Socratic Seminar with Kids

I have been doing a “Revolutionary Roundtable” for four years now as the summative assessment from my “Who We Are” IB Unit called Rebel Rousers. (This is for 56 fourth graders, who would be working with the SC standard 4.3.1: Explain the major political and economic factors leading to the American Revolution, including the French and Indian War, the Stamp Act, the Tea Act, and the Intolerable Acts as well as American resistance to these acts through boycotts, petitions, and congresses.)


We have about 90% GT population in fourth grade and I did this lesson whole group (although the other fourth grade teacher and I split the round table so that half of her students participate in my room while half of my students participate in hers.) The first three years of this assignment, the students researched a historical figure and wrote a biography paper, then dressed as their figure for the roundtable and held a debate. This sounded great in practice, but it never went as planned. The students have been writing biography papers since second grade and I was bored to tears reading thirty of them. Also, it never addressed the central idea of our IB unit which states, “People sometimes seek independence from the authorities that rule over them.” A third problem was that students who drew names like George Washington and King George III were dominating the roundtable, and shyer students or less known historical figures kept pretty quiet. When I saw a socratic seminar with the MYP students at my school, I reflected on how I could improve the roundtable for my grade level.


As part of a course I am taking, I was tasked with “Instructional Rounds.” This was modeled after medical rounds, taking turns in all departments of the hospital. I went to several other classrooms in my building to get ideas to use in my room. I admire both the English and Humanities teachers at my school and went to visit their Socratic Seminars. The students read a novel, were given several conversation starters, and researched their possible responses. I took this and adapted it for fourth grade. Instead of a biography paper, the students would write a Research Based Question (based off of our Document based Questions that we have practiced all year.) They would be writing a paper about what independence meant to their historical figure. This was getting closer to my unit’s central idea.

Students worked to identify allies and foes and develop questions for both sides for the roundtable. They also worked on possible questions that could be asked of them, and had time to formulate their responses. Then, on the roundtable day, the students were able to bring their index cards into the seminar with them. During the roundtable, I arranged my classroom so that all the chairs made a large circle, but there was a smaller circle of five seats in the middle. These were the “hot seats” and were open to anyone. I let my students move to the center when the timer went off and the first five to sit down would then have 4-5 minutes inside. The students were given a blanket 60 points for entering the hot seat. They earned an additional five points for the following: asking a question, challenging an opponent, having a quality response, being an active listener, using textual support, and wearing a costume/bringing a prop. They received the last ten points when they turned in their notecards (all or nothing). I also tweaked the middle school socratic seminar tracking sheet and had the students’ names listed on the left. While another teacher and I observed the roundtable, we were checking things off this list. (CCSD employees can get a copy here.)


The hot seat was a great success. I never once had to ask the students to fill in, because they were loving going in. Even the shy students got involved because they were facing four peers instead of 28. Several students even took two or three turns in the hot seat. I was also expecting some general boredom/misbehavior from the students sitting in the outer circle, but there was none. The students had textual evidence from their research and asked each other some higher level thinking questions, and had generally thoughtful responses. The checklist was helpful for me and the other teachers because we had something to listen for and could mark it quickly. The students loved the whole process so much, they started asking when we could do it again.

Some critical thinking questions that could be used in a future roundtable are as follows:

  1. To what extent was the American revolution a revolt against taxes?
  2. When was the turning point of the war? What was the significance of this event? The consequences?
  3. To what extent did the Declaration of Independence establish the foundation of the American government?

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