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Socratic Seminar

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


Diana Ling teaches AP Literature and World Literature I at Tenafly High School in Tenafly, NJ.

I’m a fan of the Socratic Seminar, in which students lead and guide discussion. This format aligns well with the goals of A.P.® Literature and Composition, since it asks students to take ownership of their critical thinking and close reading skills. I recently held a Socratic Seminar in my class on The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat.

The novel consists of interwoven short stories, and the first story, “The Book of the Dead,” appears in the “Conformity and Rebellion” chapter of Literature & Composition. On the first day, we discussed this story as a whole class, including some questions from the textbook, such as why the Dew Breaker is drawn to ancient Egyptian mythology (Questions for Discussion #2), and what his daughter Ka’s sculpture of him suggests about her ability to accept his imperfections (Questions on Style and Structure #5). Because the Dew Breaker, or torturer, is a quiet man with an admiring daughter and loving wife, we also used essential questions to analyze the story, including “What are good and evil?” and, “How does narrative point of view affect the presentation of good and evil?”

Students were assigned one of the subsequent eight stories to “teach” in a team with one or two classmates the day after their story was assigned as reading for the whole class. I use “teach” loosely because the emphasis in Socratic Seminar is on co-learning, not lecturing.  Students must converse without raising hands, and complex questions are encouraged --- even ones they don’t know the answers to.

I did provide them with a specific discussion structure: devote the first half of the period to a passage analysis question, and the second half to whole-text analysis questions. All questions were generated by the students, though they could draw inspiration from what we’d discussed in “The Book of the Dead.” In the beginning of class, each group distributed an agenda with their questions as well as a copy of their chosen passage for students from the whole class to annotate. Aside from facilitating transitions in the conversation, and occasionally sharing my own questions that stemmed from theirs, my job was to hang back as students grappled with how literary devices conveyed the meaning of each story.

The depth of the students’ discussion was impressive: they noticed and referred back to the author’s frequent use of water imagery; of characters bound between speech and silence; of ambiguous and useless distinctions between hunters and prey -- that is, evildoers and Kas, or good angels.

They also wondered aloud, asked each other clarification questions, and supported their thinking with citations from the passage and from their own notes on each story. Several students who had rarely spoken up all year even chimed in, noticing how a character’s name served as a reminder of the Dew Breaker’s murderous acts; or, how the description of Carnival festivities in a different story echoed the contrived performance of the protagonist’s marriage. Though this was my second time teaching the novel, I learned from them as they learned from each other; their process deepened my own thinking about the story’s themes and Danticat’s techniques.

There were two assessments for this text: the students’ participation in Seminar, and an in-class essay where students could either discuss the role of silence and voice in the novel, or analyze Danticat’s themes on forgiveness and redemption. I based both essay topics on questions from the textbook (Questions for Discussion #11 and Questions on Style and Structure #7, respectively).

I highly recommend Socratic Seminar, especially for collections of short stories, which lend themselves to both close analysis of each story and synthesis of the text as a whole. It may seem scary to give up control, but the process can be immensely rewarding.

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