Using Socratic Seminars to Improve Student Writing in U.S. History

Joe Bellanca, Social Studies Teacher. Rush-Henrietta Senior High School.  jbellanca@rhnet.org

Background

As a high school social studies teacher for 15 years, including the last 13 years in Global History and Geography or United States History and Government, I have had opportunity to see firsthand the writing proficiency of the average high school student. Both of those courses end in a New York State Regents Exam, which is a graduation requirement for all New York state public school students, and has meant that in addition to being a history teacher, I have also been a writing teacher, as well. This has been a subject of much thought during my career, having used many different strategies, and having achieved decidedly mixed results. My attitude towards writing has also changed significantly throughout my career. When I began as a teacher, I invested a lot of classroom time in writing instruction. I went thoroughly through process – what information should go into an introduction, how to craft a thesis statement, how to organize information into logical arguments in body paragraphs, and how to conclude an essay. I spent hours agonizing over student writing, trying to provide timely and meaningful feedback to inform further writing. In the end, my students showed basically zero growth throughout a school year in my class, and typically underperformed on the state exam compared to their year-long performance.

After several years of very time-consuming instruction (and very time consuming grading), I turned my back on writing instruction. I took the attitude that a formative influence in my early teaching career had – students cannot write proficiently if they haven’t been taught the content effectively and in depth. Heeding that advice, I plunged further into my course content, reading extensively, collaborating with other teachers to develop more effective and enjoyable lesson for both myself and my students. The amount of depth that I asked for in homework increased, and the amount of detail that I presented on a daily basis increased, as well. I felt very strongly that my students knew more, after all, their multiple-choice scores went up, a key to achieving a mastery score of 85 or higher on our state exams. I even went so far as to discount the value of writing in social studies courses, as high multiple-choice scores guaranteed high Regents Exam scores more than did high scores on the essay portion of the exam. What I couldn’t account for, though, is that essay scores remained flat on a year-over-year basis, despite my belief that my students knew more. They simply weren’t proving it in their writing.

Then in 2009, my school district made a major investment in my personal growth. I was selected as one of four Instructional Coaches at my high school, which meant that my teaching load was significantly reduced, and I was given hours of professional development. The charge for me was to use the professional development I was receiving to turn my classroom into a laboratory, and to share positive changes with my colleagues. The training I received in differentiated instruction, use of assessment in the learning process, and in how to build collaborative classrooms and course teams was transformative in my career. I began to seriously question everything that I had previously believed, including the value of writing in a social studies classroom. By this point in my career I had been teaching Advanced Placement United States History for several years, and had used a number of seminar activities passed along to me by my predecessor in the course. I was convinced that the classroom of ideas generated by those seminars directly translated into greater proficiency in student writing. So I set out to determine: would the experience of Socratic Seminars improve the quality of student writing in a Regents U.S. History class?

Inquiry Design

This year, I teach three sections of Regents (regular) level United States History students totaling 71 students. The students that I have this year may be deemed as the “cream of the crop.” I do not have any students with classified disabilities, nor any non-English language speakers. I have only three with testing modifications, and only two that are twelfth-graders repeating the course after failure last year. To put it mildly, this is rare at my school, where the majority of sections have at least one-third of the total student population with disabilities or language difficulty. My plan was to teach the first unit of the year (in our chronological format), which covered the colonial foundations of the country in the 17th century through the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791 in the traditional format. I would give the common assessment that all of our U.S. History students take, and use the essay scores from my students as the baseline with which to judge writing growth. I would then incorporate key changes into later units of the year. First, I would tell students the essay question on the first day of a new unit. Secondly, I would incorporate a Socratic Seminar into the Unit, in a manner that would allow for deep exploration of topics that could be used to write more effective essays. I would then compare the essay results from subsequent exams to determine if growth had been achieved.

After the first unit assessment, I totaled the data, and was surprised at what I found. My students had performed lower than my expectations on the multiple-choice section and higher than expected on the essay section (see Table 1 for essay data). This made me very concerned about the future of the inquiry, as my baseline number was significantly higher than I had predicted. During the second unit, which covered the beginning of the Washington administration through the Jackson Presidency, and also featured the pre-Civil War social reform movements of abolition, women’s suffrage, public education, and care for the mentally ill, I introduced the Socratic Seminar. I followed the lead of a colleague at Monroe Community College, who had done a non-content related “practice” seminar to introduce the concept, and then held a class discussion on the merits of such an approach. I held a brief notes section, explaining the purpose and technique, and stated my goals for the lesson. I had students write about their thought and predict the strengths and weaknesses of the seminar format. Our “practice” was in looking at a painting in American history, and then holding a seminar on its meaning, providing a suggested title at the end. The entire experience took about 40 minutes, or half a block of instructional time. Their individual written feedback generally accepted the notion that public sharing of ideas would lead to more total classroom knowledge, would introduce students to different and deeper perspectives, and would improve their own knowledge base in a way that they could be more successful in writing.

