Socratic Circles as Assessment ~ the Why and How

Happy 2018-19 school year!

I wanted to take the time and share a strategy, or better yet, a framework for learning and assessment that I use as one of the tenants in my Spanish IV classes and at the end of Spanish III.  This framework is preparing students for a Socratic Circle or Socratic Seminar, and this post will explain how they function in my class setting.

When I think about the proficiency levels of our students, my level III and IV students’ proficiency levels fall in the range of novice-high to intermediate-high.  Fortunately, I have found that a Socratic Circle performance assessment allows for success for all students that have been present in class learning about the topic. I continue to use Socratic Circles because they empower students to think and use real language.

I would like to take a moment and give a shout out to my dear friend, Amy Wopat, @wopatdc, who teaches in DC public schools.  It is because of Amy that I began using Socratic Circles with the framework that she designed for her classes.  Together we have presented on the topic and the Socratic experience has evolved in different ways for both of us.  This blog post explains how I use the Socratic Circles in my environment, and my hope is that readers are able to take these ideas and make Socratic Circles their own to enhance their world language curriculum.

The goal of a Socratic Circle experience is for students to lead a formal discussion for 30 to 45 minutes in the TARGET LANGUAGE without help from me.  As the teacher, I say very little during the Socratic Experience because the students have prepared to be the experts, ask questions, ask one another for clarification, and listen to each other while having a civil discussion. (Elfie Israel has a good working definition of a Socratic Seminar here).  When thinking about 21st century skills in education, a Socratic Circle provides a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate critical thinking, collaborative learning, and communication.  Through a World Language lens, the 5 C’s are also fostered (Communication, Connections, Comparisons, Community and Culture), especially if the topic and question posed for the Socratic Circle is relevant to culture and community – which mine are.

Socratic Circles and Backwards Design: Logistics and Preparation

For the Socratic Circle performance days, I look at how many students I have in my class and decide how many “Seminar Circles” I will need.  I believe the best number of students per “30 to 45 minute Seminar Circle” is 7 to 11, meaning a class of 24 students would need 2 to 3 “Seminar Circles.”  Depending on your bell-schedule, you may have to dedicate multiple days to the performance assessment with different tasks for your students each day.

Setting up the classroom in an Inner circle/Outer circle(s) arrangement– see picture here – allows for the “Inner circle” students to discuss the posed question while the “Outer circle(s)” students are tallying how many times their “partners” are speaking during the Socratic experience and/or writing information that the “Inner circle” students are saying (this additional part may be key in keeping a third Outer circle of students engaged if your class numbers require three circles).  I will continue to define this in the Grading and Rubrics section of this post.

The daunting experience for students to stay in the target language for 30 to 45 minutes about a real topic requires preparation.  Since my Socratic Circle experience is a culminating assessment, students are saturated with the topic at hand so they have the necessary vocabulary and structures to easily communicate their thoughts about the topic and posed essential question(s) for the unit.  Throughout the unit of study, students begin to make connections and think about how to respond to the essential question(s) because I reference it often during class. For any Socratic Circle or Seminar experience, students must be reminded that the experience is not a debate but rather a discussion, and multiple viewpoints should be considered throughout the discussion.  This piece is important for me as an educator because I hope it builds empathy and the capacity to see topics from multiple perspectives for my students.

For example, in our district we end our Spanish III course with the students’ first Socratic Circle about Immigration to the US.  This is a controversial topic that requires all of us to see the issues from multiple perspectives.  Throughout the unit, we include many sources that show different perspectives. The sources that we choose to work with serve as the anchor sources for students upon which they can build their fundamental understanding of a topic.  This of course does not mean that our students do not bring prior knowledge about the topic nor that we do not encourage self-study on the topics – in fact, students must find additional sources and refer to them during the Socratic Circle experience to support their comments.

In preparing for the Socratic experience, students must evaluate and annotate sources, and then make reference and cite their sources as they make claims during the discussion.  These are crucial skills for preparing students for many of today’s standardized exams including the AP World Language and Culture exam.  For example, on the AP World Language exam, for the presentational writing task, students must write a persuasive essay requiring them to cite from three sources while presenting an argument including multiple perspectives or viewpoints.  The presentational speaking task requires students to compare and contrast a topic from the perspective of a target culture and a student’s own culture. In preparing students for the Socratic experience, I provide language and structures needed to help a student compare, contrast, express agreement/disagreement, change topics, defend a point of view, and support an opinion.

My role as the teacher is to prepare the students to be successful and accomplish the daunting task that I have given them.  I continue to use Socratic Circles because my students are amazed that they can successfully do it. They are so proud of what they have accomplished in the target language and it empowers them and helps them see that they can use real language and communicate on topics relevant today.

Here is an example unit plan for my Spanish IV unit on the Cuban Revolution. The unit plan also includes the requirements for the actual Socratic Circle experience.  It is important to note that students are still learning language when reading, viewing or listening to the anchor sources. These sources provide a great deal of the unit’s content and needed background for the topic. For this reason, I must assure that the sources are comprehensible for all students by using strategies to help students successfully interpret them.
Resource:  Sample Unit Plan with Culminating Socratic Circle Assessment: the Cuban Revolution

Assessing the Socratic Circle

In many ways I feel that a Socratic performance assessment is just like an IPA (Integrated Performance Assessment) because all skills of communication are needed and can be assessed: interpretive, interpersonal and presentational.  This all being said, since I feel these types of assessments are more performance-based and students can prepare for them, I have worked to hone my rubrics and grading strategies to help more students “listen and respond to” instead of simply “responding with memorized or language that is read aloud.”  Ultimately, I want an interpersonal dialogue to be taking place while they use their resources to defend their claims and/or point of view.

