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

Socratic Seminar Skills

The best benefit of Socratic Seminar is that students actually have the time and space to practice their thinking skills in a structured and formalized setting. As with developing any set of skills, students need to have Socratic seminars on a fairly regular basis. Weekly if possible, but not less than every two weeks. Otherwise, students will not have enough continuity to build on their skills. Weekly often seems impossible for a lot of school schedules, but is easily managed if the core subject teachers each have a seminar about once a month.

The Shift to Facilitating

I remember how nervous I was when I first decided to take a leap in my professional journey by trying out Socratic Seminar. I was nervous that the students wouldn't respond well. I was scared that they would erupt in chaos and that I wouldn't know how to respond. I was worried that they wouldn't be able to understand the text. But I knew what we were attempting was valuable. There was an underlying principle for me, which at the time I would have described as: "teachers need to make themselves increasingly obsolete." Now I prefer "gradual release of responsibility" since it sounds a lot more positive. Looking back, I completely overcompensated my shift to student-led discussion and put everything in their court, with hardly anything from me besides questions, shoulder shrugs and a stoic poker face. Here's the important part, though. The students rose to the challenge - just as in all my other experiences in over twenty years of teaching. The students can always rise to the challenge, though they may need some guidance along the way. Trust the process. They can do this. You can do this.

Conversation Norms

Most teachers begin the school year by asserting pre-made classroom rules and expectations. Socratic Seminar facilitators start the dialogue process by establishing norms or agreements with the group. Notice the vital difference in language. Some facilitators even like to co-create the norms with the students so that there is little or no top-down feeling to the agreements made within the group. I have done this on many occasions and students always rise to the challenge when they are trusted to make such important decisions.

Dialogue Skills

Socratic Seminar is the single most powerful classroom technique that I have encountered. Because of the gradual release of responsibility, students are actually able to practice important skills of all kinds. If practice makes perfect, as they say, then Socratic Seminar is the perfect technique!

Digital Turn-and-Talk

In this era of distance learning, something as simple as a good turn-and-talk or think-pair-share seems out of reach. But a few adjustments can make them at least somewhat possible. The most obvious is to use some variation of breakout rooms, but many schools don't allow them without adult supervision. So a few other ideas can still get pairs working together. Pair up the students ahead of time and have them chat privately to each other. It's not talking, but at least it's interaction. Or set up a Google Doc or Slide ahead of time, put the link in chat and have students interact that way. Or set up a Padlet and have students interact there. They could even record short videos responses to each other.

Asking Questions as Facilitator

The single most important step for teachers who love to talk and be the "sage on the stage" is to ask questions that do not have specifically clear answers. This often requires carefully selecting a rich text that has layers of complexity embedded in it. The questions, then, can unlock multiple right answers that are justifiable in the text. This allows participants to create different viable viewpoints instead of arriving at a singular answer.

Shifting Roles as a Teacher

The first shifts into the unknown are understandably the hardest. Many teachers are skeptical or afraid of handing over responsibility to their students. In some cases, apprehensions are understandable. Theoretically, quite a few things could go wrong. But a lot will go right. Many teachers are embracing the growth mindset concept, so there's no better place to begin with than ourselves as the role-models. Taking a risk is a fantastic way to experience a little discomfort and put yourself in a growth mindset. The main mistake that teachers make is that they release too much responsibility too quickly, almost certainly resulting in chaos as the students are suddenly unclear on what they are expected to do. The key is the gradual release of responsibility, where everyone can be successful.

Agree to Disagree? No thanks!

On many occasions, we agree to disagree because of a lack of time. This is especially true in school where we must follow predetermined schedules. But realize that agreeing to disagree can often be an easy way out, a way of not really listening to the other side(s). If time allows, it is definitely worthwhile to continue the dialogue. The main exception is the principled impasse, where people are disagreeing based on firm principles. Many people are willing to change their minds, but few are willing to change their core beliefs or principles. When an impasse is reached at the level of principles, it is safe to agree to disagree unless you happen to have an extraordinary amount of time to spare.

Dialogue Debrief

"We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience." John Dewey. I remember reading that quote years ago and... reflecting on it. I struggled with the notion for a few years before really seeing the value of his words. Our experiences are often too fast to make sense of at the time and we find ourselves grasping the deeper meanings only later when we have a chance to step away from them. Dialogue is no different. Many conversations are fast moving and require participants to pivot and make choices in the heat of the moment. We might say words we don't mean or disagree with something that is incomplete or misinterpreted. Often we need to gather our thoughts before synthesizing understanding. This is why every seminar should have at least a small debrief at the end, and ideally a more thorough reflection process.

