Charles Ames Fischer

Teens, Education & Reference

Author Profile

Charles Ames Fischer

Charles Fischer has taught in public and private schools in a variety of settings, from rural Maine to inner city Atlanta. In the past 20 years, he has worked with a wide range of students from 4th grade to AP English and has been nominated for Teacher of the Year four times. He has his Master’s degree in Teaching & Learning from the University of Southern Maine, and received his B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing from Binghamton University. His latest book, The Power of the Socratic Classroom, has won two awards, including the NIEA Best Education Book. His first novel, Beyond Infinity, won a 2014 Independent Publisher Book Award bronze medal (YA fiction). His areas of expertise are in Socratic Seminar, dialogue, listening, inquiry, and critical & creative thinking. He is currently working on a three book series focused on all of these territories.

Books

The Power of the Socratic Classroom

Education & Reference

Do You Have 21st-Century Skills to Help Your Students Succeed? Do Your Students Have 21st-Century Skills to Think for Themselves? The Power of the Socratic Classroom has the answers you are looking for—answers that will supply the strategies to show students how to succeed into the future. A future that has unknown products, unidentified jobs, and unanticipated challenges. In Socratic Seminar, teachers shift to the role of facilitator, where they help their students develop the collaborative interpersonal skills, the critical and creative thinking skills, and the speaking and listening skills to face the upcoming challenges of the 21st century.

Book Bubbles from The Power of the Socratic Classroom

Teacher as True Participant

Many teachers who try Socratic Seminar first sit outside the dialogue circle in an attempt to very purposefully shift power to the students. But many of these teachers forget to reinsert themselves into the process once the students have become a high-achieving group. In my mind, this is a mistake, since the most experienced person in the room is not participating!

Tracking Basics

I think consistency is the answer to all of these questions. Whether a two-part answer is really two contributions or one episode of talking can be determined by you as the facilitator. Just stay consistent so that any data collected remains valid across different classes and even school years. Track anything and everything that you value as a teacher, and/or what the group needs in order to improve, and/or what the students suggest.

Post-Seminar

The post-seminar often takes two different forms. Either there is a debrief of how things went (process), or there is an extension of the ideas, issues and values from the seminar (product or text). A debrief of the process should always aim to make the group better. An extension activity either deepens the thinking, applies the ideas in a new context, promotes new iterations, etc. The post-seminar can be as quick as: "What did we do well today and what needs improvement?" Or it can involve entire projects that spiral out of the conversation.

Socratic Seminar Timings

Deep thinking takes time. A lot of it! It's not unusual for a genuine thought breakthrough to take 70 minutes or more. If we want students to generate new thoughts, new ideas and innovations, then we must give them the necessary processing time. Although many teachers find it difficult to set aside so much time, Socratic Seminars produce excellent results in terms of creating essential frameworks for thinking.

Assumed Listening

I struggled to name this level - I just knew that there was a level of "listening" in between basic hearing and more active, more conscious listening. I settled on Assumed Listening because after a while it was an obvious choice. We probably all know people who believe themselves to be good listeners. The reality, however, is that they show the classic signs of not truly listening: distracted mind, verbal discontinuities, physical mismatches and so on. Luckily, there are simple solutions!

Power

If the students even think that you know the answers to your questions, then the conversation really becomes a guessing game, not a thinking exercise. This is where being too much of an expert can be a bad thing. Mortimer Adler and others have even suggested that teachers should facilitate seminars outside their area of expertise in order to help shed that authority. It can be intimidating to facilitate an academic conversation around something unfamiliar, but then your questions will be genuine! Have a colleague pick a text you have never seen before and give it a try.

Intermittent Seminars

Intermittent Socratic Seminars are generally not ideal. Collaborative skills, such as active listening, paraphrasing, and elaborating, take time to practice - just like all skills. Having a seminar only occasionally, such as only at the end of a unit, will leave most groups in the Storming stage of development. In this stage, students are usually vying for talk time and struggle to actually work together as a collaborative team. However, groups can develop further into Norming and Performing stages. Students should have Socratic Seminar, or some collaborative process, at least every two weeks. I recommend once a week, which is possible if teachers in core subjects each had a seminar at least once a month.

Dialogue - NOT Discussion

Dialogue and discussion are not the same, though they can appear similar in the classroom. Discussions are often for eliciting opinions and engaging students. But they are also typically funneled through the teacher. Students in discussions rarely build on each other's thoughts. In dialogue, though, the goal is to build ideas in order to explore text complexities and nuances. Students respond to each other in order to achieve deeper thinking. Teachers must establish specific classroom norms in order to elevate a discussion into a collaborative dialogue.

