Occasionally, in the midst of trying to plan lessons, an idea hits me that seems to be somewhat inspired. Sometimes those good ideas translate over from my head into the classroom, and today was – I think – one of those days in which something worked. So, for the benefit of other teachers (and for my own memory), I’m posting it here:

Our juniors had read excerpts from Thoreau’s Walden for today, and I wanted to do something other than lead a whole class discussion. So I had them do some moving around: first for new seats (which, of course, they loved), and then moving for what is sort of an adaptation on the Socratic seminar.

Here’s how it worked:

  • I selected a number of students – about half of the class – and designated them my “inner circle.” These students then moved desks into a small circle. The rest of the students were designated the “outer circle” and directed to form a larger circle around the inner circle.
  • I had prepared a number of index cards with quotes from Walden on them (with page numbers provided so everyone could follow along). Since one of the projects that the students are doing is on aphorisms, this activity was basically a parallel (in part) of what they will do on that project. These were all folded in half and placed in a hat, which would then be picked out by a student for discussion. The student that picked would start by explaining the quote and possibly giving his or her own personal opinion of the quote. From there, other students in the inner circle could respond with agreement or disagreement, either on their interpretation or on their opinion and/or application of the quote.
  • Before we began the discussion, I brought out a small stress ball that came from the Salvation Army which is designed to look like a globe (although the continents are horribly misshapen and disproportionate – but hey, I can cut the Salvation Army some slack). I then informed the students that this ball would be used with two prompts:
    • “The world is in your hands” – When thrown to a student with this prompt, that student would be required to contribute a comment. (This is a last resort if students simply are not giving answers.)
    • “Devil’s advocate” – As might be obvious, this would require the student to respond in opposition to the rest of the group when there is an excessive amount of consensus. (This was especially useful since we are in a transcendentalism unit; I was able to rationalize this as promoting nonconformity in the group.)
  • Students would continue discussing with minimal intervention from myself until the discussion started to run down, at which point I would let a different student pick another quote from the hat for discussion.
  • This continued until about half of the allotted time was up; at that point, the outer circle would become the inner circle, and vice versa.

Despite a little bit of a rough start getting into the first discussion – I take it that many of these students have never done anything like this before – this activity worked quite well, and I heard many students from both classes say that they really liked this format. (One even said that she hoped this was the sort of discussion that happens in college courses! I’m afraid, however, that she may be disappointed if so.) The best part about this: I was able to shut up, only facilitating when necessary, and the students got to take part in a sort of participative discussion. Having half the class not participating was the main struggle I had; many wanted to talk, and occasionally they wanted to get in on the discussion when they weren’t in the inner circle! That alone says to me that this is something that students enjoyed and benefited from, and it is very effective when used intentionally.

If you use this technique (whether the traditional Socratic seminar or my slight modification), tell me how it worked. I know I’ll certainly try it again, and I hope the results are as promising.