.  Students were most interested in the “text-to-self” connections made in the process.  They seemed to enjoy my personal connections.  (We were using the New Yorker article about the trauma caused by high school.)  I had some to say on this topic.

After modeling, students were homogeneously grouped by their ATOS levels as determined by STAR and given one of three articles tiered by difficulty level.  We asked them to use the same annotation symbols we had used together.  Here are links to the articles:

We found the practice activity worked best when we gave students a certain number of connections, questions, comments etc.  to make on their article independently.  Then, they met in their tiered groups to compare notes afterward.

Here are some additional resources for this lesson that can be used in the classroom:

John Green Video Series: Love or Lust in Romeo and Juliet

John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska, publishes a series of funny “crash courses” on Youtube that discuss/analyze pieces of literature including Catcher in the Rye, Romeo and Juliet, and The Great Gatsby.

Carrie Eniex showed Love or Lust: Romeo and Juliet Part II as an attention grabber before introducing the Socratic Seminar over Romeo and Juliet using the resources gathered in this post (called Romeo and Juliet Socratic Seminar Part I: Teens and Decision Making).  The topic of the video relates to the aspect of the Socratic Seminar students seem to connect to most: teenage love and relationships.  It was interesting (and highly entertaining) in Dave Watros’ classes to hear teenage boys and girls discuss the topic of romantic interests.  Repeatedly, the question “What is love?” was raised (and avoided) but in the middle of the second day, the discussion finally gained footing, and by the end of the conversation, teenage boys were giving their definition of love in earnest.

Julius Caesar Socratic Seminar Part II: Violence in Society Discussion

If you are interested in the modern interpretation of Socrate's method of discussion outside of the classroom, check out Socrates Cafe by Christopher Phillips.

If you are interested in the modern interpretation of Socrate’s method of discussion outside of the classroom, check out Socrates Cafe by Christopher Phillips.  Image linked here.

Renee Jackson and I worked for a number of weeks to prepare for a Socratic Seminar using the method outlined in this post about students coaching students in Socratic Seminar.  In class, we showed students this video called “Teaching the N Word” from the learning channel first.  In addition, we used this Introductory Power Point outlining the roles and rules for the activity.

Before the seminar, Jackson had students read multiple non-fiction text sources (linked here) relating to essential questions for the unit.  Here are additional questions we gave students:

  • What are the causes of violence in society?
  • What social factors increase the chance of violence in society?
  • What personal factors increase the chance that someone will be violent?
  • Is violence something that some people can’t help?
  • Is violence ever justified (especially as a means to fight against oppression)?
  • What does it mean to be oppressed?  Give examples from the texts read.
  • Do you support violence as a means to fight oppression?  Why or why not?
  • What effects might violence have on society?  The individual?

Students prepared by reading through the questions and reviewing the articles and literary pieces (Julius Caesar and Lather and Nothing Else) to gather textual evidence.  For credit, students had to record five pieces of textual evidence to use in response to questions of their choice before participating in the discussion.

Each student had one day in the inner circle and had a student-coach on the outer circle who recorded the points for participation.  At “half-time” students met with their coach to get feedback.  The next day, students switched roles with their partner.  If a partner was absent, students were assigned duties for the day such as tally keeper, transition tracker or “big idea” board.  These roles also shared out and gave feedback during half-time.

This activity took about one class period to introduce.  Then, students were given 1-2 days to prepare notes.  The seminar itself lasted 2-3 days.

Jackson was interested in improving students speaking skills and use of textual evidence.  We were most surprised by students ability to use the texts in the context of conversations and use transitions to build on previous ideas.  In this way, we both found the seminar very successful.  I think with more practice, the depth of ideas would improve as students become more comfortable with the process.  We plan on trying this again later in the year.

Here are some resources used in the seminar:

Here are some additional resources for the duties in the seminar:

Lastly, this nameplate was created by a junior high teacher and given to me by Ellen Weibel to use on student desks:

Fighting Oppression: Julius Caesar Socratic Seminar Part I

Renee Jackson and I have been planning for a Socratic Seminar at the end of the Julius Caesar unit that will focus on the following essential questions:

“Is violence an effective means to resolve political oppression?”

•    Are there other methods?
•    Are they effective?

In order to prepare for this, I gathered some resources dealing with the theme of oppression, violence and non-violent forms of activism.  Here are the links to these resources:

These were the skills on which we wanted to focus for the unit:
•    Quote Integration
•    Gist statements and in-context vocabulary
•    Synthesis of multiple sources
•    Speaking and listening skills that require students to provide textual evidence

To this end, we decided to have students do a close reading and annotate non-fiction texts dealing with the essential questions as they read Casesar.  I created a “cover sheet” for each of the sources (see below).  These texts will be kept and utilized for the Socratic discussion, which we want to be evidence-based.  More on this process as it develops.

Students Coach Students in Speaking and Listening: Socratic Seminar

In an ideal situation, the teacher would be able to provide consistent, individualized formative feedback to each student multiple times per class period, but this would be nearly impossible for a teacher to do during one fifty minute period.  After all, there is one teacher for up to thirty students.

I had the pleasure, however, of seeing how Ali Sberna and Kristina Claytor were able to have students provide this kind of consistent formative feedback to one another during a Socratic Seminar.  In the method they used, Socratic Seminar was modeled after the resources provided here, but additionally, they used the supplemental resources (specifically, they showed classes this video) to further differentiate the seminar.

They used the concentric circle arrangement, but instead of having all students keep track of everything that was said in a discussion, each pupil was given a rubric and note taking sheet to track one individual sitting directly in front of them from the inner circle.  In addition, the seminar had “quarters,” and at the end of each quarter, the student met with his or her coach to see what skills they mastered on the rubric, where they still needed to grow, and what they could do to improve for the next quarter of the seminar.

