Questions & Authors: Synergy, Socratic Circles, and ‘dog slappers’

September 3rd, 2009

“How do I grade Socractic Circles?” This is a question Matt Copeland receives reguarly from classroom teachers. His response: “Well, maybe we don’t grade them.” In his new article in our Quesitons & Author series, Matt, the author of Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School, talks about how he stirred his students away from participating in Socratic Circles just to get more points or better grades, and how he came across an unusual “grading” method.

Not long ago, I exchanged a few emails with a classroom teacher new to Socratic Circles. She was frustrated, both with the strategy and with her students for the lack of depth and quality in their classroom discussions. It’s a topic of conversation I’ve shared with many teachers over the years. And, in many cases, the frustration appears to stem from one concept. Grades.

So, inevitably, my email boiled down to a central question: How are you evaluating the quality of the students’ conversation? The response I received was well thought-out and very detailed in its approach: Students received a homework grade for completing the critical reading of the text before class and they also were rewarded points for the contributions they made to the conversation during class. Statements of agreement earned a point; summarizing what a previous student had said earned two points; posing a question or offering new ideas to the group earned three points; offering a particularly insightful idea or question could earn four or even more points. Bingo.

As gently as I could, I suggested that perhaps students were not engaging the conversation at the level she desired because, in their minds, Socratic Circles and their grades embodied a game: How many points can I rack up in my allotted time? I offered the idea that perhaps holding the conversation without any points attached might help to improve the quality of the discussion. That perhaps allowing the students’ ideas (rather than their grades) to be the central focus might encourage and empower them to engage more fully in the dialogue. It was worth a try.

Her reply came back quickly, “but if I don’t count up points, how do I grade this thing?”

My response was simple: maybe we don’t.

Part of our job responsibilities as classroom teachers is to monitor and document the growth and learning of our students. But, at times, within my own practice, I know I run amuck of the spirit of this responsibility and focus more upon the grades than I do the learning. All too often, in classrooms across this land, points and grades (and test scores) become the “bottom-line” thinking of the classroom.

But my goal in facilitating authentic, open classroom dialogue, I hope, aims a little higher. Through their conversation, I want to instill in my students a love of learning. A love of the collaborative discovery of meaning. A love of one of the bedrocks of our democratic society. I want to see them applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating information. I know their voices contain meaning; I know their voices contain truth. I want them to know it—and feel it—too.

To evaluate true dialogue and true learning in a classroom, we need a better measure than points or grades. We need something that, when added to the conversation, helps to synergize, not something that helps to fragment. If we seek to create that sense of synergy when students are using their whole minds, their whole range of experiences, their whole beings and intuitions, to discuss and construct meaning—to transcend our common core expectations—we need a measure more meaningful. Something more immediate. Something more hilarious.

When I was growing up, my dad always referred to those moments when someone flinched or was suddenly, physically startled as “a dog slapper.” He was notorious for leaping around corners, jumping out from behind bushes, etc. all in hopes of scaring someone half to death just so he could slap his own knee, loudly chuckle to himself, “Oh, that was a good dog slapper!” and then offer his own impression of a yelping dog suddenly awoken from a deep slumber. He’d crouch over on all fours, then spring back up and turn a few full-circles as though he was trying desperately to escape something behind him that we could not see. Barking and yelping the whole time, as though he was a hellhound possessed. And then, after a brief reprieve of silence, he’d almost die laughing. We were never quite sure at what, exactly, he was laughing—the situation, or us, or himself. But, boy, he sure enjoyed it.

My father’s “dog slappers” became one of those quirks of family lore that embarrassed the rest of us immensely (which probably only led to him doing it even more often), but it was also one of those things we came to miss when he was gone. Little did I know at the time, but “dog slappers”—evidently—are also hereditary.

A few years ago, in the middle of one of those synergistic Socratic Circles in my classroom, we experienced one of those eerie yet blissful silences that only occurs when the thoughts being shared have blown away the expectations of everyone in the room. I sat there, watching, numb with glee. My students sat there too, all leaning forward, eyes focused, minds concentrating on the depth and insight being collaboratively created.

And in that pregnant moment of silence, when the cognitive gears of students were kicking into realms we didn’t know existed and everyone in the room contemplated her next contribution, the silence of engaged concentration was shattered as the bell rang to announce the end of period. And, just at the moment that bell shrieked against the concrete wall, I swear half of the students’ rear ends must have lifted two or three inches off the floor. And without so much as an ounce of forethought, I slapped my knee, shouted… (you guessed it)… “Oh, that was a good dog slapper!” and launched into my own impersonation of a yelping dog—yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp—right there in front of an audience of 28 petrified 14-year-olds.

