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!

How “Coaching” Can Complement the Classroom

Returning to the well for a yearly conference is rejuvenating and special. This week I am in the middle of two weeks of attending two amazing weeklong conferences – NTPRS and IFLT. I am sure both will provide tremendous amounts of growth opportunities for me as an educator and as a trainer and coach (which are my main roles at each conference).

I am fortunate to serve on both Coaching Teams at these conferences that value the need for participants to reflect and practice skills. It is crucial that teachers take the time to try out all of the new ideas and skills that they are learning in order to best prepare them for when they return to their classrooms. In “Coaching” we provide a safe space for teachers to practice and grow with the support and nurturing from a Coach and fellow participants. Each conference provides coaching times embedded throughout the workshops and Open Coaching sessions throughout the week. And yet, although I see these moments as opportunities for growth and development, the reality is that some may see a coaching experience as torture.

Why torture? There are a few reasons. We are asking educators to get up in front of peers and teach in an artificial setting. Let’s add the reality that some educators may have concerns speaking in a non-native language they teach or if English is their second language, they must communicate in our English-speaking environment. Lastly, participants are learning so many new concepts, skills, and strategies that may be outside of their comfort zone to try to implement. So when you put all of that together, we as Coaches know how overwhelming a Coaching experience could seem.

Over the course of many years, TPRS/CI Coaches have created a model that puts participants at ease and works to best meet their individual needs. In fact, we know that people learn so much by reflection and observing that observation plays a big role in the Coaching process and, for those who do not want to “teach in front of peers,” they can observe or learn language as students. The model has all participants focus on everything that they CAN DO WELL. Everyone is reflecting on what they see and throughout the process, they are all learning by looking for the good instead of the bad. [If you are attending NTPRS, IFLT or AGEN, be sure to feel the power of Coaching].

Now in this post, I wanted to think about connecting elements from our Coaching model to the classroom. I have to really take a step back with this because I do not think I am always as encouraging or positive with my students as I am on the Coaching Team. Do I always just look for the positive and what my students can do or do I point out the negative and their errors? If I am often criticizing my students’ language or possibly creating a culture of scrutiny, what is their impetus to even try? My desire to “help” them and correct their Spanish could be having a reverse effect. I also have been reflecting on my level of “positivity” working daily with teenagers whose commitment to their smart phones often takes precedent over focus in class or, even worse, the priority is to just talk over me as I am trying to provide input and conduct the class as the teacher. I am aware that their actions do not always put me in the most positive state of mind.

In many ways our Coaching experience is just like how my classes need to be. In Coaching, we set ground rules and expectations and work to shed light on everything that participants can do while providing guidance to hone a new skill. Although our conference audience is most often happy to be there, we know that there is a tremendous amount of pressure put on them. Frankly their Affective Filters (from SLA research) could be quite high but if we provide the support needed, nerves can be calmed and then their success celebrated. When I ask students to perform by comprehending, reading, and speaking Spanish, they too could experience high Affective Filters, especially if the environment sometimes goes toward the negative or is not set up to celebrate their successes. My thoughts on this are resonating a bit more now as we just finished the end of a the school year, which was more challenging than the “bright eyed” beginning of the year. Students’ actions and the constant need for classroom management in some classes really brought me down this spring. Knowing this, I think back to all of the negative energy that was in the classroom environment and how perhaps the Coaching Team mindset could have helped both my students and me as an educator. Even though I serve as Co-Coordinator for the Coaching Team at NTPRS, it has taken the support from our coaches and our time together to refocus, recharge and remember all of the good that we can do by looking for the positive in others. Bit by bit I am preparing for the school year. Cheers to Summer PD.

My First Two Weeks: Respect, Routines, Plus Language

What a couple of weeks! It is incredible how much goes into the first full two weeks of school. This year I am teaching Spanish II, III and IV (the past two years I have only had Spanish II and IV).  So in addition to a third prep, figuring out my routine and new class schedule (similar for students) is the greatest challenge as we all find our new rhythm.

Regardless of figuring out a new fascinating rhythm, I am able to rely on many language activities, routines, and procedures that have made the last two weeks feel very successful and rewarding. The goal of the first few weeks or month of school needs to be more about developing the procedures necessary for maintaining classroom management instead of just trying to teach language.

Don’t get me wrong, these last two weeks have been full of language acquisition, learning, and practice – but the truth is that setting the tone, procedures, expectations, establishing community, and learning students’ names have been my ultimate classroom goals. I learned this essential piece the hard way, even as a seasoned teacher who went to teacher school when I transitioned to my new position four years ago. What I soon realized was that many of the same routines and procedures developed by master teachers in elementary and middle school grades could and should apply to a high school setting. I must thank Bryce Hedstrom (http://www.brycehedstrom.com) for his careful articulation of procedures and expectations for students that he has shared because so many of them have helped me be a stronger teacher.