Our first real Socratic seminar revolved around the methods and tactics of reformers in effecting change. I had introduced a “reformers continuum” as an analytical tool in the previous lesson. We compared conservative reformers like Dorothea Dix’s work in lobbying Congress to create asylums for the mentally ill to radical reformers like John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers’ Ferry in the hopes of leading a slave rebellion. Using that continuum, we debated as a class which types of reform are most effective. In a forty-minute discussion we came to no concrete conclusions, but nearly all students voiced an opinion on the subject and many valid arguments were heard. The next class was their unit assessment, and both sections of the test saw dramatic improvement. My conclusion was that being immersed in ideas prior to writing the essay had led to increased written proficiency on the exam.

I continued the practice in our third unit, Civil War and Reconstruction, with a seminar on the most important causes of the Civil War. On the third unit assessment, however, there was a steep drop in the average essay score. The type of essay question asked was a different one, called a Document Based Question (DBQ), in which our students have to synthesize primary source information with their own knowledge. This type of question requires a very different thought process and writing technique than the thematic essays that students had written on the first two unit exams. This will be further discussed in my reflection thoughts at the end of my report. Our fourth unit covered the Industrial Revolution through the Progressive Era administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. We did a pair of seminars in that unit. The first asked the question about whether the industrial titans of the era (Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, Vanderbilt) were Robber Barons or Captains of Industry, and what amount of wealth gained, regardless of legality of means, is justified and acceptable in a capitalist economy. The second seminar focused on how necessary individual Progressive Era reformers (Upton Sinclair, Jacob Riis, Alice Paul) were in leading to necessary government reforms (Food and Drug Administration, 19th Amendment). Because the U.S. History course team had fallen into different timeline, we made the decision not to give an essay on our fourth unit exam, but use the Midterm Exam essay to assess to Progressive Era. As it was a thematic essay, my student scores returned to the level that they had achieved in our second unit.

I had intended to conclude the inquiry at the midterm point, but because of the disappointing third unit exam essay results, the different nature of that type of essay question, and the fact that it left me with two essay results to compare to my baseline, I extended the inquiry another unit. The fifth unit focused on the 1920s and 1930s and our seminar focused on the laissez-faire government and societal attitude of the 1920s to the more active role that government played in the New Deal 1930s. Essay results remained very high on this unit assessment, as well.

What I Learned

A number of conclusions can be drawn from this inquiry. The first is that there appears to be a direct correlation between the changes implemented after the first unit, and student proficiency in writing thematic essays. My baseline data featured an average student essay score of 3.58 followed by a unit two average of 4.03 midterm average of 3.90 and unit five average of 3.94 (Table 1). I believe that the depth of conversation in classes helped my top students to hear multiple perspectives and defend their arguments with facts in a manner that allowed them to write more critically and use more powerful arguments and examples. I also believe that the seminar experience allowed my weaker students access to ideas and arguments to incorporate into their writing that they would not have developed on their own. Certainly there are a number of factors at play in this inquiry, especially the strategic decision to tell students ahead of time what their unit assessment essay question will be, but the increase in average student score on the essays is profound.

My second conclusion based on this inquiry is that my students believe the seminar format has improved their knowledge of United States History. When asked on a survey at the end of Unit 2, students reported overwhelmingly that the seminar had been a meaningful experience. In response to the question, “The seminar that we did to learn about the reformers was helpful for me on the Unit Exam,” an incredible 99% agreed.

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In response to another question, “The seminar that we did was more helpful to me than a detailed lecture on the subject would have been,” 88% agreed.

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In my teaching experience, student surveys are to be used cautiously, as a number of factors can affect results. But in this case, students overwhelmingly reported that the class activity helped them learn and was more effective than an another approach. Confidence going into an exam contributes greatly to student success, and in students’ view, the seminar is providing them with the tools to succeed. When asked a more open ended question at the midterm exam, “What good things are occurring in U.S. History class to help me learn,” student responses included: “Not always a lecture,” “A lot of sharing of knowledge,” “Different types/variety of activities we use,” “Open discussion,” “The seminars kind of force me to learn.” Given that many of the strategies I use on a regular basis (videos, lectures, independent reading) are very traditional and are used in all social studies courses in which students have previously been enrolled, I am able to read into these comments that the seminars are having a profound impact on student perception of their own learning.

