Low Tech, High Visual English Lessons

If you follow this blog at all, you know that I LOVE using technology in the classroom, but today I want to share some of my favorite  low tech  teaching strategies.  I am a terrible artist, but I find a lot of benefit in drawing as we read. Students remember my silly drawings and they gets sense of the big picture of the literature. I require note taking in my class and my students usually love taking these notes and invariably, they are so much better than me.

Drawing our way through English: 



My mythology unit begs for a map through the journey!  As we work our way through the Iliad, Aeneid, and Odyssey we can make connections and see the relationship between gods and humans. We can trace repercussions and retaliation to untangle the twisted web.  I usually draw this on my board as we go and by the end of the unit, it takes up all of my walls! 


This basic outline of the characters of TKAM is helpful when guiding students through the first few chapters.  Having this on the board helps students to put it all together for the rest of the novel. 




This character map of Ethan Frome is most helpful as a review at the end of the novel.  Before delving into the symbolism of the cat and the dish, I like to make sure that students have the basics down. 




Lord of the Flies is such a fun novel to unfold.  I usually draw the island from the beginning and add details as the novel goes on.  Some years, I’ve had student volunteers add details for each reading assignment and I am always amazed at their perceptive reading!


No reading of Slaughterhouse Five could end with an easy  linear mind map, but I love creating a visual with quotes that can help reveal the deeper truth behind the madness.  

Even though I am quite possibly one of the worst artists ever, I love to map out our reading and I find that students engage in the process well. What do you think?  Do you or would you try this with your students?  Leave us a comment below.


A Teacher’s Thoughts on Summer Reading:

Summer Reading

It is the time of year again when we meet in departments to plan out summer reading programs. For me, the words “summer reading” can be a delight and a drain. I work at a school that requires summer reading for college prep and honors English classes at every grade level, which can present some challenges.  Even with the struggles, I think that summer reading is a battle worth fighting.  If you are interested in some of the scientific benefits of summer reading, click around this site for a bit.  Here are my thoughts on putting together a summer reading program that will enhance the curriculum without burning out teachers or students.

1. Offer high interest materials. Summer is a great time to give students a book that will keep the pages turning and not keep the eye lids drooping. Pick something that will appeal to the teenagers at your particular age and level.  This strategy combats my biggest struggle, which is the lack of motivation for some students.  Some suggestions:

  • The John Green books, like Looking for Alaska, The Fault in Our Stars, or An Abundance of Katherines-  It is fun for teenagers to read about other quirky teenagers.
  • Science fiction and fantasy- the kind of books that often get left out of the traditional canon in the school year.  I like books like Dune, The Time Machine, or Hitchhikers Guide too the Galaxy, but there are tons out there to choose from.
  • Other YA faves like Catcher in the Rye, 1984, Perks of Being a Wallflower, etc.

2. Offer reasonable choices. It is nice to offer choices in case some students have read some of the books on the list and also to honor the interest factor for a wide range of students. Each book should be of reasonable length for students and the book list should be of reasonable length for teachers.  In my humble opinion, the teacher should have read all of the books on the list in order to engage in discussion and assessment.

3. Keep assignments simple. If you are doing handouts, questions, essays or anything else with the book, keep it simple.  Summer reading should be about enjoying some quality literature and not getting bogged down in minutia.

4. Make it count. Students learn very quickly and then word gets out if the summer reading assignment does not “count for anything.”  If you can, make the assessment or discussion worth a substantial point value.  In case students don’t complete the assignment well, I like for the summer reading to be worth enough to hurt the first quarter grade, but not so much that the semester grade cannot recover.

5. Bring the conversation online. If you are working with a manageable sized group, using a platform like Collaborize Classroom could be a great way to check in with students throughout the summer. Click here for a Collaborize Classroom tutorial.