Despite all the commotion between classes in the hallway outside my room, despite all the good conversation and meaning we had created, despite the hungry stomachs that so often dictate learning at the end of the class period just before lunch, my students sat there—motionless, deathly silent, staring at me incredulously. I think some were taken aback by the startle they received from the bell. Others might have been aghast at the perceived suggestion of animal cruelty. Others yet were more deeply disturbed—first—by the yelping and—then—by the school-girl-like giggling coming from their middle-aged, male teacher.

And then, one by one, with these deep, sheepish grins, they each gathered their things and headed off to lunch without muttering so much as a single word to me.

Of course, when fourth hour came to class the next day, it was quite obvious that absolutely no work was going to take place and that the entire world could grind to a halt unless I stopped and explained what exactly a “dog slapper” was and the story behind it.

So, I did what all good storytellers and teachers do. I decided to roll with it. Completely embarrassed, I told the entire story—with, of course, my own impersonation of my dad doing his impression of a caught-off-guard hound. Yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp.

We all had a great laugh. Somewhere my father smiled. And it was one of my students who then asked, “But isn’t a ‘dog slapper’ at the end of a Socratic Circle a good thing? Doesn’t it mean we were all so focused and doing such a good job of listening and thinking and paying attention and collaborating that we weren’t even thinking about school or bells or anything else?”

And I answered absolutely.

To which another of my students—as only teenagers will do and because grades too often seem to mean everything—asked, “Does that mean we can get extra credit for every Socratic Circle that ends with a dog slapper?”

It never went that far, but the students decided to keep an on-going record of how many of them would flinch at interruptions (bells, intercom announcements, visitors, etc.) during our Socratic Circles. So they wrote “DSC” (dog slapper counter) in the corner of the chalkboard and would add tally marks for each student who so flinched during a discussion.

Of course, it took all of about a day before the other classes wanted to know what in the world DSC meant, and I had to launch into the story—and impersonation—for them as well. Yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp.

And from there, a new game was afoot: which class could rack up the most “dog slappers” in a given semester? Although certainly flawed in its own way, DSC became our default measure of those synergistic moments when we knew that both the dialogue and our learning were transcending all expectation. But, thankfully, our tallies never translated to points in the gradebook. Our cart never lurched before the horse.

While I never award points for our dialogue, I understand the motivations of those who do. Each of us must operate our classrooms in a way comfortable, familiar, and effective. In my practice, I certainly award students points for the critical reading of the text they do in preparation for our Socratic Circles and also in the follow-up writing assignments that occur after our discussion. And, as a way to build and reinforce foundational skills, perhaps there is purpose and meaningfulness in assigning points to dialogue for students struggling with creating quality conversation among their peers and/or in struggling to participate at even a minimalist’s level. But, in my mind, those points are only temporary scaffolding that should be removed at the earliest opportunity. In my mind, grades are just a sometimes-unfortunate necessity in the business of education.

Collectively, if we are doing our jobs during the dialogue and striving to reach those higher gears of cognitive synergy, I shouldn’t need to assign points for the conversation itself. The quality of our dialogue will be reflected in that follow-up writing assignment. In this way, our Socratic Circles become a type of collaborative brainstorming session, a transformational strategy (for students and for teachers) that rises above grades and the “bottom line” and embodies all that which education and learning should be. In an authentic literacy classroom—in any classroom—that synergy is important.

And so now, to this day, every time I present Socratic Circles and am asked, “How do you give grades for this thing?” you might see an ornery smirk on my face because part of me is just dying to answer, “That’s easy, you just count up the dog slappers!” But I know that nothing in life—or in the classroom—is ever that easy.

Entry Filed under: Classroom practice,Questions & Authors

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Susan Rogers  |  September 13th, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    I have no doubt your dad was grinning from ear to ear that day. I wonder if he ever explained DSC to one of his classes at TW??

  • 2. James S. Davis  |  September 14th, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Thanks for the sound advice – “Don’t!” – and for putting it out there. Lit. circles certainly seem to be a place where external and artificial measures are at odds with the intention of the practice itself. How will students ever commit to the inherent merit of an activity if its value is always set by points determined by others? Reflections on the circles and on the individual thinking beyond them to be included in student portfolios seem far more significant to me. JSD

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