Sunday, March 9, 2014

Socratic Circle with Third Graders - School Uniforms and Mr. Kang

Have you ever heard of the Socratic Seminar method? It is a structure more commonly used in middle or high school. Here is a basic description of the method:

The Socratic seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions.  Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others.  They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. (89)
Israel, Elfie.  “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions n the English Classroom.  James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.
Doesn't that sound like exactly what we want our students to do? If you would like a more detailed description about the method, this article from ReadWriteThink is great!  In a planning meeting, my coach offered this idea to me to use with my students after we finished reading our selection for the week, Happy Birthday, Mr. Kang. 
I wanted my students to have a discussion about the theme of the story, which happened to be very deep and slightly complex (in my opinion) for third graders. 
Although we have had literature circles and book club meetings before, this method felt a bit different. I was a little skeptical to try it because all of the examples I found online were done with older students. I decided to give it a shot anyway! 
To prepare students for the discussion, we started off with guidelines. I had these written on an anchor chart, but because I forgot to take a picture of it, I recreated it digitally:

Without realizing it, I called the method Socratic Circle rather than Seminar when explaining it to the kids, but the purpose is still the same! 
We practiced forming a circle and sitting in our chairs correctly. I explained to the students that they would be facilitating the discussion and that I would not be a part of the circle. I would pose a question and the students would take it from there. We came up with some appropriate phrases to say during the course of the circle. I explained that even if you didn't have a new thought to offer to the discussion, you could simply agree or disagree with what someone else had already said. Because there are no specific right or wrong answers, it frees the students to share their thoughts without the fear of being incorrect. Also, because one of our guidelines was to value every thought, the students knew they could not respond negatively to anyone's thoughts, but they could explain in a kind way that they disagree. 

Click here for a copy of the guidelines and phrases 

When we felt comfortable with this, I sent the students back to their seats with a blank index card. For our very first circle, i wanted something non-academic so students would be more willing to share. I posed that age-old question- should students be required to wear uniforms to school? Everyone had something to say about this topic! My students are required to wear uniforms, but this day happened to be our Go Texan Day so students could wear western wear. Also, students have the ability to wear Texans gear on Fridays. This added a new layer to the discussion!

I gave the kids about three minutes of quiet thinking time for them to record their thoughts on their index cards. They then brought their cards with them to the circle and we began our discussion. 

The kids did a fabulous job! When the conversation reached a lull, they used the "What do you think, ___" phrase to engage the kids who hadn't yet offered their thoughts. I was pleased to hear the kids discussing all views of the topic. I only needed to interject a few times to offer some guidance. Some students mentioned that uniforms are easier for parents because they are cheaper and easier to shop for. Others mentioned how clothing could become a distraction at school, and some explained that students should be allowed to express themselves through their clothing- all viable arguments! Their wheels were turning for sure! 

When all students had their chance to share, I called the discussion to a close and directed students back to their seats to write about whether their opinion had changed or stayed the same after hearing the thoughts of their classmates. They recorded their thoughts on the back of the same index cards they used prior to the circle. Some students decided they had a change of heart, while others stuck firmly to their original thought. 

We then switched gears and focused our attention back to the story of Mr. Kang. In the story, the main character, Mr. Kang, an immigrant from China, is struggling with his desire to stay connected to his Chinese heritage. He makes a wish on his 70th birthday to have a hua mei, a cherished Chinese bird, as his very own. His wish comes true and he loves the bird very much. However, the bird is kept in a cage and his American-born grandson, who Mr. Kang also loves dearly, believes the bird is not happy cooped up in the cage and should be set free. The bird becomes a metaphor for Mr. Kang's own feelings of being trapped working in the same restaurant making noodles for 50 years and in an instant, he decides to let the bird go, much to the dismay of his wife, his friends, and even his grandson.  Although the bird returns to Mr. Kang unexpectedly in the end, Mr. Kang had already realized his ability to choose freedom and he embraces being American. It's a truly beautiful story. 

As I mentioned earlier, my students had some difficulty inferring these deep feelings as we progressed through the story, so I felt that the Socratic Circle would be a good medium to explore their ideas of the theme. 

They wrote on new index cards what they believed the theme of the story to be and we met again in our circle. I knew ahead of time that only a few students truly grasped the message of the story, but I was hoping that through the discussion all students would hear these thoughts and think twice about what they originally thought about the theme.

Several of my students began with the theme being, "If you love something, let it go. If it returns, you know it is really yours." A great start, but not quite to the depth I wanted. To be completely honest, the discussion did not have quite the impact I wanted it to, but the students did get to hear the thoughts of the students who explained that Mr. Kang made an important decision in letting the bird go and related that decision to our capability to choose our own happiness. I realized during the course of the discussion that this difficult concept was not the best topic for discussion, but the students persevered and listened intently to the few students who understood the message. They all at least had exposure to a deeper level of meaning, which accomplished my original goal. 

Even though the Mr. Kang discussion did not go quite like I wanted, it was valuable practice for my students. They love using this method and are asking me often when we will have another circle. I like the method because it engages the whole class, provides the structure for open and judgement-free discussion, it teaches the students to use appropriate social skills in an authentic environment, and exposes students to a variety of thoughts and viewpoints. I'd like to use this again with my students in the future, but I'll think more carefully about what topics I present so more of them can contribute meaningful thoughts.  

Have any of you used this method or variations of it? I would love to hear about how it can be used more effectively in an elementary classroom!