6. Be flexible and have a back up plan.  I’ve never had a year with no transfer students or other I-didn’t-get-the-summer-reading situation.  When this happens, I usually excuse the assignment or give students until the end of the first quarter to get it done. The first few years, I let this eat me alive because I was in pursuit of that perfect summer reading program.  It is not out there. Make it work.


What are your thoughts on summer reading? Leave a comment below!


How Should We Pick Required Reading?

required reading

A co-worker recently re-posted this article criticizing changes that my alma mater UCLA made in 2011 to the English department required courses.  Gone are the days of required single author courses in Milton, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, which have been replaced with thematic courses and syllabi full of a combination of the traditional canon and new voices.  Of course, I poked around and saw other articles like this one, in support of the changes and found this clear explanation of the changes from the Daily Bruin.  This all got me thinking about the books that our high schools require.  I currently teach American lit and British lit to juniors and seniors in high school and so my required reading relies heavily on our anthology with the supplement of a couple of novels.  Even though I LOVE my curriculum, I think it is important to think about how we select required reading. Below I’ve listed some of the major considerations out there with a brief opinion of my own. I’d love to hear your two cents!  How much control do you have over your required reading?  Are you happy with your current list?

  • Students should read the foundations like mythology, the bible, and philosophy.  The argument here is that students cannot fully appreciate any works inside or outside of the traditional canon if they do not understand the allusions and underpinnings.
    • I can relate to the difficulties of teaching Romeo and Juliet to students without a working understanding of mythology or Bless Me Ultima without the biblical allusions.  I also relate to the struggle of engaging high school students in the philosophies of the metaphysical poets or the transcendentalist thinkers.
  • Student should be able to read texts that connect with their identity. The required reading should be tailored to the school’s population to reflect authors, characters, and themes that connect with the race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status of students.
    • I have witnessed students come alive as readers when reading works from authors that they personally connect with, like Cisneros, Cullen, and Hong Kingston to name a few. There is a definite power in the approach and I think it is most evident in the long-term inspiration for students to be life long readers and writers.
  • Students should read the masters like Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Thoreau, and Pound.  In Emerson’s “Education”, he writes about the paradox of genius and drill.  Students must closely read the masters in order to create new, relevant works.
    • This is a tough one for me because I sometimes feel that I sacrifice depth in order to cover the breadth of the “masters” which leaves even less time to explore other works.  On the other hand, I want my students going into college with a working knowledge of the major literary players.
  • Students should read around a universal theme. This approach can incorporate the traditional canon and maringalized voices around a common thread.
    • I personally love this approach because it marries the two sides of the argument allowing the educator to juxtapose the traditional canon with additional perspectives. I think this can also lead to a deeper understanding of genres and style through direct comparison.
  • Students should be able to choose their literature. There is also the argument that education in the information age must completely revolutionize to include choice as a center piece.
    • In theory I like this, in practice I loathe it.  As a teacher I take pride in my ability to guide a curriculum toward objectives.  Allowing 100% choice muddies the water of rigor and assessment for me.

What do you think?  How should we be picking the required reading for high school students?

9 Tips to Inspire Students to Actually Read

Get Students to Read

We’ve all had those class periods that seem to drag on with a flat discussion because half the class didn’t really read the last night’s homework.  With all of the shortcuts out there on the internet and sometimes a general apathy that hits teenagers, how do we get them to actually read?  Here are some of my ideas and I’d love to hear yours in the comment section below:

1. Introduce with enthusiasm. It doesn’t always work, but I know that sharing the reasons why I fell in love with the book or author goes a long way with some students to get them excited to start reading.  It sounds cliché, but attitude really is 90% of teaching sometimes right?

2. Daily reading quizzes. Most of my homework is reading.  Read a chapter, read a story, read a speech.  I don’t usually assign questions with the reading because I want them to read fluidly and possibly even enjoy what they are reading without the hassle of stopping every paragraph to answer a question (Plus, grading daily homework and reading quizzes on top of regular essays would probably put me over the edge!).  Every day after the reading, I give a quick comprehension quiz that is not based on the sparks note version, but the actual reading.  During the first quarter, grades suffer, but after that most students figure out that actually reading is the easiest way to pass the quizzes.

