Top ten reasons to teach with Socratic seminar

10) Engagement

A well-structured Socratic seminar, and the learning that leads up to it, helps keep students excited and engaged in learning. Classroom discussion has a .82 effect size on John Hattie’s “list of influences on achievement” because dialogue itself is engaging. It gives students opportunities to interact with one another that are sometimes rare in classes.

9) Scaffolding

Most of us scaffold work for students so that they have incremental steps to take in order to achieve a goal (note: you can over-scaffold – think of how annoying really shallow steps are). The steps that culminate in a Socratic seminar support skills in close reading, inquiry and question writing, short written responses, small group discussion, and even text selection.

8) Inquiry

Questioning has an effect size of .48. When students have the opportunity to dive deeper, through posing open-ended questions, they usually become more attached to a subject. The Question Formulation Technique supports the process of asking questions – these questions can become the discussion questions or the seminar or be used and investigated at any point in the learning.

7) Differentiation of tasks

Educators have students with a wide-range of abilities in classes. Differentiating tasks that lead to a Socratic seminar helps ensure that individual needs are met and that student small groups have diverse resources to support preliminary discussion (aka coaching groups). The diversity of experiences makes seminars rich – not agreeing creates more productive discussion.

6) Close reading

Socratic seminar depends on students reading and understanding a text in order to discuss aspects of the text with others. Teaching close reading, a skill that is essential to success in other classes as well, is a vital scaffold. Using annotation to get students to cue into what they think and feel, not to mention what they say, is engaging and helps support other learning.

5) Argument

Reading closely and answering authentic questions through inquiry supports students as they learn to build arguments. Being able to cite text in order to support an opinion (kind of like I did above when I cited Hattie) is a necessary skills to getting ready for college and careers. Supporting an opinion with text evidence makes seminars an academic task that goes beyond a regular old class discussion of a topic.

4) Analysis and Synthesis

Socratic seminars require analysis of at least one text, but bringing together multiple texts, and discussing them together, requires synthesis skills. This means more prep time leading up to the seminar but the combining of texts is extremely dynamic and the takes students have on those ideas will make you proud. Often discussion is a great way to build skills in analyzing and synthesizing because students get to hear from their peers and learn how others approach complex topics, making students engage rather than just comply, with tasks.

3) Change it up!

Your Socratic seminar does not have to look the same every time. You can use the Harkness method (this provides students clear & high expectations, an effect size of 1.44), a fishbowl discussion, open chair, BRAWL, and any number of other techniques. Changing up your approach keeps things fresh for students and helps to differentiate instruction to include more students. Find methods that challenge students and methods that embrace them – they may be the same method!

2) Build relationships

In some classes, but especially large classes, students might go a whole year without knowing one another’s names. Socratic seminar can require that students respond directly to classmates (making nameplates for desks/tables helps) so that, over time, they learn the names of students who sit across the room or are in different cliques. The discussion itself can assist in building connections and empathy for others, not to mention help the teacher know the students in order to better meet their needs over time.

And, the NUMBER ONE reason to use Socratic seminar? It meets ALL the standards

When I look through my “Skinnied” CCSS I can see that seminar, and the tasks that build to seminar or extend it further (like using the questions for research), meets every. single. standard.

These are my Skinny Standards paint sticks – at the end of a PL session we used them to reflect on what seminar could do for student learning

What’s your favorite reason for using Socratic seminar in classroom instruction? Or, what’s stopping you?


Speaking to Share

Speaking and listening support for students is essential – the skills support all of the other work kids need to do when they are reading and writing. But most people have a fear of public speaking, including teachers, so we can forget to scaffold the skills with smaller tasks.

A great way to use to give students practice speaking in class is to let them read aloud a short selection of their reading for class. If the expectation while they read is to mark the text, then marking something they loved – a turn of phrase, a descriptive detail, imagery, etc. – can easily be shared. As a teacher, you are then assessing reading while assessing speaking.

Once the passage is chosen, have students whisper read to themselves, or read with a partner. Practice reading out loud in different ways helps avoid embarrassing mispronunciations or other issues that would reinforce public speaking as a scary experience. Practicing also helps student read more fluently over time, demonstrating to them the need to practice in order to improve.

I often have students record themselves since I had a BYOD policy in effect. That way they can troubleshoot their own voice performance through an audio recording, or record with video in order to critique themselves or critique with a partner.

Finally, have students read their passage to the class! You can create a specific list so they know when their turn is or you can have them “popcorn” read so they can jump in. More than one student can have the same favorite passage and passages can be read in any order.

This activity is great because it’s informal but gives students exposure to reading and public speaking. There are lots of ways to extend it as well: FlipGrid readings, writing a rationale for the selection, found poems from the passage, pastiche, etc.