Best Practices

In over 20 years as a teacher and administrator, I have yet to come across a single technique that is as powerful as Socratic Seminar. That's not to say that other techniques or approaches aren't useful — it's simply that dialogue accomplishes many things simultaneously. Many of my former students who are now adults don't remember a lot from middle school, but they definitely remember Socratic Seminars and how much they learned from each other.

Dominant Participants in Seminar

I often get asked what to do about students who dominate the conversation. It's a double-edged sword at first. On the one hand, talkative students are at least talking. After all, the whole idea behind seminars is to pass responsibility over to the students. So dominant talkers can at first seem like a good thing. However, they need to be reined in fairly quickly because they are taking up conversation space. Many students need time and space to speak into. They often need dialogue to be slower and calmer. Talkative students will habitually take that space if we let them, to the point where they will talk for the sake of talking. Breakthrough ideas rarely come from the big talkers; they often come from the shy students, the thinkers, the ponderers. So we must make space for them. Besides, the big talkers need to work on their listening skills!

Dull Seminars

When a Socratic Seminar does not go well, the usual suspect is the pre-seminar. Without enough preparation time in this stage, the ensuing conversations will often be dull and lifeless. Most teachers do not spend enough time preparing a text for dialogue, which usually involves annotations of one kind or another. I usually have students prepare the text the day before the Socratic Seminar so that they can begin the thinking process ahead of time. The single most important way to get students more engaged is to have them generate their own questions. This will hopefully activate their curiosity and wonder to forge relevance.

After Online Discussion

Many students recently experienced online discussions in one form or another - most of the experiences I heard about were through Zoom. Some groups experienced quite a bit of success with online discussions, but likely quickly noticed that they fall far short of classroom dialogues. But the weakest part is often the follow-through blogs or forums or chat rooms where teachers hope the students will continue the conversation. Many teachers have discovered what I have encountered on many occasions: that the written follow-up "conversation" is often remarkably shallow and unproductive. There are many reasons for this. Text message and Tweet-length thoughts rarely build upon each other in significant ways. The biggest single culprit is the lack of follow-up questions. Without them, discussion boards and the like will remain shallow. Any system that wants to promote deeper thinking must address this issue and somehow build in live, dynamic ways to include follow-up questions.

Mini Lessons

Mini-lessons are an important part of Socratic Seminars. Groups are like people in that they need a focus to grow and develop. Mini-lessons are a great way to move groups along the continuum from Forming to through Storming to Norming and hopefully to Performing and beyond.

Wanted: Critical Thinking!

Yes, more than ever! When I started my teaching career moe than 20 years ago, I thought students desperately needed critical thinking skills. Now, in the fake news era, they need them more than ever. Exponentially more. Painstakingly more. It's how we might try to help students develop these skills that worries me. There are no easy solutions. Worksheets won't produce good thinkers, just as writing prompts don't get a novel written. Occasional practice won't work either - just choose a sports analogy. What students need is extended structured practice time with thinking skills. What schools and teachers need is Socratic Seminar.

Getting Started with Socratic Seminar

Any start is a great start! There is a learning curve for all things and facilitating is no different. It can be scary to release responsibility to the students, but trust the process. Once you get started, you will likely enjoy seminars and you will be amazed when the students rise to the challenge!

Informal Seminar Evaluation

The first one, how many students changed their minds, is a great test for a good seminar. Just think about how many things would have to happen for students to change their minds. They would need to listen carefully, consider new evidence, weigh it against the old evidence, and be open-minded enough to be willing to change their minds. A quick way to gather this information is to have the students write their answers to the seminar question before and after the seminar.

Seminar Jobs

I have often made the mistake of giving students jobs to do during seminar if they were simply enthusiastic enough. It always seems like a good idea at the time. However, enthusiastic students without enough direction and focus can seriously derail Socratic Seminar conversations. Eventually, I appreciated that "slow and steady wins the race." It is much more effective to gradually release responsibility. Now, I often train one student to do a particular job and then have that student teach someone else. In the meantime, I can be teaching someone else a new job. In this way, the integrity and quality of the seminars can be upheld.

Sharing Data from Seminars

My students have truly enjoyed seeing the data presented, particularly from the amazing app for iPad called Equity Maps. In the beginning of the year, when I first start tracking seminars, the students get curious about what I am doing and then they quickly want to see more about how they are contributing to the quality of the seminars. They want to know - and more importantly, they want to improve! Sharing data is powerful, a lot more powerful than many teachers even suppose. Give it a try, even if it's a static screen shot from the end of the seminar.

Developing Thinking Skills

I remember when I first heard the expression, "Those who do the work do the learning." And I thought nowhere is this more true than in the development of skills. It's obvious, really, that students (or anyone) can't develop skills without practice. They need to work and try and fail and try again. They need to embrace uncertainty and confusion until they create meaning within themselves. Only then will they truly learn. Socratic Seminar is the perfect classroom technique to gradually release responsibility to the students.