3. Talk about the long-term. I teach mostly college prep and honors classes and I find that sometimes high school students need a little perspective.  In my most non-condescending voice we have candid talks about the kind of reading skills and self-discipline students will need to compete in college.

4. Put students in charge. Create projects, assignments, and assessments in which students teach the reading.  Check out this post for a specific game plan on this one.

5. Leverage technology. Check out these posts on how to enhance curriculum by using resources like collaborize classroom, twitter, prezi, google presentations, google forms, explain everything, iPads, and infographics.  Kids love technology, let’s use it to our advantage.

6. Create a social experience. Students are more likely to read when there will be some social aspect with their peers in class. I personally love using socratic seminar and literature circles.

7. Give students options. When possible, allow students to pick a book from a thematic list.  For times when the whole class is reading the same book, give choices on the accompanying assignment.  For example, for a chapter of The Great Gatsby, choose a character and outline his or her actions and motivations.  This allows students to connect more meaningfully with a character that they choose.

8. Use the power of the audio book. My students told me about the librivox app and at first I was a little leery, but now I’ve heard so many success stories that I am sold.  I have students who need to read the chapter with the audiobook and others who read first and then listen as a review on their way to school.  If they are going to have the headphones in anyway, it might as well be in the name of the classic authors.

9. Teach annotation strategies. Actively teach students how to highlight and write brief notes in the margins.  If they become more successful at reading assessments through close reading strategies, they are more likely to feel motivated to actually read and not give up before they start.

What would you add to this list?  I think it needs an even 10…

2 Apps My Students Taught Me To Love:

If you follow this blog regularly, you’ll know that I write a lot about how to incorporate technology into the high school classroom.  This week, I am excited to be sharing 2 school apps that my students found themselves and use regularly.  I love both of these apps because they solve real problems that students face, they work simply, and most importantly students see their value!  I teach primarily 11th and 12th grade English this year, but I can see how these apps work for most secondary grades.

1. LibriVox (Free on iPhone and Android from several sellers):

Librivox.org is a website that catalogues free public domain audiobooks read by volunteers from around the world.  The site does not make an app, but several iPhone and Android developers have created apps that use the catalogue.  Students can quickly search, find and play the chapters of their book from the convenience of their phones.  For struggling readers, I encourage students to read along with an audio book or listen and then read to increase comprehension.  Some of my more advanced students read the book and then listen to the chapters as a review before the test or class discussion.  This app also serves as the premise for a teachable moment about public domain, the value of writers, and the problem with internet piracy.

2. Quizlet (Free on iPhone and Android):

Last year, I told my students about the website version of quizlet, which was originally started by a high school sophomore as an online flashcard study tool and now has almost 9 million cards in multiple subjects. Students quickly found the app and loved it. The site and app is organized by subject, topic, and by publisher, so my students can look up their English vocab book, their spanish grammar topics, or their chemistry chapter and instantly have flashcards ready to go.  In addition to flashcards, the app also has games and self-assessments that help students prepare for all of their classes and standardized tests.

What tech tips and apps are teachers and students loving at your school?

Looking for more? Here are some of my favorite teacher tech posts from SecondarySolutionsBlog:

 Don’t forget to pin this for future reference!  :)

Apps Students

Arch Method to Help Students Analyze Informational Texts

As we continue to grow in our common core competencies and take on new informational texts, we need tools to help students read closely and analyze texts that may be outside of their fiction plot structure comfort zone (and ours!).  At a conference many years ago, I picked up a valuable strategy called the arch method, which I believe can do just that.  I learned it from Valerie Stevenson who is a high school English teacher from San Diego, accomplished conference speaker, and incredible fount of knowledge.  Originally, I used it as a way to help AP students answer prose analysis prompts, but with the common core emphasis on informational texts at all levels, I want to show you how it is an appropriate and valuable tool for all of our classes.