A third conclusion that I am able to draw is that my students are very satisfied with my course. Part of this is based on survey answers in response to a question about how they feel about the academic progress they are making in class, in which 87% reported satisfaction.

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In addition, anecdotal comments support my conclusion. Some write-in comments after the midterm exam included:
“I’m satisfied with everything, keep doing what you’re doing”
• “My grade is a lot better than last year”
• “This class has a real academic atmosphere”
• “I like that we don’t do the same things every day”
• “You’re getting the best out of me”

Conclusion

After studying the exam results and student satisfaction surveys, I have concluded that implementing seminars has helped to create the serious academic tone in the classroom that helps students to be successful. Because I have seen nearly all of my students participate in the seminars in some meaningful way – discussion, raising questions, note-making, active listening – and essay scores have been consistently higher than my baseline data, I will be using Socratic Seminars as a part of my classroom routine in the future.

Reflections and Future Practice

Nothing that has resulted from my inquiry and the data generated can be conclusive taken by itself. It represents a very modest sample of students (only 18% of our junior class at Rush-Henrietta) and compares data on only four exams. In addition, the lack of students’ academic diversity, as I have a limited number of students with disabilities, cannot do more than imply that this would be effective with a broader range of abilities in the same classroom. Despite these limitations, however, I have seen enough proof in a half school year to continue to implement seminars and continue to chart the results. There are some lingering questions that I have that cannot be answered at this time.

First, can the process of Socratic Seminars be tweaked to also increase student proficiency in writing DBQ essays? These are significant components of our current state exam, and are at the core of the changes that implementation of Common Core Learning Standards are predicted for our new state exams beginning in June 2016. A DBQ essay, as stated above, requires a very different planning process and writing approach from a thematic essay. In my experience, despite the prior knowledge that a student brings to a topic, they often get “tunnel vision” and cannot see beyond the scope of the documents. As a result, they limit their writing and analysis to only the information that is presented to them, failing to account for gaps in the document information or for document bias. Devising a procedure to use Socratic Seminars to help students in planning to write a DBQ essay or in synthesizing prior knowledge and document evidence will present a major challenge that will require additional experimentation.

Second, is the experience of Socratic Seminars transferable to questions that haven’t been dealt with specifically in the seminar format? In previous years, student writing on state exams has been significantly lower than average performance during the school year. We have speculated on a number of factors that lead to this: testing fatigue, as the state exam is the longest of the year, with virtually all students writing their essays last, often in a rush to be done by the first permissible time to leave the exam site; grader fatigue, as the time pressure and process to grade exams and report grades increases the likelihood that readers skim for key points instead of giving a close read to each essay; a state exam rubric that rewards the multiple-choice section of the exam more than the essay portion, a fact known to most students. Increased student proficiency in writing essays in my class has been based in large part on the fact that our seminars occur in the class prior to a unit exam, and students know that unit exam essay question before they arrive on test day. Clearly these advantages do not exist on a secure state exam.

During this school year, my students have greatly benefited from Socratic Seminars. Their content knowledge is higher than in previous years, the exam data indicates this. I also have seen students establishing better “soft skills” – effective classroom discussion, analysis of textual clues, willingness to accept multiple answers as valid – that are not as measurable, but are certainly valued in education. I have established seminars on topics central to an understanding of American history: how different groups of disadvantaged Americans have gained legal rights and social respect, the role that the individual can play in effecting societal reform, the necessity of government’s role in individual lives. But it remains to be seen whether students can use the experience of Socratic Seminars to overcome the obstacles unique to the Regents Exam in U.S. History. While I have never placed great faith in standardized tests as an indicator of a quality educational experience, clearly our school administration and political leadership disagree. In spite of this, I am hopeful that the experience that students have in my classroom will encourage them to keep studying history, to value the collaborative process that they have engaged in, and to remember my course and their time at Rush-Henrietta fondly. I am also hopeful that I will continue to work in a district that values experimentation and collaboration with others to implement best practices in the classroom.

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Resources

In addition to the input I received from Faculty Fellows colleagues, I found the following to be very helpful:

Filkins, Scott. Strategy Guide: Socratic Seminars. ReadWriteThink – International Reading Association (n.d.).
Retrieved from: http://www.readwritethink.org/professional-development/strategy-guides/socratic-seminars-30600.html

Tredway, Linda (September 1995). Socratic Seminars: Engaging Students in Intellectual Discourse. Educational Leadership 53 (1), p.26-29.

Socratic Seminar Teaching Workshop. [PowerPoint slides]  Retrieved from: http://tepserver.ucsd.edu/courses/tep129/129C_presentations/Socratic_teaching05.htm