Socratic Seminar Shifts Thoughts in ELA

Miah-Reese Govan

Classroom Socratic seminar prompts higher-level thinking and student engagement in an 8th-grade classroom.

A Socratic seminar is a formal group discussion about a piece of text, where the leader or teacher asks open-ended questions, and the students listen to and express one another’s thoughts and responses while constructing their own ideas. The topic of this discussion was the women from Hidden Figures, and the goal of the meeting was to analyze, determine the central idea of the article about the women, and identify character traits in the three women’s personalities.

According to Ms. Kownacki and other ELA teachers, Socratic seminars take place to help students gain a deeper understanding of the text, and construct the meaning of a piece of text through disciplined analysis, interpretation, listening, and participation, while getting students ready for the types of questions that may be asked during state testing.

“I felt that the Socratic seminar was very helpful when it came to the Commonlit question,” Awa Diao, a student in Ms. Kownacki’s class. “Like some of the Commonlit questions were similar to the questions that were asked on the Socratic seminar.”

The day before the seminar, on March 2, the students viewed the movie trailer for Hidden Figures. After that, they read through a Commonlit printout of the article titled “The Women of Hidden Figures,” by Jessica McBirney, and briefly viewed the questions that would be asked during the seminar.

”I have watched Hidden Figures before. It was a good movie. I personally enjoyed it. I watched it when it first came out,” stated Femi Gordy, another student in Ms. Kownacki’s class. “My favorite character was Katherine Johnson because she was persistent and determined. And she was really good at math!”

On the next day, the students’ desks were moved to the side, and the chairs were arranged in a circle in the center of the classroom. Then, the ELA teacher, Ms. Kownacki began to ask questions about the personality traits of the three women, and about the main idea of the text. Once a student started by giving their response to the question, other students were allowed to jump in and add their own thoughts and ideas to the conversation.

“I enjoyed the experience. It quite reminded me of the college experience,” I think it’s amazing to listen to students engage in critical thinking and utilizing skills in a new way.” the school principal, Ms. Nwanguma said after observing while the seminars took place. “You get more from your students when you give them the liberties and you teach them how to think critically. I believe that the Socratic approach engages students in a way that provides them an opportunity to expand their thoughts, and engage in a deeper manner.”

At the end of the seminar, students gave one another “shoutouts.” During this time students were able to praise each other for any responses made during the discussion that they felt should be recognized.

“They were very articulate, they utilized the vocabulary that the teachers have been teaching them throughout the year, they were able to follow the steps, they were able to challenge each other’s ideas in a respectful manner,” Ms. Nwanguma stated. “All ideas were okay and valid, and they validated each others’ ideas when they linked onto the last idea. ‘I agree with James. I agree with Sarah. And this is why.’ They were able to cite the text. This is what we’re looking for when we’re preparing the students for state testing. This is what we’re looking for when we’re preparing students for college at this level. So I love the Socratic seminar!”