The strength of the method is that it can work for junior high and high school students at a variety of skill levels.  For grade level modifications, the teacher simply needs to ensure that the informational text and guiding question are grade level appropriate.  For emerging readers and writers in all grades, the teacher can walk students through the process with several texts over a long period of time before asking students to work independently on this type of task.  For more advanced students, one model or explanation may be enough. Even with my AP class, I like to scaffold this process a few times to make sure that I am getting my desired result by the time they work independently.

In the hope that you won’t see this tool as something too easy or too difficult for your students, I decided to include an example from a junior high curriculum and a 12th grade college prep curriculum.  If you teach AP language and composition, leave me a comment or question about using this strategy in conjunction with prose analysis questions!

Teachers from every level- please feel free to leave questions or comments!  I’d love to hear from you.

 The Strategy (See picture below):

  • For any given informational text, the teacher asks a guided question.  The question must focus on BOTH the main idea and persuasive techniques.  This type of analysis focuses heavily on author’s purpose and style. The questions can vary in complexity for different levels.
  • Students draw an arch in their notes and write the question on that arch.
  • As they read (directed or independently) students look for the SOAPS (speaker, occasion, audience, purpose, and situation), as well as persuasive language.  The use of rhetoric (or persuasive language) is recorded under the arch.
  • Then, based on the language, students write the answer to the big picture question above the arch.
  • Once this is complete, teachers can assign a variety of extension assignments like writing an analysis essay, writing a persuasive essay or speech using similar techniques, or participating in a class discussion about the themes or persuasiveness of the piece.
  • After students have gone through this method a few times, they begin to understand close reading and can apply it across the curriculum.  I’ve found that it is very helpful for students who struggle with finding textual evidence to support their gut feelings.

Click Image to Enlarge

Analyze Informational Texts 2

Junior High Example:

  •  Junior High students could read and analyze Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech as part of a nonfiction unit or as a companion to novels like Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry or The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963.  This could also be part of a history unit about The Civil Rights Movement or a look at how leaders across time have dealt with discrimination.
  • Here is a link to download an excerpt of the “I Have a Dream” speech.
  • Here is a sample annotation that students could do with teacher scaffolding.
  • Extension activities may include writing a speech about a subject students feel passionate about, writing a speech from the perspective of a character in a novel, or writing a paragraph explaining why the “I Have a Dream” speech was such a powerful moment in American history.
  • In addition to other common core standards, this activity supports the following CCS for grade 6 informational texts: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.6.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and explain how it is conveyed in the text.

Click Image to Enlarge

Analyze Informational Texts 3

High School Example:

  • Senior students could read and analyze an excerpt from Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” to go along with their study of Frankenstein, or as a comparison piece across time to the poem “Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women” by Lanyer.   
  • Here is a link to download the excerpt of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”.
  • Here is a sample annotation that students could do individually or with teacher direction.
  • Extension activities may include writing a vindication of the rights of teenagers, writing a prose analysis essay, or conducting a class debate about the current state of gender equality.
  • In addition to other common core standards, this activity supports the following CCS for grades 11-12 informational texts: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.

Click Image to Enlarge

Analyze Informational Texts 1

What do you think about the arch method? Would you use it? Do you have other go-to strategies for teaching informational texts?

A Look at Common Core Aligned Performance Assessment

Performance Assessment

Both formative and summative assessments play important roles in the learning outcomes of our students.  In any given unit of study, as teachers we check our Common Core standards, map out our benchmarks and embark on the journey. However, if you are like me and you’ve been doing this for a while, sometimes our favorite assessments deserve a second look to make sure that they are lining up with the Common Core.  If you are in the market for Common Core aligned resources, check out this article to be sure you are getting what you pay for!