The following is the breakdown of the requirements and grades for a Socratic Circle:

Prior to the Socratic Circle Experience:

Interpretive Reading Grade: Students must find, read or view, and annotate 2 articles and/or 1 audio/visual source (usually in target language) that have to do with the essential question of the Socratic Circle.  I also provide them this Current Event Analysis Sheet that they must complete per source.  Points are generally given in this fashion per article:  5 points for annotations on the article that include questions, connections to the essential question, and marking main ideas [you may have to teach how to annotate] and 10 points for the Current Event Sheet.  These annotated sources should be used when the student is in the Inner Circle.

During the Socratic Circle Experience:

Interpersonal/Presentational Speaking Grade 1:  When a student is in the Inner Circle, she has a list of requirements that they must accomplish during the 30 to 45 minutes allotted.  The task of keeping count of these requirements is assigned to a student-partner who is seated in the Outer circle.  [What I have found works best is when I determine the mix of who will be in the Inner Circle and who will also be their partners; this way I pair up students based on abilities, which helps with their capacity to listen for key factors.  It also helps to have a variety of students in the Inner Circle at one time].

There is one Speaking Grade based on this content.  For an A grade, the Cuban Revolution example requires students to complete these tasks:

  1. Ask 3 questions
  2. Respond to 3 students’ questions or comments
  3. Make 3 statements referring to a class/anchor source
  4. Make 3 statements referring to their own sources

The grades are determined based on how many times a student did the above task requirements.  Again the student’s Outer circle partner (and often the student herself) is checking off the requirements, which she will turn in to me.

Here is an example of a Socratic Circle Student Reference Sheet with the Outer circle grading.  Each of the 4 task requirements is worth 5 points with a student earning 3 points once she makes reference to each task.  Students’ grades will vary based on how many times they complete the 4 required tasks.  It is important to note that yes, students can accomplish two tasks at once for example by (B.) responding to a student’s questions while (D.) referring to one of their sources.  Also, during the Socratic experiences the Outer circle partners can silently communicate with their Inner circle partners and when there are 5 to 7 remaining minutes, I allow them to have a quick conference so that students know what else they may need to include in the discussion.  Generally speaking, prepared students score very well with this grade because there are many supports in place for their success: clearly-defined task requirements, a conference time with their partners, and use of their source articles (and sometimes notes, depending on the level and time of year).

Interpersonal/Presentational Speaking Grade 2:  My last note about students using notes is precisely why I have created this 2nd speaking grade.  After many tweaks, I am pretty happy with this rubric.  During the Socratic Circle, I am filling out these rubrics for all Inner circle students based on whether or not they are (1) Speaking or Reading from notes (when they are permitted to use them – Spanish III end of year and first Socratic in Spanish IV) and (2) Use of Vocabulary as it pertains to the unit and Academic vocabulary (that I provide).  This grade is worth 14 points.

In my opinion, these 2nd Speaking grades are optional, and please know, that it is not grading students on “correct usage of language.”  I have found that this grade was necessary to push my students to not read from their notes but rather really speak in the target language; it also pushed students to use more of the Academic language that they need to begin to internalize.  I have seen great results with implementing this grade with respect to students accomplishing the task of genuinely speaking and listening about a topic.  By design, it does not require me to be punitive with their communication errors and gives me a chance to write down some feedback to share with each student.  In all truth, some of my students over prepare for the Socratic experience and rely too heavily on online translation, and this is exactly what I am trying to hinder.  On a positive note, some of my best Socratic discussions have come from those students who did not prepare at all because I know they are creating all of their language on the fly.

Interpretive Listening Grade: When students are in the Outer circle or (Outer-Outer circle, if you have 3 groups), students must write down 5 to 10 comments or questions that different students have said while in the Inner circle. This additional measure is in place to emphasize that all students must pay attention even while not in the Inner circle.  In general, I give 2 points per comment, so the grade is 10 to 20 points respectively.

Post Socratic Circle Experience:

Presentational Writing Grade:  Following the Socratic Circles, there is an in-class written essay or short-answer assessment about the essential question and what has been learned from the experience.  This assessment is completed in the target language. I will often ask students to reference comments made from all Circles (again 1, 2, or 3 based on class-size) and to continue to incorporate academic vocabulary in their responses.

 

I hope that this post has provided you with some resources to possibly implement a Socratic Circle or Seminar in your own classes. My colleagues and I feel that by incorporating them, our students are able to develop their target language voices on relevant topics to life and history and make more connections to other subject areas than we are able to do with just narrowed topics.  Of course this post is no where near the be-all to understanding Socratic Circles or Seminars but it could serve as a starting point for you to help push students to listen and think on their own in the world language context.

Have a great school year!

Here is a quick template to help design a Unit with a culminating Socratic Circle/Seminar!

A special THANK YOU to Cindy Hitz, @sonrisadelcampo, for the weekly reminders this summer via Twitter to get this post written – the public accountability worked!