Modeling Annotations

The most genuine way to "talk aloud" through a text is to read and annotate a brand new text. Have a colleague choose a text for you to work through for the first time in front of your students. This will actually simulate their reading experiences, which are almost always based in first readings. Modeling like this takes some bravery, but it is totally worth the effort!

Getting Students to Participate

In one form or another, this is the question that I get asked the most: How do I get students to participate? Although there are many techniques to try, teachers must take a serious look at the ecology or culture of the classroom. A simple thing like sarcasm may be stopping several students from participating, not only in seminars but in class in general. Most students want to share their thoughts and ideas. Just watch those same quiet students at lunch and they are likely talking a lot. So one important approach is: Why aren't students participating?

Thinking Questions

We all know about the importance of wait time for general discussions and class engagement: more wait time means more participation. Thinking questions go well beyond the standard thinking time in order to give students time for a complete thought process. As a teacher, wait until the uncomfortable silence. Wait for the awkwardness to settle in and you will likely hear a brand new idea.

Post-Seminar

I once heard that you really don't know something until you have reflected upon it. If this is even partly true, then the post-seminar component of Socratic Seminar is a vital part of improving group dynamics and abilities. Seminars often get very exciting, so it can be hard to stop several minutes before class is supposed to end, but the reflection time will pay off in the long run.

Genuine Inquiry

Teachers sometimes get stressed about crafting questions using Webb's DOK or Bloom's taxonomy, but the best questions come from genuine curiosity and wonder. The best Opening Questions have multiple right answers that are justifiable in the text.

Speaking Once

Keep in mind that speaking once is a monumental achievement for some students. Large conversations are extremely intimidating to some participants, so even once can be challenging. The goal is to help students find their voices, to help them face brave conversations where they can solve problems, ask questions, and advocate for themselves. These are skills they will need in almost any circumstance.

Print Over Digital

I vastly prefer printed texts for seminar over digital texts. My students have been much more engaged and focused when we use printed texts. If teachers want to incorporate technology, then I would recommend adding to the seminar experience using an app or website such as Padlet.com where students can collaboratively share their ideas, questions and annotations.

Definitions

For Socratic Seminars, it is vital to have a good dictionary available in order to make sure that all participants have a baseline understanding of the words that are important to the text. I always deal with definitions in the pre-seminar stage so that the actual seminar dialogue can be in creating greater understanding about the text.

Building Relationships

By listening more, teachers have the opportunity to truly build relationships with their students. If the teacher does all the talking, then the students only know about the teacher and his or her stories and interests. The teacher will not be able to learn about the students and their lives. Perhaps more importantly, the students won't have the chance to learn about each other. Listening is the key! Teachers need to create classroom environments where listening is a priority for everyone. This is one of the first steps in building relationships.

Stages of Group Development

I was very relieved when I first learned about group stages. It suddenly explained to me why I had to facilitate in certain ways with EVERY group, even when I had students for multiple years. It also explained to me why some teachers quit doing Socratic Seminars since those groups, for whatever reason, couldn't break out of the storming stage.

Seminar Debrief

There are two strong signs that a seminar went well. The first is if students continue talking about the subject out into the hallways. The more the talk, the better. The second is how many students changed their minds during the dialogue. The more, the better. A changed mind means that someone listened effectively, weighed evidence, and bought into the new idea.

Text Pairings

Quite simply, presenting students with two contradictory texts is a fantastic way to get them thinking! The one caution is that texts around political ideas will often result in debates where students adhere to pre-conceived belief, rather than objective discussions of the texts.

Levels of Listening

Overall, I I have found that there are seven levels to listening, though only five really show up in seminar. The sixth level is Appreciative Listening, which goes beyond empathy into true understanding. The seventh level is Deep Listening, that kind of listening that blends into meditation and mindfulness. These can all be taught and practiced by students!

Seminar Jobs

After facilitating a few seminars, make a list of the actions you took: asking questions, redirecting students, suggesting a turn-and-talk, and so on. Begin handing those tasks over to the students so that you can move on to more complex tasks, such as paraphrasing or adding academic language..

Special Routines

I have found that a little bit of ceremony makes a huge difference with students. A small change in routine for something like Socratic Seminar creates a whole other level of seriousness and focus

Increasing Student Participation

Preparing the text for dialogue during pre-seminar is the single best way to increase student participation. Another reliable technique is to ask a new question, use a turn-and-talk, and then ask to hear from someone who hasn't spoken yet. Truly quiet students need personal help to find their voices. I often meet with them outside of class and make a plan for what they could say in the next discussion.