Today, I want to focus on summative assessment, which comes at the end of each literature unit. As part of my philosophy of education, I believe in multiple means of assessment.  For example, at the end of Romeo and Juliet, I love to give an objective test, a process essay, and some type of performance assessment or alternative assessment.  It takes a little extra planning to be sure that staggered deadlines are achievable and appropriate without prolonging the unit more than necessary.  For me, the return on investment makes any extra effort on my part completely worth it. Luckily, the process is simplified when I use a secondary solutions literature guide to inform my instruction as they all come with quizzes, tests, essay prompts, tons of creative assessment ideas and more! I love the Romeo and Juliet guide, which I use with my freshmen. Although my examples on this post all come from Romeo and Juliet, they can easily be adapted to any other literature unit.

Recently, I went through some of my performance assessments to specifically align them with the common core standards and create fresh rubrics based on those standards. The annotated Common Core standards for grades 9-10 and grades 11-12 were incredibly helpful in this process. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Write an song that retells the narrative of Romeo and Juliet. Songs may be in any genre including rap, country, pop, blues, etc. The narratives must be an accurate retelling of the drama. Include 5 verses (one for each act and a refrain)

  • Common Core Standard: W.9-10.3. Write narratives using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
  • Student sample from my class: Click here!
  • Why I like this assessment: This project allows students to incorporate their own musical talents and aesthetics, while summarizing and retelling a narrative in a fresh way.  I tell students that Shakespeare did not come up with the original story for Romeo and Juliet, but he certainly used his wordsmith talents to bring it to life in a whole new way!  This is their chance to do the same.  The student sample that I provided here was from a very unmotivated student who loved his computer and music software.  Knowing this project was coming kept him engaged for the whole unit so that he could come up with this modern flow!

2. Create an infographic that takes a look at Elizabethan culture. Research topics like gender roles, class stratification, marriage, family dynamics, mortality rates, health care, music, popular culture, etc. Be sure to create a work cited page in proper MLA format to cite your sources. 

  • Common Core Standard: W.9-10.7. Conduct short  research projects to answer a question; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  • Student sample from my class: Click here!
  • Why I like this assessment: Infographics are beautiful pieces of visual rhetoric and are becoming prevalent in the online world that students live in.  They are also an easy, fun way to present research.  Of course, you still have to teach about reliable sources and flow of ideas, but I’ve found that if you just point students toward an infographic generation site, they can handle the tech with ease.  The student sample that I provided is not the best example because it lacks a logical flow of data and is limited in information, but it gives a basic idea of what students can create  with free online tools like picktochart.

3. Film a video that presents research about your given topic from the Elizabethan era.  Be sure to create a work cited page in proper MLA format to cite your sources.  (For this project, I jigsaw topics for different groups like health care, fashion, family, class structure, etc)

  • Common Core Standard: SL.9-10.5. Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.
  • Student sample from my class: Click here!
  • Why I like this assessment: Students never cease to amaze me with their video skills!  This is a great option for the computer savvy student. The student sample here is about the plague, which started well before the Elizabethan era, but impacted the plot of Romeo and Juliet when Friar John is quarantined and unable to deliver the letter to Romeo sparking some hasty decision making! (This video is actually from a different project, but it represents a potential topic related to Romeo and Juliet.) There are an endless number of research possibilities around any given piece of literature.

I find that showing student samples to my class usually inspires them to create even more amazing projects.  Feel free to use my samples if that would help you.  When I assign these projects, I try to stretch students to create something meaningful and beautiful without taking the easy way out.  However, I do usually include a non-computer related option like creating a hand-drawn graphic novel, costumes, or a replica Globe theater.  Those option allow students who do not have access to computers to still be successful and creative.

What are your favorite performance assessments?  I’d love to hear your ideas and answer any questions you may have!