Participation

The area I get asked the most about is how to get shy students to participate. It's painful sometimes to watch weeks go by and some students haven't spoken up in class. Obviously, some students speak a lot and others don't. But observe many of the shy students and you will notice that they speak a lot outside of class. What's going on? It's an important question because helping shy students find their voices is vitally important. After years of facilitating seminars and working with shy students, the main issue is with the speed of conversation. Many discussions simply move too quickly for the shy students and they can't find ways into the conversation. The single best method to help is to ask a new question, use a turn-and-talk and follow with "I'd like to hear from someone who hasn't spoken yet." This alone will work 90% of the time.

Leading Questions

A leading question has the answer implied in it. Students don't have to think own their own if they can simply infer the answer already from the question. If you find yourself asking leading questions, simply rephrase them as statements and ask new questions. Stay with what you are genuinely curious about. If possible, plan your major questions ahead of time and make sure they have multiple right answers that are justifiable. This shift away from leading questions will make a huge difference for the thinking dispositions of the students!

Reflection

There are a lot of considerations for the reflection process, such as the complexity of the text, the initial opening question, the maturity and experience of the students and so on. I always found it useful to focus on the text and the question because those can be easily changed for future lessons. My ability to facilitate a group of students is much harder to control since every group is so different and my actions change so drastically. So I use the same text but ask different questions each class period and then make a note of the most productive questions for future use.

Grading With Point Systems

I have seen a lot of systems for grading seminars or discussions and many of them are based on some kind of point system. The trouble is that many students will then talk for the sake of a grade instead of the actual conversation. What tends to happen is a lot of talking but little or none of it is truly relevant and working toward a group goal. I have rarely seen any of these systems generate a quality conversation. If you do want to continue with a point system, make sure to add a group grade to help steer conversation into more productive directions.

Visual Arts and Seminars

I often get asked how to generate useful questions for visual arts. There are numerous techniques, but the one I like to share shows how the right approach can make the questioning process fairly easy. Remember, that the opening question for a seminar should have multiple right answers justifiable in the text. So, for any visual art, one technique is to divide the piece into nine parts by superimposing a tic-tac-toe grid. Then generate questions using the grid squares. Here are some examples: Which square is most important for understanding this piece? Which square is least interesting? Which one best shows the artist's techniques?

Asking Questions

Students need practice! Luckily, curiosity and wonder can be developed about anything at all. Quality follows quantity.

Fixed Questions

The problem with these is easy to understand: Someone else's generic, universal curriculum questions are unlikely to spark your curiosity and wonder. Fixed questions lack context and specificity. They are often anachronistic, or at least not fully relevant. They can be a great place to begin, but they can never replace genuine curiosity and wonder in the teacher and the students.

Interest Management

Curiosity and wonder are important elements in helping students stay engaged in seminars and school. To be blunt, many students and teachers are not nearly curious enough to maintain their connections to learning. The result is that many people - students and teachers - completely disconnect from the learning process. School then becomes a chore instead of a joy, a mandate instead of a wonderful option.

Pre-Seminar

When I speak to teachers about failed Socratic Seminars, there is almost always a lack of work in the pre-seminar stage. This component is absolutely vital to a quality conversation, since this stage mainly involves activating curiosity and wonder. Without these two components from the students, the inquiry exercise is mainly driven by the teacher - and is, in addition, often agenda-driven. If we want our students to be engaged in curiosity and wonder, then we have to give them opportunities to practice engaging organically with complex texts.

Don't Just Agree to Disagree

This always sounds good in theory, but it really does not produce quality dialogue. If we agree to disagree then both of walk away from the conversation with disagreement. If this is done early in a dialogue, then participants miss out on the vital process of establishing understanding. Effective dialogue should seek similarities and points of agreement with the goal of empathy. I may disagree, but at least I understand your position and your beliefs. But if we agree to disagree to early, then we will never achieve empathy and understanding.

Socratic Seminar "Texts"

Since a "text" is just an anchor for dialogue, they can be nearly anything. In fact, the greater the variety, the more the students' skills will develop. They will begin to see that the approach to almost any text is remarkably similar, and that annotating and generating questions will always be a useful strategy toward understanding.

Grading a Conversation

Obviously, conversations are complex and arriving at a grade is not easy - but it can be done. I recommend in my workshops that teachers use triangulation, that is, that they use at least 3 grades that make up the overall grade for the students involved in the conversation. For me, this is most often: a grade for the annotations that a student submits; a grade for their individual participation; and a grade for the entire group. I often leave the weights for the students to decide. Once students have been taught how to mark up a text, annotations are graded against anchor papers. For the individual grade, I often use "threshold grading," where a student receives full or partial credit for participation. The group grade can be determined by a rubric or through the use of exit tickets. A student's grade might then be 40% annotations, 40% contributions, and 20% group grade.

