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When students pose the questions

New York Teacher

Whether you are a novice teacher or a savvy veteran with a bag full of teaching tricks, you are undoubtedly always looking for compelling ways to spark your students’ interests and engage them in meaningful discussions. Sometimes, however, you have to experiment with a variety of strategies to find the one that best meets the needs of your students. Such was the case for me.

My desire each year is to implement a consistent model of teaching that is rigorous and student-centered and that incorporates student-generated discussions. So what can a teacher do to pique students’ interests and help them rise to the rigorous expectations of consistent, active class participation? In my class, I use what I call Socratic symposiums. They can be adapted for use in any classroom regardless of subject or age.

Socratic symposiums are my adaptation of Socratic seminars, which usually occur on a larger scale. In my symposiums, the class is divided into preselected groups of four to five students each. Each group is required to develop four to five deep questions centered on a common reading or topic that we have recently studied in class.

Deep questions are those that have a variety of acceptable answers and which can lead to stimulating, entertaining and passionate small-group discussions. Students can develop these questions as homework the night before the group discussion or as part of the class lesson. However, each student is required to record their group’s agreed-upon common discussion questions in a labeled section of their notes sheet, which they can refer to in looking for opportunities to participate actively in their group’s discussion.

The symposiums are counted as part of students’ class participation grades for each marking period. And, to help me evaluate the discussions that go on simultaneously among the five to six groups in class, one member of each group takes a turn acting as a discussion evaluator. Assigning the student evaluators to groups other than their own helps to promote fair grading.

The evaluators are each given a peer evaluation grade sheet, which I developed with a colleague. Evaluators record the topic of discussion and names of students participating and then mark when students complete certain tasks, such as starting off the conversation, asking or answering a question or building on someone else’s ideas.

Each completed task can earn a student points. However, if a student loses focus and is off task, then the evaluator may take away a point. Students who go off task are informed immediately by the evaluator. This serves as an effective reminder for students to participate.

Evaluators are also asked to identify at least one specific “glow,” something members of the group did well, and at least one specific “grow,” something the group can do better next time. The results are shared with the groups at the end of the class.

Each round of group discussions typically lasts about eight to 12 minutes, and before the class leaves I collect the peer evaluation sheets as well as the individual reflection sheets completed by discussion participants. The student judge is held accountable for how effectively he or she evaluated the group.

The payoff is undeniable. I get to walk around the classroom listening to a variety of interesting student-led conversations and taking notes on what I hear. Because I hold these Socratic symposiums frequently, usually two to three times a week, students who are typically shy during larger class discussions have the chance to make their voices heard. Also, putting students in charge of developing the questions challenges them to come up with queries that interest them personally. The group discussions also lend themselves to further rigorous homework assignments and in-class writing tasks.

If you are interested in learning more or would like copies of the evaluation sheets I use, please feel free to contact me at