Emily Guthrie has taught junior high and high school English in Southern California for 8 years. She currently teaches grades 9-12, including AP English Language and Composition.  She specializes in working with technology to enhance curriculum for English learners and enrichment students.  She also blogs about fitness and motherhood at TheBusyMomsDiet.com

Literature Circles for High School Students

Today’s strategy spotlight is on literature circles.  I’ve used this technique in my 9th grade English classes to differentiate lessons in order to meet the needs of students struggling to keep up and those needing an extra challenge.  There are many ways to implement literature circles to accommodate for a range of reading levels, class size issues, English learners, and other common classroom needs.  I’m going to share the way it works in my classroom based on my needs, but I’d love for you to leave a question or comment at the end of this post to continue the conversation as it relates to classrooms across the board!

High School Literature Circles

What are literature circles?

Why I use literature circles:

  • I teach 9th grade English in a school that has an average of 50 feeder middle schools.  Students come to me with a wide range of experiences and abilities.  (I know I’m not alone here, right!?!). Literature circles help me to differentiate curriculum without compromising the academic rigor of my class.
  • I find that giving students choices in what they’re reading leads to increased motivation and engagement.

How I use literature circles: 

  • Step 1: Lay the groundwork. This is an optional step that I find useful for younger students.  I read a single novel with the class and in the course of teaching, go over the literature circle roles as a whole class.  I use To Kill a Mockingbird as my initial novel and once a week we all do one role.  In other words,
    • Week 1: All students write discussion questions and practice leading a discussion with a small group.
    • Week 2: All students look for literary devices and present them to peers.
    • Week 3: All students create art based on the novel and then a few students volunteer to justify their pieces to the class.
    • Week 4: All students look for vocabulary words.
    • Week 5: All students do contextual research.
    • Going over the roles as a class helps to scaffold the expectations for the real literature circles coming up. With older or advanced students, this type of preparation may not be necessary. The literature circle roles are not the major focus of the initial unit, but they pop up about once a week as a homework assignment so that the next unit flows smoothly.  For the majority of my TKAM unit, I use a variety of activities and assessments from the Secondary Solutions guide.
  • Step 2: Pick literature circle books and introduce them to the class.  I like to work around a theme and give a variety of texts that will be accessible for some and challenging for others.  I use books related to the themes of racial tension and injustice in order to build on the To Kill a Mockingbird unit (Here is my list). Before students select novels, I give a brief overview, including disclaimers for some of the more controversial topics.  For example, I let students know that The Color Purple deals with abuse in case some students aren’t emotionally ready for that content.  I also give them an idea about which books are more challenging to read so that they can select a book that is appropriate to their own level.  Very rarely I have to directly suggest that a certain pupil select a certain book.  For the most part, they understand which level and content is right for them.
  • Step 3: Students set up a schedule and pick roles.  After students have selected a book, I help them join groups of 3-5 students who selected the same book.  If I have a situation where only one student selects a particular book, I require them to switch.  When there are more than 5 students interested in a particular book, I break them into 2 groups.  When the groups are formed, students must make unanimous decisions about their reading schedule and roles for each meeting.  They must have both parts approved by me prior to the first meeting.  Here is a free Word document that you can edit to suit your own reading lists, dates, and requirements!
  • Step 4: Have the meetings!  Each meeting day, students pull desks into small groups and present their roles to their classmates.  I walk around and listen in on conversations and collect all work at the end.
  • Step 5: Since all students are reading books around a theme, you can create writing prompts, class discussions, and other projects that relate to the overall theme of the unit!

Are you using literature circles in your classroom or considering them for next year?  We’d love to hear your version, roles, questions, or comments.   Leave us a comment and we’ll be sure to start our own discussion right here!  Be sure to check back all summer long for more teaching strategies and fun freebies from Secondary Solutions!