9/11 – addressing difficult things

Last year South Anchorage High School teachers began the tradition of teaching a common text on the same day. This year they will do it again with texts about 9/11, starting with this old blog post of mine that I shared.

September 11th was a current event and now it’s a moment in history; most high school students weren’t even alive in 2001. This is also a very personal event for most of us. We have a personal connection to what happened because it changed the world around us and changed how we view the world.

I taught the events of 9/11 through my personal story (my dad worked in the South tower and, at the time the building collapsed we still had not heard from him) and through poetry.

And then we went to stories that have been written down. I read “The Names” by Billy Collins and I told them it makes me think of everyone I’ve lost, that echoes of people are everywhere. Next came “Prayer for the Dead,” by Stuart Kestenbaum. His line, “…if you discover some piece of your own writing, or an old photograph, you may remember that it was you and even if it was once you, it’s not you now…”  because that’s the reason I have them write an autobiography over the course of the year, so they can look back and see themselves as freshmen in high school. And the last poem, “Five Years Later,” by Tony Gloegger, addresses survivor’s remorse and the pain all of us go through when forced to tell about or relive something traumatic.

I love how new-to-South teacher Ken Hemenway added to the ideas and discussion.

I was attending graduate school in Boston on September 11 and went to New York to visit a girl I was dating in Hoboken, NJ, Friday through Sunday of that week. I have very vivid memories of the smoke, smell, and utter bewilderment of the whole situation from a personal perspective. Needless to say it was surreal and I’ll never forget the numerous places where people had put up papers, pleading for information regarding their lost, loved ones.

I attended Boston College with a young man by the name of Welles Crowther. He played lacrosse and our paths crossed being I was also playing hockey at the time and the student athlete population was a close knit community.
He lost his life on September 11th and I put a link for a short ESPN video presentation entitled “9/11 The Man in the Red Bandanna.” I’m not sure if anyone would like to use this, but I think it may compliment some of the great material shared above.
I’m eager to see how this looks in classes on Monday and will be visiting a teacher to see it in action.
How do you teach 9/11 as an English/language arts teacher? How do you teach other difficult topics and current events like Ferguson, Charlottesville, Syrian refugees, etc. so your students build empathy and cultural literacy?


This is my seven year-old’s drawing of September 11th, some sort of pirate airplane attack – that is how he created context. I don’t know what prompted him to draw it for me but I have it hanging in my office as a reminder of the importance of teaching kids about difficult topics.

Flipped lesson – Drive, Grit & Success – creating an Outlier?

In the same vein as my flipped lesson for Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, this is a flipped lesson for AP Language students on Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, Daniel Pink’s Drive, and Angela Duckworth’s work on the importance of developing grit in students. This incorporates the standard WSQ assignment, class discussions (both in class and online), thesis statement building, rhetorical analysis, mind maps (for organizing ideas), reflective writing, formal argument writing, public speaking, and Socratic seminar.

 What is success and how do we find it?

1) WSQ – Rhetorical Modes – read and annotate “How to Read Like a Writer” by Mike Bunn
2) online discussion on Drive video
3) Grit survey
4) WSQ (in-class) – Grit TED talk
5) reflective essay on Grit (using the question from the WSQ)
6) analysis and annotation on chapter of Outliers
7) coaching group on assigned chapter
8) read selection of Drive in class – discussion on the argument and content
9) informal presentation on the chapter of Outliers
10) WSQ & discussion – de Botton TED talk on kinder definition of success
11) read two reviews of Outliers – rhetorical précis for each – how valid and relevant is the criticism?
12) another selection from Drive – read and discuss
13) Mind Map of ideas from all of the sources
14) 4 square discussion – develop a thesis statement
15) question writing for seminar – What is success and how do we find it?
16) seminar
17) argument essay – begin from the class-developed thesis statement

This was created with some collaboration with my friend Amy Habberstad.



Let’s BRAWL: Throwing Socratic Seminars out of the ring

I love using seminar in classes, so I am filing this away for later.

: the readiness is all

*updated 3/19/14 with new resource link on the bottom of this post.

AND HULK HOGAN is getting tossed over the top rope!


When I was a kid my brothers and I loved watching wrestling. The larger than life characters and simple good vs. evil plot line appealed to young boys. About once a year they would have a large event and the highlight of that event was called a Battle Royal or Royal Rumble. There were twenty or so wrestlers inside the ring at once. It was a spectacle. Before the bout started you would see wrestlers forming impromptu teams, working together to knock off the best fighters in the ring and then towards the end it was mano-a-mano. It was the best ten minutes of TV until the next Battle Royal.

I want to capture that excitement, of team and individual competition, in my classroom.

Every year I get…

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