My students and I read some extraordinary books together this year. Midway through the year, after facilitating the conversations around theme, character development, the intentional choices an author makes and their impact, etc. it was time to turn the conversation over to my students.
Before beginning, the children and I set some ground rules. We would gather in our classroom meeting space and form a circle. The students would bring whichever book we were reading. All eyes need to be on the speaker. When a classmate is speaking the other students must focus on truly listening so that they can really understand the point being made or the question being posed. During the course of each meeting, students should be sure to find a place to get their voice in the room. Students can share an observation, comment on something they are wondering about, ask a question, agree with a child and provide a detailed reason why they agree or disagree politely and back up their conflicting opinion with evidence. Unlike typical reading lessons, my role as teacher changes. No longer the facilitator, I am now an observer. I do not call on students. Instead, students wait for an appropriate space in the conversation to inject their thinking. If students speak at the same time, one backs off and listens with the idea that he or she will be next to chime in. The conversation typically lasts between ten and twenty minutes.
You might be wondering how I assess students during socratic circle time. Sometimes I take anecdotal notes. Usually, I don't. I just really listen. While I'm listening I try to tune into what my students are talking about. Are they talking about the same concepts that emerge during literature lessons? Are they bringing their knowledge of genre, theme, character development, conflict and resolution into the conversation? I tune into the depth. Are they merely identifying the setting or are they wondering about the author's choice and how the setting impacts the reader's experience? How about language? Are they talking about examples of figurative language that they've noticed and are they citing examples from the text? Are they going deeper to wonder how the use of simile, metaphor, personification, etc. helps to paint a vivid picture for the reader? How does the use of language convey tone and mood? How does the language in the novel make you feel? Which choices are most significant? How about the author's use of suspense? How is language used specifically to create suspense? How is the theme developed over the course of the novel and how are the characters developed? When I notice that there is a struggle or lack of attention to certain concepts, I design short mini-lessons that will refocus the students attention and remind them to look for these things as they read along and to share their observations with their peers.
I knew that socratic circles were an excellent use of our instructional time when I glanced over at my co-teacher/special educator and saw her blinking back tears. Too often, at the elementary level, students earn the rank of "high" reader because they are great decoders and can read with fairly good fluency. While this is a goal we set for all students, it is not enough. Similarly, students are tagged with the "low" label when decoding is a challenge or when oral reading lacks fluency. The Socratic Circle levels the playing field for our students who may lack fluency. It emphasizes comprehension and the ability to think deeply, analyze text, and make connections. My co-teacher teared up because one of our students who struggled with decoding and had been labeled a "struggling" reader shared a very insightful thing that he had noticed and then he connected his observation to another character in a previous novel. What we observed was not typical of "low" level learners. Do you think that we could learn as much about our students and their comprehension and ability to analyze text from a comprehension or vocabulary worksheet? Heck no! When you raise the expectations, you are sometimes surprised at just how HIGH all children can go!
Over the course of the year a number of colleagues and my principal observed the socratic circle. There were a couple of questions that were frequently asked.
I really am rethinking everything I do though. I have some ambitious goals and I know I have to shake it up if I'm going to achieve them. So, I'm wondering about Socratic Circles. Here is the thing, when I think about our call to prepare students for college and career, I know that thinking deeply, learning to be a thoughtful listener, learning how to break into a conversation, learning how to provide examples or evidence to persuade an audience, learning how to disagree in a professional way, etc are all essential no matter what a child's future has in store for him or her. These 21st Century skills can be taught in the fourth grade classroom. While I will be making room for new practices when it comes to teaching reading, the Socratic Circle has to have some place in my instruction. It may end up looking a bit different but it'll be there, one way or another.