Emily Guthrie has taught junior high and high school English in Southern California for 8 years. She currently teaches grades 9-12, including AP English Language and Composition.  She specializes in working with technology to enhance curriculum for English learners and enrichment students.  She also blogs about fitness and motherhood at TheBusyMomsDiet.com

How to use Socratic Seminar:

As English teachers, we are always looking for different strategies to engage our students in the core literature that we’re teaching. Today’s strategy spotlight is on the Socratic seminar. I’ve used Socratic seminar with low and high level classes with tremendous success and it is always one of the high points on my annual student evaluation forms. It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox along with the other amazing resources and assessments from Secondary Solutions. Be sure to check back all summer for more strategies and freebies from Secondary Solutions!

Socratic Seminar in the Classroom

Reasons to use Socratic Seminar:

  • Student led questioning leads to meaningful reflection and connection.
  • Higher-level analysis questions engage students in critical thinking.
  • Supporting answers with textual evidence is an important underpinning to good writing.
  • Lively dialogue can bring even the most reluctant student into the lesson.
  • Students learn etiquette for polite conversation in which multiple viewpoints are expressed, which is an essential life skill.

Step by Step How to Facilitate a Socratic Seminar:

  • Step 1: Assign students to read and annotate a particular text or section of text. All students must read the same text. (Click here for a free printable and editable assignment sheet with all the details)
  • Step 2:When students come into class on the day that the assignment is due, start by discussing the norms of the seminar. (Here’s another great free download with sample discussion norms!)
  • Step 3: Have students form 2 circles with their desks: one large circle on the outside and one smaller circle in the inside. Each person in the inner circle should have 2 supporting speakers in the outer circle. See diagram at the bottom of this list for a layout with 30 students. (Teacher Tip: I found that arranging the desks before class or marking the floor with painter’s tape helped expedite this process)
  • Step 4: Have one of the students in the inner circle volunteer to pose the first question.
  • Step 5: Allow students in the inner circle to have a couple of minutes to discuss the question with their supporting cast in the outer circle.
  • Step 6: Give students in the inner circle the opportunity to discuss the question, citing textual evidence. At any point, students in the outer circle can pass notes to their counterpart in the inner circle to help continue the discussion, but they may not participate verbally. This keeps everyone engaged and the discussion organized. It also supports struggling students and developing English learners.
  • Step 7: When the question has been exhausted, have students rotate in their triad so that the student in the inner circle switches with one of the two supporters in the outer circle.
  • Step 8: Continue the process with questions from other volunteers.

Sample Classroom Set-up (Click for larger image)


Socratic Seminar Example with Lord of the Flies:

Recently, I read Lord of the Flies with my college prep sophomore class. In addition to the comprehension check questions, literary analysis activities, and assessments from Secondary Solutions, I also held Socratic seminars at the midpoint and end of the novel. One of the gems that came from the midpoint seminar was from one shy sophomore girl who asked:

“In chapter 5, the group discusses the beast at a meeting and Simon suggests that maybe the boys only have to fear themselves (Golding 96). Should they be more concerned with internal or external forces?”

This sparked a spirited conversation about the dangers of island life and the perils of adolescent bullying as seen in the novel up to that point. In the final Socratic seminar, the topic arose again and this time the students knew how the book ended so it brought a whole other layer of understanding complete with comparisons to Fahrenheit 451 and Julius Caesar which we read in the first semester. It was one of those heart warming moments as an English teacher when I realized that they were really getting it.

As a facilitator, I took notes on the questions posed and used them to guide later instruction. I used student questions to form the options for the end of novel essay. After participating in the seminars, students found it much easier to form a clear thesis and support it with evidence from the novel. Their essays reflected the deeper, critical lens that they gained from participation in the class discussion.

Are you using Socratic Seminar in your classroom? We’d love to hear your advice and answer any questions you may have! Leave us a comment and we’ll be sure to start our own discussion right here!

Emily Guthrie has taught junior high and high school English in Southern California for 8 years. She currently teaches grades 9-12, including AP English Language and Composition.  She specializes in working with technology to enhance curriculum for English learners and enrichment students.  She also blogs about fitness and motherhood at TheBusyMomsDiet.com