Classroom Conversation and Collaboration

Matt Copeland, author of Socratic Circles, launched a Facebook discussion and collaboration page about a year ago. Today he discusses why teachers need collaboration and discussion and how his online community helps to facilitate the process.

Collaboration. It’s the one thing we educators never seem to get enough time to do.

Very early in my teaching career, a more seasoned colleague shared with me his lamentation on the profession: As teachers, we are the eggs; the school is our egg carton. Each of us is separated off into our own little protective compartment—our classroom—never touching, never interacting, never discussing.

Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works,” a report from the National Center for Literacy Education, appears to suggest that little has changed in the last twenty years in that regard. According to its findings, only 40% of educators have the opportunity to co-plan with colleagues more than once a month. And yet, co-planning is the one professional learning experience survey respondents value the most. In fact, a majority of educators have less than one hour per week to work with other members of their learning teams. (A one-page infographic summarizing the report’s findings is also available.)

In a fascinating article from Vox, Elizabeth Green, who spent five years researching the complexities of becoming an exceptional educator, offered the following nugget of insight:

We don’t give teachers the space to do anything but work, work, work. They have no space to learn. Whereas in Japan or Finland there are 600 hours per year of time spent teaching, in the US, it’s 1,000 hours or more. So teachers have no time to think, no time to learn, no time to study the kids, no time to study the curriculum. They have no way of seeing anything that’s happening outside their own classroom.

For a profession firmly focused on developing a love of lifelong learning, this reality may seem counterintuitive. The good news, as the NCLE report also states, is that many of the building blocks to begin to rectify this problem may already be in place: educator teams, online professional networks, smart use of student data, and—perhaps most important—instructional coaches and school librarians.

For those educators interested in empowering student-led discussion in their classrooms, one such online professional network already exists: the Socratic Circles Community on Facebook. Here, practitioners of the strategy share insight and advice with one another and learn from the classroom experiences and expertise of others. We share potential sources of text, troubleshoot common pitfalls, and offer one another the kind of support and collaboration that is too often missing from our lives during the school day.

socratic circlesChanging the climate and culture of our schools to embrace collaboration may seem a daunting task. Yet, as classroom teachers, we must be that change. Now, as we begin a new school year, as classrooms across the country begin the heavy lifting of implementing new standards and striving for college and career readiness, the work becomes more important than ever.

So, come and check out the Socratic Circles Community. Click “Like” and join us. Engage in the conversation and collaboration. This is the time to finally break free from our Styrofoam sarcophagi, to escape our egg-carton mentality, and to model for our students the kind of lifelong learning we desire to see in them.

Add comment October 8th, 2014

Join the discussion on the Socratic Circles Facebook page

Matt Copeland, author of Socratic Circles, has seen a renewed interest in this teaching technique that empowers students and builds critical thinking, creativity, reading, speaking, and team-building skills. So he recently launched a Facebook Community for teachers to share ideas, ask questions, and get help in implementing Socratic circles across grade levels and content areas.

Check it out and join the discussion!

Add comment September 9th, 2013

Quick Tip Tuesday: Effective Socratic Circles

“Effective Socratic circles do not happen overnight,” writes Matt Copeland in his book Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School. To prepare for Socratic Circle instruction, teachers need to consider three key areas: classroom climate, the teacher’s role, and teaching students to prepare for high quality dialogue. In this week’s Quick Tip, Matt shares how he sets the climate in his classroom for effective dialogue.

If one had the ability to look down upon a Socratic circle in my classroom from above, he or she would see two concentric circles. The inner circle of students would be facing inward and seated upon the floor, each with a writing utensil and a copy of the selected piece of text being used as a springboard for discussion. The outer circle of students, also facing inward, would be seated in desks directly outside the inner circle, almost literally hanging on every word of the inner circle. One would quickly realize that the only conversation taking place is among the members of the inner circle and that outer-circle members are busy observing and jotting down notes about the inner circle’s performance, all without saying
a word. One would also notice the teacher sitting outside the inner circle, contributing questions or basic information only to keep the inner circle’s discussion moving smoothly along.

After several minutes had gone by, the observer would notice the teacher stopping the inner circle’s conversation and asking them to remain quiet while the teacher led the outer circle in a conversation to provide feedback on the inner circle’s performance. One would see students in the outer circle looking at their notes and commenting on the strengths of the inner circle and offering suggestions for improvement. What might surprise the observer is that the comments of the outer circle would be
focused not on the content of the inner circle but rather on the behavior the members of the inner circle exhibited during their conversation. After several minutes the two circles would switch places and the process would be repeated.

The classroom environment is perhaps the element most crucial to Socratic circle success, both in terms of the physical environment and in terms of the emotional climate. Socratic circles approach reading, discussion, and learning in a way that is unfamiliar to many students. The physical layout of the room and the emotional climate established by the teacher greatly affect a student’s willingness to try something new.

The process of mutual inquiry asks that participants take risks by sharing ideas and opinions regardless of their known “truth.” Students, like all human beings, are sometimes uncomfortable and unsure of themselves when sharing information about which they are uncertain. The fears of being proved wrong, being judged, and/or being scoffed at are very real. The effective Socratic circle leader accommodates and lessens these fears in the classroom. One of the clear necessities is seating students in a circle so that they all can see each other when they are in discussion. Neat, straight rows of desks will not be conducive to an open, free-flowing dialogue. Because students are asking questions of each other and sharing personal ideas and opinions based on a selection of text, eye contact and nonverbal engagement in the conversation are essential. This engagement makes students more confident and comfortable, which makes them more likely to take risks in sharing their ideas.

Ultimately, having students be able to see and interact with one another builds cohesion, a necessary component in the collaborative construction of new learning. I also have my inner and outer circles sitting on different planes of the classroom. I always have my inner circle sitting on the floor and my outer circle sitting in chairs directly behind them. This allows the outer circle to almost literally look over the shoulders of the students sitting in the inner circle. Because the outer circle is responsible for watching the behavior of the conversation taking place, they need to be able to clearly watch and
observe not only the discussion but also the physical and nonverbal interactions among students. The tiered circles in my classroom help the inner and outer circles see more clearly not only the members of their own circle, but the members of the other circle as well. This helps students see how beneficial one circle can be for the other. Because they can see and interact with one another, there is an enhanced amount of teamwork and cooperation between the circles; both know they are engaged in a cooperative

I have also found that altering the lighting in my classroom helps to improve students’ comfort level. Because large banks of overhead fluorescent lights seem to transform a classroom discussion into something that feels more like a police station interrogation, I fill my classroom with alternative lighting (such as floor lamps or strings of holiday lights hung from the ceilings) on days we hold Socratic circles. The change in lighting relaxes and calms students and makes them more open to the exchange of ideas and dialogue. One of the side benefits to this practice is that they respond very quickly to the lighting change. They know instantly what the order of business is for the day, and they move into Socratic circle mode more quickly, more fully, and with more enthusiasm.

Like the effects of classroom lighting, the importance of the emotional climate of the classroom cannot be underestimated. Sharing personal reactions, connections, and interpretations of ideas and concepts
can be difficult for people of any age. For this to occur, students must feel safe, comfortable, and confident with themselves and with one another.

Before Socratic circles are even introduced, teachers should take the time to engage students in multiple classroom climate activities. The value and benefit of knowing one another’s names, interests, and personalities is immense. We simply cannot work cooperatively with people we feel no connection with, especially in a Socratic circle setting, where each individual is expected to contribute to group understanding.

Add comment August 3rd, 2010

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