Redefining Good and Bad Students

In addition to the narrative from my book, the best insights and my favorite ideas have most often come from the fringe students. They are the ones who, to use a cliché, "think outside the box." They are the rare students who are not afraid to propose unusual ideas that may seem alien at first pass. All the power to them! They are the people who will move the world and shake the Earth!

Norms or Agreements, Not Rules

It's important to realize that norms or agreements are much more in keeping with Socratic Seminar. Because a teacher is trying to pass authority and ownership to the students, "rules" is the wrong approach. A rule is a top-down authority move. Now, a classroom might need rules, especially in situations where there are school-wide ones that must be posted in every classroom. And there may be some rules that need are non-negotiable Otherwise, norms or agreements are much more in fitting with a democratic process. I have asked numerous seminar groups over the years what would be needed to have productive dialogues, and they generally all come up with the same essential concepts. The language is different each time, of course, but the need to listen to and respect each other, patience and taking turns and so on. Trust the process. The students want to have quality conversations.

Student Questions

Quite simply, students do not have enough practice asking their own questions. Ask many of them to jot down even a short a list of questions and they can't do it. In my experience, even adults begin to falter after trying to jot down more than 7 questions about something specific. Much of this has to do with curiosity and wonder. Most students don't have much of it. Neil Postman once quipped that children go to school as question marks but return as periods. We need to do more to help students develop curiosity and wonder - and helping them formulate questions is a great place to start.

Texts with Morals

When a text has a moral at the end, especially one that is a succinct summary, then it may take away from the thinking process. I often take the morals off texts and have students create their own morals. I don't usually share the original moral unless specific students ask about it. I find that students judge themselves on how well their morals seem to be in line with the original. It can ruin their thinking skills and their confidence, especially when they have crafted a viable moral, but reject it once they compare it with what the author wrote. This comparison ruins the general idea that there should be multiple right answers to any complex thinking process.

Reflective Practice

I have often said over the years that shifting to the role of facilitator is some of the best professional development. It's probably more true now than ever. This is because teachers can create that all-important reflective thinking work that will improve their practices. Most often this is in the form of reflecting with students after each seminar and getting crucial feedback. What worked well? What could we improve? With several classes answering those questions, teachers can begin to pull together the "wisdom of crowds" in order to make the processes better for everyone.

Controversial Texts

Because Socratic Seminar is meant to be dialogue, not debate, heated topics do not work well. There is nothing wrong with debates. but polarizing topics simply do not facilitate cooperative learning, where everyone is meant to add to a cumulative process. Certainly students can debate on common topics like the death penalty, but those should simply be done in a debate format instead of a seminar format.

Socratic Seminar as Course of Study

Socratic Seminar as a Course of Study is BY FAR my favorite model. When students have consistent practice developing their seminar skills, then they truly reach amazing levels of performance. A visitor once came to observe a middle school seminar and he commented that the dialogue sounded like his graduate school classes. This is the power of continued practice! It really shouldn't surprise anyone that students would get really good at the things that they practice, in the case of seminar skills: active listening, building ideas, asking questions, citing the text, composing arguments, thinking critically, creativity, and many more.

Socratic Seminar Skills

The so-called "soft skills" continuously make the list of desired workforce skills that employers are looking for. Choose any of these lists and you will find that all or nearly all of them get practiced and honed in a seminar environment. It might seem hard to believe, but the simple answer is that the students are doing the thinking.

A Favorite Seminar Phrase

Although I have many phrases that I like, "Do you want some help or do you want more time?" is definitely one of my favorites. One reason is that it gives students a choice. They still feel empowered to make a decision, even though they are currently stuck. Another reason is that students almost always choose to have help, meaning that they can call on someone. Reliably, they will call on someone whose hand shoots up and clearly knows at least part of the answer. Time-wise this strategy is quite efficient. A third reason is that students will quickly learn that "I don't know" is not an acceptable opt-out answer. Eventually, with older students at least, you will begin to hear, "I'm not sure, but maybe someone can help me." This is vastly better!

Releasing Power

Many teachers are afraid to release power. They fear what they think will be the inevitable uncontrolled chaos. They may also have concerns that the students will not be able to get the right answer. The first fear is understandable, since most students haven't been taught how to participate in group discussions. They need practice and guidance! The second concern is also understandable, but we want students to become thinkers. We want them to become historians and scientists, careful readers and mathematicians, and so on. Again, students need to practice. They'll may draw illogical conclusions and arrive at unusual answers, but mistakes are part of learning!

Mini-Lessons

Mini-lessons are are great way to help individuals and groups improve. Students can set personal goals and groups can work toward specific group goals. Mini-lessons work well in block scheduling, but can be taught modeled and practiced in other class periods. One of the first places to start: Active Listening! Most groups will not improve without working on listening skills.

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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