Socrates, Zinn, and You – Let’s Talk

A few times throughout each semester, we have students participate in a class discussion based upon the Socratic Seminar method. This week, students discussed the Cold War, McCarthyism, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg using Howard Zinn’s, “The Twentieth Century,” as their main source of information.

This class period comes toward the middle of our unit on American domestic life and policy during the Cold War. This discussion allows students to demonstrate what they have learned so far, it serves as a reminder/summary of what students should know for this unit, and it allows all students to learn from themselves and their peers in an engaging manner.

Using the Socratic Seminar discussion strategy, the questions posed to students – given to them in advance – serve as a starting point for the discussion. Examples of these include:

  1. Why were independence movements seen as a threat to U.S. interest? Give specific examples. As a former colony ourselves, does this policy make sense to you?
  2. What do you think you would have done had you been in the U.S. Senate with McCarthy?
  3. What is your reaction to the Rosenberg case? Elaborate on the evidence and arguments you find the most convincing. Based on your knowledge, if you were part of the jury, would you have found them guilty or innocent?

These questions enable students to probe deeper into their learning. Additionally, it promotes discussion that relates to the students personally in a way that a textbook never could. This is because it calls the students to consider what they themselves would do in a historical situation. Additionally, it calls to mind questions that still matter today, including topics of integrity, capital punishment, etc.

In facilitating this discussion, I learned first-hand that students thrive when they are given multiple avenues to explore course content. Some students thrive on reading alone, but many do not. This experience proved that it is essential to help all students succeed by providing differentiated learning opportunities. One challenge of this discussion was involving many students when there are a few consistent students who like to have their voice heard. As I practice group discussions more, I hope to discover techniques to help all students feel comfortable in expressing their learning.


Hot Seat Discussion Technique

Discussion strategy used: “Hot Seat” (found here)

This assignment was used at the end of our Renaissance unit in 8th grade history.

Students were given a list of names of influential individuals during the Renaissance, whom we have discussed in class. Such individuals included Martin Luther, Michelangelo, Lorenzo de Medici, etc. Students were to pick an individual to do more research on and present themselves as this person to the class. They were to introduce themselves and explain how they were influential during the Renaissance. While the rest of class listened, they were directed to take notes on points they think are important, and write down questions that may pop in their heads, something they would like to know more about, to ask after the speaker is done with their introduction.

I was surprised to see how receptive students were to this activity. Most of them seemed to have fun acting like their character while they presented, and students who were listening were enthused to ask questions. I believe it did help that this was for a participation grade, and my class was small with a group of tight-knit students who are very comfortable with one another. The activity did get students talking and discussing Renaissance topics.

This would be an activity I do in the future with the same students, but also with other classes as well. I like to think that the more I did this with students, they would become more comfortable and used to the concept. It is not something I would do every unit, but perhaps a few times during the year, in one variation or another. Variations would depend on the content for that lesson. For example, this Hot Seat can also be adapted to be an “On Trial” activity, in which one person is on trial and the rest of class are the jury asking questions. I can see this taking many forms and look forward to exploring other ways to use this in my future classes.