Academic journal article English Journal

The Socratic Seminar in the Age of the Common Core: A Search for Text- Dependent Discourse

Academic journal article English Journal

The Socratic Seminar in the Age of the Common Core: A Search for Text- Dependent Discourse

Article excerpt

With the introduction of the Common Core State Standards and its emphasis on close reading, I find myself casting a critical eye on my classroom practices as a high school English teacher, wondering if my existing practices truly require text-dependency and critical analysis. "Close reading" requires students to extract meaning by looking only at the textual passages, independent of other knowledge, and slow down the reading process so that conclusions drawn rely only on the resources of the text itself (Snow and O'Connor). While I understand that the standards inherently privilege some knowledge and processes (such as the ability to identify rhetorical purpose or make inferences) due to the tasks involved in close reading (Pearson), I am also aware that reading is best used as a form of inquiry. John Dewey saw the importance of inquiry as transactional, open-ended, and social (Dewey; Schön) and recognized inquiry as part of active learning; that is, we learn from inquiry and the transactions we hold during our search for knowledge.

In fact, learning occurs when students engage in discursive processes that include actively considering the comments and perspectives of others, allowing for interpretation and explanation of the topics being discussed (Gillies). Teachers should "resist the urge to turn close reading into an independent activity. The point of close reading is to foster extended discussions about a piece of text" (Fisher and Frey 18). In short, classroom talk itself is the vehicle for which new learning can be achieved, not just by which it is shared.

The Seminar

About twelve years ago, I brought Socratic seminars to my classroom. The seminar has four components- a facilitator, a question, the text, and participants (Fisher and Frey)-and is based on the asking-for- one's opinion teaching method practiced by Socrates in the fifth century B.C.E. (Holden). In my classroom, the seminar is usually a summative assessment, with students independently preparing answers to an essential question and gathering possible textual support to bring to the discussion of that question and the text.

Once discourse became an assessment tool with the full power and weight of grades attached, I started to reevaluate practices in my classroom, particularly in the seminar. I developed several versions of rubrics through the years, striving to find a balance between the opposing forces in the classroom: accountability, individualized instruction, and power structures within the school, among others. Unfortunately, I found that the seminar sometimes supported preexisting social dynamics allowing some voices to dominate. In response, I had students turn in seminar preparation, self-evaluations, and responses to discussions (all as means to gauge the reasoning and reading of the student who sat silent or who spoke seldom in the seminar), and I found that unheard students often demonstrate significant insight and reasoning around the seminar question. I was unable to resist my nagging doubt that perhaps the seminar is flawed because some students feel drowned out of the conversation.

In the last several years, I have tallied the times seminar participants have actually quoted passages from the text (despite preparation sheets and rubrics that require it) and have been disappointed by actual time spent in an instructional period talking about the text. I have noted that most discussion is more universal to the text: about big ideas and themes, rather than specific passages or details.

To be sure, there have been truly invigorating moments when I have been leftin speechless awe of my students because of the insight they have shared in a seminar. I often wrap up a seminar by telling my classes, "Wow, now that was a good discussion." I have seen students largely ignored by many classmates stun them with a deeply cutting comment that gets to the core of the discussion and the text. I believe that my AP students have modeled for each other on-demand analysis during seminars about texts we read within that class period. …

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