Stay Enthusiastic About Teaching

Let's face it: teacher burnout is very real, especially at the end of April when teachers and students are fatigued. What most people don't realize is that when a teacher transitions to the role of facilitator, new and exciting things happen that can re-energize and revitalize teaching and learning. The teachers gets the benefit of listening to asking new questions and listening to fresh ideas. The students get the benefit of taking control of the conversation and sharing their best, most creative ideas. Everyone wins!

Types of Texts

A "text" for seminar can be nearly anything that invites complex dialogue. Many teachers feel that seminars mostly belong to the humanities, but this is certainly not the case. One of my favorite conversations happened when one day I noticed a new hole in the school fence. I took the students outside and asked, "What happened here?" The students began investigating, CSI-style, and we had an intriguing conversation - and a hole in the fence was the seminar text!

Dialogue

It's important to remember that seminars are meant to produce dialogue - not debate or discussion.With numerous companies stressing "soft skills" these days, dialogue is definitely the best way to practice.

What is a Socratic Seminar?

Many people ask what exactly a Socratic Seminar really is. To me, the question is huge and nuanced, but a simple answer is that a Socratic Seminar is basically a discussion where the students take ownership. The teacher gradually releases responsibility to to the students so that they can become more self-sufficient.

Not Raising Hands

This is always an important shift in the classroom. Students are often very trained to raise their hands, but when we move to a seminar situation, we want students to assume greater responsibilities. This includes and often starts with figuring out how to take turns. This is often hit-or-miss, trial-and-error, but the the students often appreciate the endeavor. A lot of teachers shift to use a talking stick, talking chips, or other external turn-taking strategy, but I have rarely found that these work well. Often the focus seems to shift from the conversation about the text, to the use and misuse of the talking device.

Consistency is Key

When I follow up with teachers who have had a disastrous Socratic Seminar experience, the culprit is almost always consistency. These disasters frequently occur when teachers only have a few seminars per semester, so there is not a clear end in mind for the students. The group often stays in the storming stage of development where individuals compete for attention instead of working together as a team. Teams need time for cohesion and seminar groups are the same way. If a team only practiced eight times a year, you wouldn't expect a lot of growth. Socratic Seminar groups are the same way. Consistency is key.

Turn-and-Talk

The turn-and-talk strategy, where students essentially talk in pairs for a brief time, is a seriously underused strategy. I have found that asking a new question in class, then using a turn-and-talk is an amazing way to get conversation restarted. Add "I'd like to hear from someone who hasn't spoken yet" and you will get everyone to participate quite easily.

Interest Management

I first heard this concept at an International Listening Association conference and I immediately fell in love with the idea. I haven't found a more succinct way to communicate to students exactly what their most fundamental job is during a Socratic Seminar - or any class for that matter!

Listen and Silent

Students are always amazed when I point out that Listen and Silent are anagrams, that is, they use the exact same letters. They often respond with open mouths and wide eyes as they realize that this is somehow very profound. This mysterious connect between these words is tremendously powerful. When students aren't listening well, I often just tap my head and remind them that they must silence their minds in order to truly listen.

Follow-up Questions

Follow-up questions are the single best way to drive inquiry deeper. Obviously, a good complex text, a provocative opening question, and curious students always help. But follow-up questions are what truly drive inquiry. Just think of a young child who repeatedly asks, "Why?" How long is it before you, as the adult, are stuck in the thinking process? Why is grass green? Chlorophyll. Why is chlorophyll green? Um... because it reflects green light... Why does it reflect green light? Uh... Make sure to ask quality follow-up questions whenever you want to drive inquiry deeper!

Text Selection

Because text selection is so difficult, I am always on the lookout for quality complex texts. I have a folder at school to collect stray texts that I get from other teachers. Sometimes I even find gems left on the copying machine! I also keep folders on my computer with lists of potential texts, such as TV shows. I have often found that science fiction shows like Star Trek or The Twilight Zone have excellent episodes that should promote quality dialogue. Text pairings are strong choices as well because they often promote at least two lines of thinking that can be supported in the texts.

Grading Annotations

Anchor papers are the single best way to clarify for students what is expected of them in the pre-seminar stage. Without properly preparing the text for dialogue, there will rarely be quality conversations. Students need numerous talking points in order to navigate complex texts and negotiate meaning together.

Seminar for Synthesis

Seminar for synthesis is probably the most common form of Socratic Seminar. There are plenty of other ways to use seminars, though. Because of the shift to the role of facilitator, there is an excellent opportunity for teachers to collect data and make observations about their students. Using an app like Equity Maps allows teachers to then share data with their students, allowing them to further take ownership of their learning. This allows teachers to gradually release responsibility, which is one of the very many benefits of Socratic Seminar.

