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How to Run a Socratic Seminar in Your Classroom

May 28, 2017 3 min read

How to Run a Socratic Seminar in Your Classroom

May 28, 2017 3 min read

We have used Socratic Seminars with our third graders all the way up through our twelfth graders to discuss short stories, poetry, and sets of chapters in a novel. While obviously the level of questions change, the setup remains pretty much the same. Here’s how we set up our seminars from start to finish:

1. Day before Seminar:
Depending on the grade level, we pass out the questions that will be discussed to give students ample time to prepare their answers and search for evidence. If students are older or once they are more comfortable participating in Socratic Seminars, we pass out the questions only minutes before the seminar begins.
2. Before Seminar Begins:
Ideally, we like to set up our chairs before the seminar begins so when students arrive, we can immediately start discussing. We split our students into two groups…half in the inner circle and half in the outer circle. The students in the inner circle will discuss the first half of the questions we distributed, and the students in the outer circle will answer the second half of the questions.
Additionally, we leave an empty chair in the inner circle to be used ONE time each by any student in the outer circle who so desperately has something to add to the discussion that they absolutely HAVE to share it right away. Our kids know not to enter the inner circle with a comment like, “Jackson, I agree with you.” (Note: we only do this once our students demonstrate the ability to handle this aspect of the seminar.)
3. Start of Seminar: 
Select a student leader who is in charge of reading aloud each question and deciding which student speaks if two or more try to answer at the same time. The student leader also decides when it’s time to move on to the next question and encourages quieter students to share more and dominant students to take a step back and listen to others.
4. During Seminar:
During the Seminar, here’s what everyone should be doing:
  • Students in outer circle: Complete this observation checklist to stay engaged in the discussion even if they are not verbally participating. This checklist is a part of this larger How to Teach Writing Resource.
  • Students in inner circle: Participate actively in discussion.
  • Teacher: Sit off to the side and complete a rubric for each student. We use this one, which you can download for free. You should only interject to ask a follow-up question that will get students expanding on their answers.
5. Things we’ve learned over the years:
Encourage students to use their classmate’s names when expanding on their comments. Require manners. Insist on evidence from the text to support their reasoning. (Example: “Morgan, I politely disagree with you. According to the text…”)

** Here’s a sample of the Socratic Seminar questions we use when teaching the short story, “The Most Dangerous Game:” Notice they leave ample room for various opinions and are also text-dependent.

  • Do you think Rainsford’s views on hunting have changed at the end of the story?
  • Did Zaroff’s actions ultimately contribute to his death?
  • Does Rainsford value human life?
  • Are Rainsford and Zaroff similar? Why or why not?
  • Why is it titled “The Most Dangerous Game”?
  • Do Rainsford and Zaroff follow the rules in “The Most Dangerous Game”? Does everyone follow the rules in everyday life?
If you end up using Socratic Seminar in your classroom, let us know how it goes! 
We’d love to answer any other questions you might have as well 🙂
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How to set up a socratic seminar in your english language arts classroom! An easy step-by-step guide with free resources!
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1 Comment

  • erica December 5, 2017 at 8:11 pm

    This was extremely helpful! Thank you!

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