If homework is assigned before a seminar, then it is highly recommended that you require its completion in order to participate in the seminar. This is an absolutely crucial point. It may seem like a good idea to have students participate even if they have not done the homework. After all, more people participating would create better dialogue, right?
The problem is that students who don’t do their homework are apt to deviate from the text (having not read it). Their ideas will be at best partly substantiated, and their ability to cite the text will be minimal. Instead of using and staying focused on the text, students who don’t do the homework often drift, and unanchored by the text, they wander into anecdotes.
When students don’t do the homework, I usually have them sit at a different table, listen to our conversation and make notes. I grade them on the notes they make, but do not give them full credit for the seminar. Generally, the students greatly dislike sitting apart from the seminar. The result, in short, is that students eventually give seminar homework very high priority because they want to have interesting and powerful conversations with their peers.
I can’t stress this point enough. Students don’t often have many opportunities to have engaging conversations. A few years ago, I had a sixth-grade student visit one of my Socratic Seminars. My principal spoke to his mother, who described him as “philosophical.” He was reading Robert Pirsig’s challenging book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and he was looking for more of a challenge from school. He was exhilarated by the conversation in our Socratic Seminar and participated a lot, especially considering he only knew one person in the class and he had never been in a seminar before. After the seminar, he sat in his chair, elated and stunned. Finally, he looked at me and said, “I didn’t know kids my age could talk like this.”
It’s definitely worth stressing that students should NOT raise their hands during Socratic Seminar.
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