Straight-A Syndrome

Straight-A students, who play the school "game" extremely well, often just regurgitate information. They are usually organized and take good notes. But many do not think for themselves. When confronted with the openness of a Socratic Seminar, straight-A students do not know what to say or think. The students who immediately make an impact are the students who have refused to play the school "game." Many of them are at-risk for failing, most often because they are thinkers! They are the ones who come up with solutions the teacher hasn't thought of. They are the ones who already think beyond the scope of the textbook. Those students thrive in seminar.

Soft Skills of the Future

We are living at a time where technology is moving at an accelerated pace, so fast that we can no longer reliably see into the future. A new breakthrough could irrevocably change how we educate children. So, how are we supposed to equip students to be successful? It all comes down to "soft skills," that set of somewhat intangible skills that would allow a person to think through and negotiate a solution to a complex problem. Socratic Seminar is a classroom technique, a training ground, for these skills.

Beyond Infinity

Teens

When high school senior Matt Forsythe discovers a weird computer and a secret door at school, a series of events unfolds where he and his friends solve one mathematical puzzle after another. After finding a teleportal, they travel to a strange world where numbers are actually alive! There they meet the mad scientist Maglio and the ghostly Fifty-Seven and discover that some of the numbers are mysteriously disappearing.

Book Bubbles from Beyond Infinity

3 Houses 3 Utilities Problem

This challenge is a lot of fun! As a teacher, I have always liked to give students creative thinking challenges to see how they would solve them. This one was a lot of fun in my 6th grade math class!

Palindrome Numbers

Have some mathematical fun by trying to find different types of numbers. In this case, palindromic numbers that are the same forwards and backwards. Sure, it's easy to write them, but try finding them scavenger hunt style. It's not as easy as it seems!

The Law of Two

Everything, absolutely everything is made up of opposites! A great classroom activity is to have students make lists of opposites and then to start categorizing those pairs. What kinds of opposites exist? What types of relationships are there between pairs of opposites? How many ways can something be an opposite? My middle school students have always loved this incredible thinking process!

Quarantine and the Number 40

One of the reasons I wrote Beyond Infinity was to get students more interested in numbers. Like anything else, numbers have stories behind them, histories full of cool facts and ideas. Students become more engaged when they can play with numbers and learn more about their connections to all things.

Odd Numbers

I wrote Beyond Infinity to help teach middle school students that there is more to math than repetitional arithmetic. Math is actually a vast domain of interesting and complex patterns. Beyond Infinity makes an excellent read-aloud for math teachers because it brings up recreational mathematics topics to help show students the realm of mathematical possibilities.

Cyclical Numbers

These are fun numbers to discover and play around with. Multiples of 7 create other interesting patterns for students to discover!

13

A little excerpt about the number 13, which seems to get a bad rap. But there are numerous positive aspects to the number as well.

Fun Puzzle

This is one of the many fun puzzles I came across while researching material for the book. My target audience for Beyond Infinity is actually math teachers themselves—hoping that they would use it as a read aloud. When they come to puzzles like this one, they could stop and challenge the students, just like in the book.

The Vast Math Domain

One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I wanted to make mathematics more interesting for students. For many younger students, math just seems like repetitive arithmetic operations. Let's face it, there's not a lot of excitement there - though it might be necessary. The domain of mathematics is absolutely huge, though, and it's our job as teachers to at least show students more of the domain.

Recreational Math

Playing around with numbers is something that students should do more often in school. Just as art teachers might have students freedraw or language arts teachers might use freewriting, math teachers can have students play around with numbers. This can be done as a warm-up activity at nearly any time.

Math Rearrangements

I remember coming across this exact rearrangement with 17.5% and being blown away! I have wondered since how often students could solve complex problems if they only knew how to rearrange or reframe them.

Chicken or the Egg?

I had fun writing this little excerpt. The main character, Matt, thinks about mathematics all the time, including things like types of infinity, expanding universes, and more. I wrote the book with math teachers in mind, hoping they would use it as a read aloud in math class. There are a huge number of talking points in the book that make for excellent class discussions - this being an example.

The Number 6

As a math teacher, I wanted my students to begin to understand that numbers have personalities. They have characteristics and traits beyond their numeric value that make them different. Throughout Beyond Infinity, the narrator pauses periodically to explore specific numbers using examples from everywhere. It is my hope that readers will get curious enough to start collecting their own examples.

Curiosity

As a teacher, I have always been fascinated by the power of curiosity. It is an underrated tool for most teachers. This excerpt is my book in a nutshell - an attempt at getting readers to think about the many numbers that exist around them. They are insignificant until we begin to ask questions and see patterns. For example: What is the meaning of the number seven?

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