Today’s Contributor: Matt Flickinger
Matt is a rhetoric and literature teacher at Bowie High School.
A major component to any successful literature or rhetoric class is discussing works, sharing ideas with the class in an effort to establish a deeper whole class understanding, and for students individually. A time-honored and successful technique used by many secondary literature teachers is the Socratic Seminar, traditional or adapted to student population and/or class level and ability. Basically, students bring pre-written questions and responses over a selection to contribute to a class discussion. Students earn a grade based on contributions to the resulting discussion. The teacher observes and grades as the discussion develops. Assessing students on their level of contributions as applied to depth of knowledge, real world application, textual evidence and connections presented, among other factors decided upon by the instructor. I have been doing a lighter version of the traditional seminar structure in my ninth grade Pre-AP and Academic Literature classes for years, but never completely given the reigns of the discussion over to the students. Part of this hesitancy was a result of my fear to allow students to explore without going totally off base without my incredible insights. But, the other reason was because I was afraid students, left to their own devices and questions and insights, might not hit upon the finer points that it would be easier to just spoon-feed them myself. After speaking to the campus vertical team (Pre-AP and Academic teachers of upper grades), and hearing about the upcoming expectations in their future English classes, I realized it was time to bite the bullet, hand the reigns over to my students. Ready or not.
And that ready or not got me thinking. If my students are not ready, whose fault is that? I’ve given them the sentence stems, my own insights to parrot when needed, but what about the structural component? What about the pre-seminar material? What about establishing a level of comfort in the class for students to engage without my interjections? If I was going to sit back and listen to their analyses, spend an entire class in silence, students would need to be prepared and they would need to be comfortable sharing their ideas verbally and to respond to others’ ideas. They would need to stay on topic and on task.
I considered past best practices in other classes and realized I could use technology-based discussion to improve the eventual in-class discussion. Because I had done it before. As a rhetoric teacher with the UT OnRamps program, I have worked with the Canvas platform for years. I have seen the benefits of engaging students in online discussion forums. The Discussion Forum/Page function in Canvas allows students to respond to a prompt or question, then respond to the ideas offered by their classmates without the fear of sounding dumb, or being wrong. Students can edit their responses until they are satisfied before posting to the discussion board. Then, once they have posted a personal response, students can select the response of a classmate to which they want to respond, craft and edit this response before posting. I have seen the success in using the discussion forum with these advanced upper division classes for years, especially classes that tend to be hesitant to share their ideas verbally in a whole class setting. But would it work with lower level students?
Again, the ugly face of that wasted class time reared its ugly head. What if the online discussion went off base? Even commenting on individual posts as a teacher, I ran the risk of the unchecked discussion posts growing to such excess that I wouldn’t be able to keep up. Too many fires, and just one firefighter. Instead of scrapping the whole idea, or dumping this classical seminar structure in the students’ laps and seeing how it goes, I turned to another Canvas page option I had been using for years. I decided to use the assignment page. I allowed my students to work with groups for an entire block (an hour and a half class period) to come up with questions and answers, then submit them to me directly. Before the next class period I provided directed feedback in the form of comments on their submitted work. When students returned to class, before they engaged with one another in the discussion board, they edited their questions and responses. Some groups needed to start from scratch, but with a clear direction, free from the critical eyes of their peers, they did so quickly and effectively. Once each group had their questions perfected, responses ready to guide their classmates, they posted to the discussion board. Each student was then tasked with responding to the questions and responses presented by their peers. I watched joyfully as the discussion unfolded. Students were respectful, concise, effectively used the text to substantiate their positions, and genuinely enjoyed the process. I grinned ear to ear while posting my own thoughts, watching the screen fill with an insightful student-directed discussion. At the end of class, I tasked the students with crafting two more questions and responses over any topic discussed in the discussion forum, or otherwise, on paper for the following day’s traditional Socratic Seminar.
As I welcomed students into class the next day, and instructed them to circle up the desks for the seminar, I wasn’t even worried (well, not as worried as I would have been without the previous days’ digital preparation). The Socratic Seminar was a huge success. I sat and listened, marking my gradebook with check plusses for excellent responses- and checks for the not-quite-wonderful response- as students hit almost all the points of analysis that I anticipated needing to explain. After the close of the seminar concluded, I offered a few-after congratulating them on a successful and insightful discussion- points they had missed. Looking over the beaming faces of my literary analysis superstars I smiled. They explored and discovered together. We did it.
Too many teachers are hesitant to give up the reigns. I get it. Why change from the old to the new if the old has worked well enough? Well, who says you have to get rid of the old? Socratic seminars have been around for centuries, after all. But, why not use modern tools to improve the time-honored structures? Give your students the opportunity to prove themselves virtually before steering their own understanding in a conventional forum. You might just see that well enough was not enough. Your students might just surprise you. Mine did.