In addition, Sberna and Claytor also had students who were not partnered fulfill the following roles:

  • Quote Tracker (writing down text-based quotes used in the conversation)
  • Transition Tracker (writing down transitional phrases from the conversation; EX: “I agree with…”)
  • Tally Manager (keeping track of who speaks on the white board for everyone to see)
  • “Big Idea” Manager (keeping track of “concepts” in the conversation on the white board for everyone to see)

During quarterly breaks, each of these roles shared out the findings and gave suggestions for how to improve in the quarters that followed.

Although all of this sounds like a lot of preparation, after speaking with the teachers, I found out that they took only one day to introduce the entire seminar concept.  I was there on the first of the two-day seminar, and students seemed to “get it.” Although there were elements they were still learning to integrate (like using text evidence), they were able to provide insightful feedback to one another during the quarterly breaks.

In accordance with some of the other posts this week, this is one example where teachers are finding new ways to bring students into to the “center of the classroom.”

Here are some resources Sberna and Claytor used:

Socratic Seminar: Organization and Surface Features

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Socratic Seminar

Ellie Wiseman conducted a Socratic Seminar in her AP classes this week where students were asked to study the writerly skills used by Rebecca Skloot in the text The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Her handout reads, “The book is an example of what good writers do.  We should take it as an example text to follow when we write; therefore, we are going to analyze the book in multiple ways, and we are going to do so in Socratic Seminar format so we can build on one another’s knowledge, ideas and insights.”

The seminars lasted for four days and focused on the following areas, one each day:

  • Rhetorical Situation where students discussed: exigence, audience, and purpose
  • Appeals and Tone where students discussed: appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos
  • Organization and Surface Features where students discussed: organization, diction, imagery, and figurative language
  • Narrative Techniques where students discussed: dialogue, setting, structure, pacing, description and multiple plot lines among other factors

Each day, students in the inner circle were “speakers” who answered and extrapolated on predetermined questions and the one’s on the outer circle were “listeners” who took notes which they turned in to the teacher at the end of each period.

The day I visited, they were discussing “organization and surface features.”  Students analyzed the author’s choice to utilize a chronological story with, in a student’s words, “blasts from the past” interspersed through the text.  Students supposed that when there was a flashback or shift in chronological structure, it was to show how the past affected what was happening in the “present” of the book.  Others suggested that the shift in time structure was utilized to emphasize important plot or character elements in the text.

The conversation I heard directly related to the CCS about pacing, multiple plot lines and narrative structure in a very organic way.

In addition, analyzing the writerly choices of published authors provides a wonderful context for students to study what “real writers” do and why they do it in order to improve their own writing.  It is a relevant way to examine a text beyond critical analysis for literary themes.

Here are some additional resources:

  • Here is Rebecca Skoot’s website with numerous resources for teachers studying the book with students.
  • Here is a source about the use of mentor texts and prompts for better student writing: Deeper Writing: Quick Writes and Mentor Texts to Illuminate New Possibilities by Robin Holland.  The mentor texts are sometimes based in form and sometimes theme, but they always provide a wealth of inspiration.  I have had the pleasure on numerous occasions to write based upon Robin’s prompts and mentor texts, and it is always an engaging and revealing experience for me.  Holland taught at the elementary level, but even her picture book choices are often challenging in regards to theme and inspiring in regards to writing style; she uses many of them with adults as well as children.
  • Here is a link to Holland’s blog.  She provides many useful resources to educators of students from kindergarten through high school.  I especially enjoyed, or was touched by, this post which gathered texts based in the theme of death and dying.

Socratic Seminar Resources

A couple of teachers used some of Sandy Juniper’s resources (I believe) to run Socratic seminars in classes.  I have tried to gather some of the resources here for you to use in your own classrooms should you choose to do so.  The basic idea for this version is that students come prepared having read and annotated a text, then they participate in an “inner circle” and “outer circle” role throughout the class period. Here is a picture of the set up.  The black stool is the “hot seat” where students can choose to enter the circle to be part of the discussion temporarily.


The inner circle is made of a discussion group.  The outer circle keeps track of the conversation through hard copies of discussion guides.  Here is one student’s example.


Here is an example of Melissa’s scoring.


In the two versions I saw, the teacher chose the questions, but Kristina Claytor has her students write their own questions before they discuss.  Also, Sam Bosse ran his seminar as one large group, and he was the only one who recorded the speaking of each member so they all could participate.

This video shows a ninth grade class that is struggling with Socratic seminar.  It has some really interesting ideas when it comes to students coaching one another.  It also addresses the idea of “wait time” so that students can have ownership of the process.  The seminar topic is the importance of poetic language which addresses a CCS.  On the website with this video, there is also a handout that the teacher used beforehand to prep students for this discussion.

Here is a video about a controversial topic with resources provided for teachers in the bottom right.  It addresses the use of the “n-word” in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  In this version, there are specific “roles” students play, in addition to coaching one other student.

Here is one last video that focuses on more of a “debate style” and students “tap one another out” to get new people in the story.  This teacher gives points for using models of “respectful language” to encourage civil discussion.

Here are the actual resources used by teachers:

  • Intro to Socratic Seminar includes the historical context of Socrates and his value and contributions to our modern society.  It is a great introductory resource for teachers and students as it outlines types of comments for discussion and includes learning goals, both of which seem helpful starting out.
  • Socratic scoring can be used by teachers and peers to evaluate students.  One teacher said they only have students record the “types of comments” and not “connections” or else it is too much.
  • If you want the actual questions used to compare Fahrenheit 451  and Into the Wild, please email Sam Bosse for access to his Prezi.