Fortunately I do not have to take a management approach of “not smiling until December,” and I am able to still build the ideal rapport with my students while consistently reinforcing my expectations. The truth is that maintaining consistency is challenging and at times not fun, but then I remember the times of feeling helpless with an unruly class, which was much worse that just being consistent. My high school students need as much follow through and reminders as fifth graders; in fact, I have the luck of being married to a fifth grade teacher, who is a master in developing classroom routine and structure so over the years we have had many conversations on the topic. Knowing this, I cannot expect my students to follow all of the rules and procedures only after telling them once nor can I feel that my directing and retraining of student behavior is a waste of precious time for language learning or providing comprehensible input. I believe this a fallacy for many teachers especially in school cultures rushing to teach for the test and get results. Teachers and administrators must set the limits and enforce them in order to provide safe learning environments for all students. I do not feel we must all be authoritative disciplinarians but we must create learning environments with limits and respect.

Over the past two weeks, I have worked through many activities and limit setting pieces within my lessons in order to develop some of the skills necessary for language acquisition and/or learning to occur. I do not find this area to be my strongest suit and I am always adding new pieces to my arsenal. This year I have included a new call and response system that I saw beautifully demonstrated by Alina Filipescu at IFLT this summer. She uses many catchphrases (the call) that she trains her students to listen for and when said, students must reply with another piece (the response). Of course, this takes training but once the expectation is set, it becomes second nature and helps demand that students are listening and watching. There are some elements of body language used in the system; for example, I raise my hand for an all-class response and Alina leans forward with her body. For the past two years, I have successfully incorporated Bryce Hedstrom’s “Clase/Sí señor/a” when the teacher says “Clase” and students respond “Sí, señor/a.” This is how I have requested students’ attention and now I have incorporated many more into my daily routine: Alina’s “1,2,3 / No inglés (No English)” and “Mira, Escucha / Estamos en la lucha (Look, Listen / We are in the battle/fight),” some classics like “Hola, hola / Coca-Cola,” “A,E,I,O,U / El burro sabe más que tú” and a few of my own: “4,5,6 / no móviles (no cell-phones),” “Estamos juntos / hasta el fin. (We are together, until the end),” “Otra cosa / poderosa (another powerful thing)” and “Es viernes / gracias a dios (It’s Friday, thank god.)” My new ones were developed as I was backwards planning structures that I know my students will need in the future (juntos, cosa, poderosa, dios).

Setting a respectful tone and safe classroom is very important for me as an educator. We discuss that using inappropriate or sexist/racist/homophobic language is not permitted in our community and there will be consequences. I use the same infraction system as cellphone usage in class: first offense is an after school detention, second is a call home and detention, and third is an office referral. From a curricular stand-point, I have chosen to begin my Spanish II and III classes with the song “Colores, Colores” by Bacilos because the song talks about diversity and how people feel they are superior because of their skin color yet students do not get this message when just listening to this fun and catchy song. I do four to six days of short language listening lessons with the final day viewing a student made video of images (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgRfGGxr76Q&feature=youtu.be – yes there are some language errors in the written Spanish). The images are powerful and simply having students define the meaning of the lyrics with the pictures allows them to see that this fluffy and fun song is much deeper. Along those same lines, Spanish III and IV students were engaged in a Movietalk using the “Paper, Rock, Scissors” Android commercial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gk5yeiydxV4). I know many have used this in it the past, but it was a first for me, and it worked like a charm. Again, incorporating these resources help set the tone of respect in my room the same way when I correct a student’s behavior for being rude during a competitive game of Quizlet Live.

I do not want it to seem like language and comprehensible input were not an important piece of the equation from day one; it absolutely was and students were not introduced to a syllabus until day three. In all of my levels, we worked toward 90% target language for us all using James Asher’s TPR (Total Physical Response), Ben Slavic’s Card Talk (aka Circling with Balls), name games, discussing the date, day, weather and emotions, reporting what happened or will happen over the weekend, passwords, asking a story, reading a story, a Movietalk, a song, learning how to use wordreference.com, our first ten minute free write, and seven minutes of silent-sustained reading. All of these pieces needed routine building and training. The first two weeks provided the initial experiences of these important aspects of my classes.

Now it is my job to continually go over the routines for each of these activities and be consistent in expectations while also incorporating more. I know that it has taken me my whole Mosaic of World Language Teaching to get to the point to have such a full and what I think meaningful two weeks. What I always have had to remember as a teacher is that we are all at different places in our careers and our experiences. For teachers reading this, please do not feel you ever need to incorporate every aspect that I have included above (because we often want to include it all). We must all look at our teaching and process by polishing one piece of our mosaics at a time. These two weeks reminded me that a bit of self-care is also needed – when I was on the brink of losing my voice. Teaching with lots of comprehensible input and establishing the routines required lots of talking and I had to make some lesson design decisions around the fact that I needed to save my voice. We all must do what we need to do to be effective for our students and ourselves.

I am leaving the post with this message from Wicked the Musical. After reflecting on my first two weeks, I know that I must set the limits for my students (and myself) and then with my students we’ll be “Unlimited. Together we’re unlimited. Together we’ll be the greatest team there’s ever been.” I believe that working on procedures, routines, respect, and limits will allow us all to be unlimited and grow together. Over the next few weeks I will include some classroom jobs, which will enhance our community and team even more.