The Best Socratic Circle Ever

This story is about a small victory in my classroom, one that shines a light during the days before standardized testing, when stress oozes and festers from the walls. It’s also about Gladys, a young lady with a menagerie of interests. She does music, writing, performing, and medicine. If she went to a well established high school in a community with more libraries than liquor stores, she would be that girl who is in every yearbook picture. Gladys has a problem with organization. She’s a dreamer, and tends to get lost in class, especially a class with 32 other kids with other issues.

It’s Wednesday and we are hip deep in a round of Socratic Circles. The activity involves a text, The Catcher in the Rye, and questions, either student or teacher created (usually both). We have two circles, inner and outer. The inner circle is to use text and questioning to have a student-driven discussion, while the outer circle acts as a “coach”. The latter part is recorded on a worksheet. I don’t care for worksheets. But it’s an easy way to assess and organize what’s going on, plus it keeps kids focused when the discussion gets dull.

There’s Gladys, in the outer circle, dozing off. I’m watching the discussion. It’s…not the best. 3 kids have not read and are praying for a fire drill1. All of a sudden, I see Gladys’ motor start. She’s supposed to be coaching Brianna.

For all her artsy-fartsy wonderfulness, Gladys really cares about her grades. So she moves directly behind Brianna with her novel. She tugs on Brianna’s collar and starts, well, coaching, meaning she’s actually pushing Brianna’s face into relevant pages.

The other kids, inner circle and outer, start to notice what Gladys is doing. Brianna is a fire-breather, and is eager to defend the now-reinforced position on Holden’s sexuality. The other coaches want in. The other participants want help. And the class is abuzz with energy, as every student in the room strives to be their own Gladys.

I know you’re wondering about the “victory” part. Gladys is not using the worksheet and she’s abetting a student who didn’t do their homework. The old “me” would have felt the exact same way. I used to be obsessed with figuring out who had read, to the point where, cribbing from Penny Kittle here, I made tests that were so complicated they stumped the kids who actually did the reading.

Brianna didn’t read. Which will give her motivation to do better: A zero, or a raunchy debate on whether you would follow Holden on Instagram? And when everyone participates, everyone feels better – even the students who are in neither circle (remember, 32 kids) start to perk up. The main purpose of a Socratic Circle isn’t to expose people who haven’t read. It’s to practice and improve the ability to use evidence, direct and indirect, in order to make a point. Everyone is learning more about the book, and I get dozens of opportunities to watch my guys.

I end the class by giving Gladys a shout out, and asking everyone to rate both their coach, their coachee, and themselves. One guy approaches Gladys about being his coach. I give Gladys an oh-so-meaningful dap on the way out.

But the victory isn’t in the smiles, or the energy, or the way an assessment of a reading can serve as an incentive for reading. Here’s what thrilled me: Gladys had a job to do, and, on her own. she found the best way to do it. She didn’t ask permissions. She didn’t shrug and say “forget it”. She found a better way, and that better way spread to all my students, who adopted Gladys’ technique and improved the class. The classroom did not belong solely to me, it was a community effort and it was good.

The smartest people I know speak of student-centered learning and turning control of the class to our students. I think they undersell the difficulty of doing so. Agency, like any other learning, comes in fits and spurts, especially when one if fighting a system that relegates student activity into a box labelled “Disobedience”. Tomorrow, Gladys and the rest will hear me, reading from a script, insist they never go back to section 1 and only work on section 2 within the bubbles. But that Wednesday will live on and, for that, I am thankful.

  1. joke’s on them, we can’t afford smoke detectors