Yvonne Divans Hutchinson

Teachers and students participate in a broad conception of literacy that incorporates both literature and oratory - Tenets of Culturally Relevant Teaching, from The Dreamkeepers by Gloria Ladson Billings


As part of our thematic unit “Perceiving Some of Life’s Problems/Forces That Mold Character” tenth grade students read the core literature novel, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. Gaines riveting narrative, the story of two black men whose fates are inextricably bound by the debilitating and emasculating racism that results in one of them being unfairly convicted of a murder he did not commit, invites reflection and discussion on several themes, including, racism, injustice, human dignity, self esteem, family, and the inescapable past. Set in the 1940’s in Bayonne, Louisiana, a small segregated town, the book provides multiple opportunities for exploration of its historical, sociological, and psychological nuances.

The class then came together in a Socratic Seminar, bringing with them a wealth of ideas and varying points of view: voicing opinions, supporting their ideas with references to text, challenging the text, and one another, revising and reshaping their opinions. The Socratic Seminar is an effective strategy for allowing students to share their interpretation of literature; I like to use it especially when the class begins their reading of a complex text whose challenging reading level or content might prove to be problematic. Socratic Seminar is described below by Wanda H. Ball and Pam F Brewer:

The Socratic Seminar is an exciting and effective strategy, K-12 for provoking student thought, dialogue, and ownership for learning. It is a unique alternative to traditional class discussions because in seminar students speak about 97% of class time. In this model, participants sit in a circle, and prompted by their teacher’s open-ended, provocative questions, engage each other in thoughtful dialogue. Their subject is a shared reading, identified for its richness of ideas and issues. Students are responsible for talking with each other, not with the teacher, who facilitates and clarifies through questioning, but who never contributes to the conversation.*

Before convening the Socratic Seminar, I directed everyone to prepare several questions of their own about the text, using Levels of Questions as an active reading stragegy. Developed by Educational Testing Service, as a pre-AP strategy to provide scaffolding in critical analysis of fiction (aesthetic) and non-fiction (efferent) texts, Levels of Questions (similar to QAR) is an excellent strategy for enabling students to “think with text,” i.e. to ask their own questions about what they are reading:
The real purpose of books is to trap the mind into doing its own thinking. —Christopher Morley

Level One (Right There) Questions call for answers that are explicit or “above the surface,” information or details that can be found in the text (or readily in another source)that contribute significantly to the reader’s understanding.

Level Two Questions (Think and Search) Questions require analysis and interpretation. The reader must ferret out the implicit or “beneath the surface” meaning to arrive at answers, draw inferences, make assumptions, draw conclusions, speculate, hypothesize, and otherwise, engage in deep thought, prompted by the hints and clues (cues) embedded in the text (by the author).

Level Three Questions (Global Questions**) are open-ended questions about values, themes, ideas, and issues of universal human concern that provoke much discussion and debate. Level Three Questions are prompted by, but do not depend upon, having read the text in order to enter into the discussion. Note: I urge my students to formulate questions that might lead to endless hours of conversation out on the yard during nutrition or lunch or around the dinner table or living room at home.

Student Reflections on Socratic Seminar

At the end of our first Socratic seminar, I asked the class to reflect in writing about the effectiveness of the strategy. Their responses mirror precisely the explanation of its efficacy by Ball and Brewer.

Specifically: Such meaning making, placing the curriculum into context, and establishing emotional connection to content are all documented methods for locking in new learning. These are the catalysts for linking new learning with the old, thus entering the new learning into the system. Socratic seminars tap this meaning-making frame in a powerful way and help to motivate all types of students. Socratic seminars likewise return ownership for learning to students as they explore a reading, back up their opinions with textual evidence, challenge each other’s views, and most importantly, find, articulate, and develop their ‘voice.’

I like that I got a chance to confer with scholarly minds about the text. By discussing the book, my mind and interpretation changed because of the different views my peers brought [to the discussion]. . . .this is a wonderful idea because it helps …to brainstorm about the text and hear [how] issues in the book relate to real life. –Shavod

I found the circle very intriguing. Everyone gets a chance to speak and most importantly, everyone is heard.—Lynique

I like the Socratic Seminar because it gives us achance to teach ourselves as students, also [we] get a chance to find out things about the text that we didn’t know when we read to ourselves. –Brionie

It [allows] us to share ideas with others and …participate in discussion where you are not worried about if your answer is right or wrong. –Nona

I loved the seminar; English is not really my strong subject, but discussion is. I had a lot of strong opinions [about] the text, and the fact that I had the opportunity to express them made me happy….I have participated in other seminars where I was the only one talking, and even though I like for my points to be heard, I also like having other people’s points of view and broadening my horizons. –Neftali

This Socratic Seminar was interesting. I …think that [sometimes] people are . . . stuck on what they believe even though their idea is not really warranted by the text, but by their own judgement…. –Jenny

This [type of] discussion made it easier for people to “automatically” respond to the book. The circle makes it feel as if this is just a regular conversation. –David

People had very valid points. . . . it basically put the text under a microscope and dissects it thoroughly. This was a big help to me to know that other people were also confused and needed a little help understanding what was going on. . . . This was a very effective way to understand the book. . . . . –Janae

*“Socratic Questioning: Then and Now” by Wanda H. Ball and Pam F. Brewer *A chapter in Teaching in the Block: Strategies for Engaging Active Learners, Robert Lynn Caneady and Micheal D. Rettig, ed., Eye on Education Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1996.

** I refer to this level of questioning as global because it bespeaks the social and cultural relevance of engaging in reflection and discussing wide-ranging topics that emanate from the study of aesthetic and efferent texts