Thursday, April 16, 2015

Socratic Seminar as Prewriting

As I introduced the differences between argumentative writing and persuasive writing, one of my creative writing students asked if we could hold Socratic Seminars instead of writing a paper.

While I am not quite ready to punt away the experience of writing an argumentative paper, I thought it might interesting to experiment with Socratic Seminars in lieu of physically handwriting (traditional prewriting activities) in our writers notebooks.

Because we are in week one of a three-week jaunt through state testing, I did not expect anything to be done for homework. Everything was accomplished in class.

Students brainstormed a large list of topics which included: genetic engineering, animal testing, feminism, starting time for school, vaccinations, global warming, homeschooling, gay rights. From the large list, each of my five classes voted on which four they would like to discuss.

Once the topics were decided, we collectively hunted for articles and YouTube videos on our topics. We wanted to find things which not only considered the pros and cons, but also took a position. We wanted to find one common article or video to launch each of our discussions.

I gave students time during class to read the article or to watch the video in preparation for the Socratic Seminar. Notes were ok to bring, but I make it explicitly clear that the intent is not to debate or challenge a person's point of view. We are not trying to win anything. Our purpose to discuss as many facets of a topic as possible.

We tried the traditional inner-circle/outer-outer circle classroom setup. I took volunteers to serve as seminar leaders. Different students led each day.

No rubric or score was attached to our process. I truly tried to retain the DNA of judgement-free prewriting. Students were free to talk--one at a time--without raising hands. I asked that they respect one another and learn how to be a part of the conversation without hijacking it.

Students who sat in the inner circle were actively engaged in the conversation. They volunteered to sit here. Students sitting in the outer circle were listeners--it is a role they chose to begin with. At any point, students from the outer circle could "tap-in" and participate in the seminar conversation.

I initially set six or seven chairs in the inner circle, but as some conversations evolved, students from the outer circle made their own space on the floor between chairs--while maintaining respect and without disrupting the flow of the conversation. It was an unexpected, interesting, development that I let happen. Most classes, I sat well outside the circle and only interjected if conversation needed a boost or if students found difficulty not speaking over one another.

We did this for two weeks. Monday and Wednesdays were preparation days. Tuesday and Thursdays were seminar days.

We will write and revise our argumentative papers Monday through Thursday next week in class.

As always, students will be free to choose their topics. Anything is on the table. Even if they decide not to develop a paper about one of the class Socratic Seminar topics the students practiced many skills needed to develop a compelling argument irrespective of the topic.

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