Every Voice is Necessary: Helping Socratic Seminar Strugglers

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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Letting Students Decide Classroom Rules – 4 Scenarios For Success

As September approaches, thoughts of content, new faces, and faculty meetings flit through the minds of educators as they sip their Mai Tais and dream of a life in paradise.

But for these educators, paradise is nothing compared to the vigor and reward that teaching can invoke. The beginning of the year is one of the most important times for teachers – one that could determine the amount of reward felt during the rest of the year.

Startup Education

Setting up classroom management practices is essential for maintaining a healthy learning environment and therefore should involve students as much as it affects them.

Student input is pivotal during the first days of school. Students are unbiased in terms of classroom management because they have yet to misbehave. This is the perfect time to ask students to determine fair rules and consequences for themselves and fellow classmates.

Involving students in the creation of classroom rules will help hold students accountable and remind them – when they are feeling singled out, they determined fairness, not the teacher.

Brainstorming classroom rules, norms, and consequences can be difficult for students. Teachers may encounter student pushback if students are struggling to see the relevance of the activity. Instead of asking students to conjure classroom guidelines without inspiration, consider providing relevant scenarios for students to respond to.

Scenario One: A student walks into class after breaking up with her boyfriend. She refuses to complete the assignment and insists on being able to use her phone to text her friends about the breakup, even though the classroom has a no-cell-phone policy. How should the teacher respond to this situation? Could the student have done anything differently?

Scenario Two: You trade places with your teacher for a week and suddenly you are in charge of four classes and 120 students. What guidelines do you set for your classroom and how do you enforce them?

Scenario Three: It’s time for a class discussion and today’s topic is controversial. You’ve been in class discussions before where your fellow classmates have yelled at one another. What guidelines should your peers follow today to make sure every person has a voice and that every opinion is respected?

Scenario Four: It’s the beginning of class and the same group of students is talking over the teacher while he tries to explain the day’s task. What should the teacher do? Are the students wrong for talking over the teacher?

Asking students to respond to scenarios is an effective way to gain insight into student behavior. It also gives students an opportunity to consider plausible situations from every point of view before the conflict becomes a reality. Students have an innate interest in morality, fairness, and conflict. If educators can call upon this need to be just, then they can involve students in one of the most important aspects of their learning.



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Contextualizing Education: Literary Devices In Rap

As an educator, your students won’t patiently raise their hands to state that your classroom lacks ‘innovative pedagogical practices.’ Instead, students will blurt out, mid seventeenth-century-factoid, that they are bored.

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Why do we need to know this?” they will whine.

Innovative education begins with two principals: to address systemic shortcomings on behalf of the student; and, to develop a personal interest and curiosity in each student. It is upon these principals that the popular aspects of student culture can be incorporated into the context of innovative teaching.

There are plenty of educational resources out there (i.e. http://www.enotes.com, www.edutopia.org) to help teachers fight the “bored” response. From poster-board graffiti, to fishbowl Socratic seminar, to structured academic controversy, these resources provide student-centric lesson plans and strategies. And as educators already know, strategy is as important as content within the classroom.

So, how does an educator relate literary devices relate to twelfth-grade students­ who are at risk for not graduating?

Picture the following scenario:

Students walk in the door, boxes of milk and Corn Flakes in hand, puffy-eyed and half-asleep; it’s 8:30 A.M and you’re about to ask them to care about the simile as a literary device.

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By the time the announcements finish, you have dimmed the lights, and queued the correct YouTube url. You know the moments of the song to call special attention to, and you hit play.

Within the first few notes of the eerie avant-garde rap song, Gas Pedal by Sage the Gemini (ft. Iamsu,) students are already miming the “Gas Pedal” dance move, and have forgotten about their Corn Flakes. YouTube is the hook– the contextual attention-getter– and a quick way to create interest when introducing new content; it is a medium they pay great attention to.

The next point is crucial, as this exercise could become a distraction if mismanaged: choose the specific instances of literary device usage in Gas Pedal, and begin dissecting:

She a trick for a dollar bill (Metaphor)

And her boyfriend a b****, call him Tyler Perry (Metaphor and allusion)

Eugh, I’m in a black bat lookin’ scary (allusion)

Finding contextually relevant educational pathways can help students give meaning to otherwise painful learning. When this kind of process is possible (within otherwise traditional curriculum,) an exciting methodology for encouraging students to be interested in content emerges. This interest in content is connective with a students’ motivation and willingness to learn– and with time and trust-gained– can serve as a classroom management tool, as well.

Innovation begins with curiosity, and grows through a willingness to change. Be curious about the students’ collective environment, and be willing to change “best” practices for those that are contextually meaningful.



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