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The room is still with the unsure silence that marks the beginning of a Socratic Seminar; who will pose the first question, and more importantly, who will be the first to answer?

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Finally, the uncertainty is conquered by a brave student: “Based on our readings of In the Time of the Butterflies and Persepolis, what are the factors for a successful revolution?”

Another group hesitation ensues and then Dominic, the class clown,  fighting back the smile of his own hilarity, states that a revolution is similar to skate boarding in many ways and continues to expound on his analogy. The class, although rapt by his comment, is skeptical and challenges his assertion. The conversation flows and the Socratic Seminar is in motion.

Every student’s voice is necessary for class discussions. Even the class clown’s comment broke the silence and gave his fellow classmates a more accessible entry into answering the question. As a teacher, grading student input in class discussions is difficult. If a student contributes a joke guised as a serious comment, is a point awarded? If not, what is the justification especially if the joke instigated serious conversation? And what about those two students who aren’t disruptive, who read but don’t talk, who listen but are too insecure to speak their minds? Are they marked down because the mere type of assessment guarantees them failure? Is it fair to hold students to different standards?

Fairness is relative to each student. Choosing a Socratic Seminar as an assessment of student knowledge is meant to incite conversation and give students opportunities to share their thinking, which is vital in any learning community. Although social interaction is important in a Socratic Seminar, the grading criteria should not involve how adept an individual student is at sharing his or her thoughts—being that Adolescence is a time for social and emotional growth, the classroom should be a place where students have the opportunity to share what they know in a context that is comfortable for them.

To remedy the grey areas of Socratic Seminars, talk with those students who will struggle with class discussions before the assessment begins. Take the quiet students and the jokesters aside and ask them to respond to the discussion questions on paper first so that a) they earn their point even if they don’t speak in the discussion and b) they feel more comfortable speaking because their thoughts are already laid out.

Another important aspect to this pre-discussion time with struggling students is goal setting. When talking with students individually, ask them to set a small goal for the class discussion such as posing a question, responding to one student, making one less joke, or validating another classmate. This way, students will have a structure for their participation which should help ease the anxiety of wondering what is expected of them. Even though it is necessary to meet students where they are, teachers can help students reach new successes, one small goal at a time, ideally helping all students meet standard.


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Madeline Maloney