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What is Socratic Seminar?

Socrates believed that wonder was the beginning of wisdom. He’s often known as the father of philosophy and his methodology entailed engaging his fellow citizens in philosophical conversation and asking probing questions of his students until his students experienced self-actualization. 

One of the convictions that he upheld was that human wisdom begins with the recognition of one’s own ignorance, as one of his famous quotations is, “The only wisdom is knowing you know nothing.” His process of teaching students by asking question after question is known as the Socratic Method. 

In 2013, I attended “What Up Socrates?” at the MATSOL conference, presented by Torii Bottomley, BSFS, MAT, of Boston Public Schools. Inspired by data-documented success she has seen with her ELLs on MCAS, my colleagues and I created a partnership with her and she coached us in integrating Socratic Seminars into our ELD 4 / 5 classes at Fuller Middle School. And it has been an integral component of my ESL instruction ever since. 

So what is it? Socratic Seminar is a discussion focused around one question. Students present their thesis, support it with  text-based evidence and provide an analysis. The group members take turns and use Talk Moves.  

The goal is for participants to come away with a deeper understanding of the text, based on active participation. 

It all starts with an anchor text. The teacher will read it out loud, students read it themselves, and then they mark up the text, looking closely at the language, themes, ideas, arguments, and so on. “Texts” can look very different. It could be a video, a song, a picture, an article, a poem, or anything that we can analyze and discuss. Students do a word study on $100 words and discuss the text together as a class. 

After reading the text, students look closely at vocabulary and  word study. They analyze the essential question, create a thesis (their answer to the question), and find evidence in the text to support our answers. After completing the note-taking guides, there is the Socratic Seminar. 

During the Socratic Seminar students are put into two circles.  The Inside Circle students have a discussion about the text and question, sharing their evidence and analysis using Academic Conversation Talk Moves, and $100 words. The Outside Circle students observe, listen, take notes, and offer feedback to the Inside Circle. Then the circles switch places. 

After reading and analyzing the text, completing our note-taking guide, and having a Socratic Seminar, students turn everything they have done into one, strong piece of writing. They write using academic language, incorporate evidence with citations, and provide thorough analysis. You will be expected to format your writing properly and check your grammar and spelling. 

And it WORKS. This process of teaching by using the Socratic Method not only teaches students to think critically, it provides all the scaffolding necessary for students to have success in writing, particularly English language students. 

Interested in learning more? Check out my Socratic Seminar Lesson Sequence Overview


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