Monday, May 6, 2013

Close Reading and Socratic Seminar

When a colleague first mentioned Socratic Circles, my thinking was that these seminars would be similar to Accountable Talk and the discussion I regularly encouraged in my classroom.  How different could it be from asking higher level questions and engaging students in a conversation about a text?  I found that there is a difference, but more importantly my students discovered that difference as well.

With my students, I use the term "Seminar" rather than "Circle" because, being the cheeky middle schoolers they are, they pointed out that my desks weren't in a circle but rather a rectangle.  Seminar seemed more sophisticated to them, so we went with it.  But our first seminar was a fail.  We had an excellent text--Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.  Students had listened to the text, read it in small groups, looked for allusions, alliteration, repetition, metaphors, and similes, and prepared questions for the discussion.  Unfortunately, we took very little time for the actual discussion, shortchanging the seminar learning experience.  The class needed to "move on" to other topics.  I witnessed the kind of work we needed to put into the texts, but had not allowed it to come to fruition.  With this, I learned how we needed to structure our seminar day before we tried it again.

The next two texts we read were the short story excerpt "Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored" by Clifton Taulbert (excerpt from the book by the same name) and the poem "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes.  We began the week with small groups reading the short story.  With everyone having read the story, we discussed reporter questions--who, what, when, where, why, how--and which ones were more difficult to answer.  Reading standard 1 asks students to determine the meaning of a text--the "what"--so we thought about "what" questions about the story that we could add to our notebooks.  In a class whiparound, each student shared a question, even if it duplicated another student's.  What is a minstrel show?  What is ice delivery?  What is the relationship between Ma Ponk and Cliff?  A few questions I noted, and we closed for the day without delving into answers.

The next day, I asked students to find 4-6 words they thought would help them better understand the text.  Additionally, I had a Wikipedia article about minstrel shows and a blog entry about ice delivery in the 1950s (which I found was actually rare).  The small group of students divided tasks among themselves with the expectation that one student would read about minstrels, one student would read about ice delivery, and the remaining students in the group would look up the vocabulary words.  All the students reading articles worked together to become experts so they could report their new understandings to their groups.  By the end of the class period, students had more questions to add to their notebooks, which they shared with the class.  How come the author talked about ice during the whole story and then shocked the reader with a whole different story?  Why did that event happen to Cliff and his uncle?  Why did African-American people want to attend a minstrel show if it was intended to insult them?

We took a slightly different approach with "Mother to Son."  I gave each student the poem on a small piece of paper (the poem was short enough to print four per page), which they taped into the center of their notebooks.  I reminded them of reporter questions and how they should first just think about the "what" while they annotated their individual copies of the poem.  After reading in a moderately-believable Southern dialect, I asked them to write "what" questions in their notebooks.  What is a crystal stair? What are the bare spots? Each student shared a question before we moved on to the second reading of the poem.  With the second reading, I attempted to deliver the poem with even more of the South, slowly emphasizing the emotion that could have been behind the words this mother spoke to her son.  Students began scribbling questions before I finished reading--they already knew which reporter questions to ask. Why has her life been so hard? Why does she give her son this advice?  Before closing, I asked them to think about a question that might connect the two texts.  In a whiparound, they quickly shared one question from their notebooks.

We allotted 10-12 minutes for the inner circle to discuss and the outer circle to record points for their partners.  After switching, the new inner circle initially worried that their questions had already been "answered," but they should not have been concerned considering the quality of discussion they were able to maintain.  What may have made a difference was the students' familiarity with the questions that had been shared several times during the week.  The principal joined one class to observe and has remained blown away by the student who he thought would be the last to participate.  This student contributed in both asking questions and discussing possible take-aways.  I wasn't surprised.  I just wish I had given him more opportunities to shine like he did that day.

Today, we tried to hold a Socratic Seminar with new texts introduced on the same day.  After such success with two previous seminars, students indicated they wanted to try discussion with less preparation.  Out of a total of eight inner circle discussions (two per class), only two groups were able to partially dig into the depths of the poems.  One student, who typically offered insightful questions to investigate, stayed silent until the very end when she said, "This is hard without writing the questions."  Even when I prompted a few later classes to write questions as I played the song or read the poem, most comments coasted above the surface of the poems and did not dig into their core, which leaves me with some thoughts to ponder.  Do we always have the time to plan for a one-day discussion?  But let me also ask this--why read in class the same way students read outside of class, one time and done?  Our classrooms should be where students learn different approaches to reading, the connections that texts can make to our lives, and the importance of listening to each other's ideas.

A student asked me the dreaded "why" question the other day.  "Why do we have to read this, Mrs. V?"  Why indeed?  History class provides the names, dates, and events.  In my class we explore the why--the story behind history.  Pace carefully and read closely, and students will discover the why--especially when they can discuss the questions they've had time to think about.