Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What an excellent class looks like

I am co-teaching a 10th grade Humanities course this year, and we are keeping a blog to record what we do and how we feel about it. I have taken my recent entry and copied it here, as it speaks to ideas of giving students ownership of their learning, and what happens when you do that.

On Friday, November 1 (the first of Movember!), I had the pleasure of one of the best class days I have ever had. It needs to be shared.

For their final project on Lord of the Flies, two groups of Sophomores are choosing to participate in a Socratic Seminar. I have never done one of these before, and neither have they, so we are all exploring what this means, and how we want to go about it. What I told them to get started was that this assignment would culminate in having a 45-minute conversation about a question of great interest to them, and they would have to do that in front of the other students in the class.

To start the conversation, we had discussions of what question they would want to have at the center of the Socratic Seminar. I spoke with each group of participants for a full 50 minute period each, and they blew me away. Their questions were deep, challenging, thoughtful, and interesting. Their manner with each other was respectful while remaining questioning of the thinking behind others' suggestions. My job was made very easy, and the class time ended up as an energizing conversation of interesting topics rather than me having to actually serve as the idea generator posing as a participant. Photos of the whiteboard at the end of class follow: (LotF is Lord of the Flies)

The last period of the day was with a mix of the two groups, and our job was to create the basis of a rubric for assessing how well they each do during the Seminar itself. This is a very difficult thing to do, as the heart and soul of this sort of Seminar is that each student should be seeking a deeper understanding of the topic under discussion. How do you put a grade on that? Is that something that we can even meaningfully evaluate?

In any case, I asked them what they thought an excellent Socratic Seminar would look like. Once again, I was quite impressed with their thoughtfulness, their respect for one another, and the high bar they set for themselves. They expressed the need for evidence, the desire for meaningful questions, and their hope that this will be a truly substantive conversation about a truly interesting topic. I am including another picture of the whiteboard after that conversation, and I have been building a rubric using the language here:

All in all, this was one of the best days I have had in the classroom. Students rose above the high bar I had set in my mind, and they impressed me with their curiosity and maturity. I am extremely hopeful for the quality of their Socratic Seminars, which are scheduled to begin on November 18.

I will leave you with a quote from one of the students: “It’s good to use your heart in what you say, but back it up with your brain.”