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Bringing Everyone into the Discussion: Conducting Successful Middle Grades Seminars

Jeremy Stoddard, College of William & Mary
Patty Jones, Fairfax County Public Schools
Molly McClain, Fairfax County Public Schools
NCSS 2011

About Socratic Seminars

Socratic Seminars, which focus on exploring the issues, ideas, and values of important historical “texts,” are important models for helping students develop critical reading and analysis strategies as well as discussion and deliberation skills. Seminar formats are also a rich environment for helping English Language Learner (ELL) students and otherwise at-risk students (e.g., low reading level, underachieving) to develop their language skills and to motivate them to engage in a social studies classroom. These discussion skills, along with the ability to think critically, are also keys to promoting student development as democratic citizens, and especially when they center on themes of justice, democracy, and equality. Further, these skills align with skills in historical analysis and contextualization emphasized in contemporary history education. Although it is often assumed that middle grades students are not prepared or able to do these types of discussions, they are actually a quite successful strategy for all levels of students when implemented with thoughtful preparation, scaffolding, and differentiation. Additional resources and information on Socratic Seminars can be found here.

About Project Civis

The Project Civis Curruiculum is based on research of best practices in curriclum and instruction, democratic and social studies education, and gifted and talented education. It is alignted with Alabama and Virginia state history and social science education standards and focuses in particular on student inquiry, discussion, and deliberation. Use the links below to learn more about several examples of Socratic Seminar lessons from the Project Civis Curriclum Units designed for 5th-7th grade US history courses.

Socratic Seminars

America Declares Independence (From the American Revolution unit) In this two-day lesson, students read and interpret the Declaration of Independence as well as excerpts from some of the philosophical writings that influenced it. Students discuss the Declaration of Independence using a Socratic Seminar format.

What is the Historical Significance of Gettysburg? (From the Civil War unit) Students first examine the significance of the battle at Gettysburg as a turning point in the war and then prepare for and participate in a Socratic Seminar on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that engages them in analyzing the issues, ideas, and values of this significant historical speech.

DuBois vs. Washington (From the unit: Post-Reconstruction, Migration and Urbanization) Students participate in socratic seminar discussions of excerpted versions of either Du Bois’s essay “The Talented Tenth” or Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise Speech” in order to better understand each man’s beliefs about the best strategy for African Americans to achieve equality at the turn of the century. Students analyze the issues, ideas, and values in each text.

Martin Luther King, Jr's Letter from a Birmingham Jail (From the Civil Rights unit) Students prepare for and participate in a Socratic Seminar to discuss Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail

Additional Socratic Seminar Resources