PS/IS 686 | Brooklyn, NY

Grade 7 Humanities: Socratic Seminar

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

img_6184Students from 703 discuss their ideas about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

What is Socratic Seminar?

Excerpt from Facing History and Ourselves:  The goal of a Socratic seminar is for students to help one another understand the ideas, issues, and values reflected in a specific text. Students are responsible for facilitating a discussion around ideas in the text rather than asserting opinions. Through a process of listening, making meaning, and finding common ground students work toward shared understanding rather than trying to prove a particular argument. A Socratic seminar is not used for the purpose of debate, persuasion, or personal reflection, as the focus is on developing shared meaning of a text.

How does it work in our classroom community?

In Trimester 2, we have been working hard to develop our discussion skills through the protocol of Socratic seminar. Students generate questions they’d like to discuss from the novel, based on the annotations they took for each chapter.  After each group offers their questions, as a community, we vote on the questions we’d like to discuss in the seminar. Small groups of 10 students represent their group for the Seminar.  Students watching the seminar have two different roles. One takes close notes on the performance of his or her group’s representative and provides thorough and reflective feedback on the representative’s strengths and struggles.  The other group member reflects on the strengths and struggles of the seminar as a whole and takes notes on important ideas shared. After the seminar, students provide feedback to one another and the representatives self-assess and self-reflect on their performance.

img_6174Amia, Victor, and Sammy from class 702 discuss their annotations in small groups in order to prepare for the seminar.

How will Socratic Seminar prepare students for high school, college, and beyond?

Strong discussion skills are essential to academic success beyond middle school.   Students need to be able to articulate their ideas to peers, as well as prepare for interviews they will encounter.  Students at BSI already know how to raise their hands and respond to questions the teacher asks.  Now they are cultivating skills for how to manage a discussion amongst one another, guided by their own questions.  The Socratic seminar is a powerful protocol to develop student ability to think critically about a text, to question it, and learn from one another.  It is an exercise in practicing equity of voice, as well as asserting one’s own voice as a community member.  Because it is an assessed discussion based on a list of rigorous, student and teacher generated criteria, students who struggle in the realm of class discussion have an opportunity to face their fears in the safety of a small group.


Camryn Cassell and Richan Wen from class 703 use their annotations and reference textual evidence in order to make contributions during the Socratic seminar.

How do students feel about Socratic Seminar?

“Socratic seminars are like oysters.  Your peers are the shell, and when you open them up, you find interesting ideas and questions inside that cultivate wonderful discussions. Those are the pearls.” -Arushi Kher

“Onec you can share those ideas (the ones you’re not sure of), you master the art of communication.” -Skyler Kim-Schelliger

“The experience of Socratic seminar has taught me that I can learn in ways besides copying and memorizing, and that I can learn from both myself and my peers.” -Max Levinson

“The Socratic seminar has taught me that there is more to the book than just reading it.  You can discuss it, which will give you a better idea about the book.  It has helped me grow as a student, because it has challenged me to think. That was hard, but I also like that.”

-Alexis Farberov

“Something I like about the seminar is that I might come into the seminar with a small idea and will end with a fully thought out idea.” -Olivia Katsura

“The Socratic seminar taught me that things are not as scary as they seem to be.  It helped me learn that I should share my ideas with the class more often.” -Diana Klilfeld

“The Socratic seminar has taught me how to listen to my fellow classmates, and learn more from what they say.” -Sasha Vaysman

On the Horizon in Humanities: Extensive Writing Unit after the Winter Break