Developing the Art & Skill of Civil Discourse in 8th Grade English Class

Student-led discussions in 8th grade English class are helping students learn the art and skill of civil discourse.

"These student-led conversations teach students to listen closely and carefully to what classmates say," explained Middle School English Teacher Mark Luff, Hon. "They learn to contribute thoughtful and thought-provoking comments and provide specific reasons and cite ample textual evidence to support their views."

The exercise is called a Socratic Seminar. The classroom is rearranged with the desks in a circle, covered in a black cloth. "A Socratic Seminar is a discussion and dialogue, not a debate," said English Teacher Heather Dupont, Hon. "It is an academic and disciplined form of conversation based on generating essential questions about a written text and curating persuasive evidence."

The classroom set-up is unique to a Socratic Seminar as the desks are put into two concentric circles, with half of the class in the inner circle and the others seated in the outer circle. "Students sitting in the inner circle are the speakers during the seminar. Students on the outer edge are the coaches," said Mr. Luff.

For this assignment, discussions were based on three books students selected to read, Dear Martin, The Hate U Give, and All American Boys. In preparation for the seminar, students identified themes, and made connections to these themes in their lives. They also wrote personal response essays, and came up with discussion questions.

"I really enjoyed this assignment. It was different and fun," remarked an 8th grader. "It also felt like a real world way to demonstrate our understanding."

The goal of the seminar is to examine ideas and opinions through question and answer. "It allowed me to communicate with others, which brought in new points of view, and it helped me understand the book more," reflected another student.

"The Socratic Seminar celebrates respectful conversation, collaboration, and teamwork," said Mrs. Dupont.

"It promotes effective listening, critical thinking, and articulate oral expression," said Mr. Luff. "Kindness and respect flow freely between all participants."

The 8th grade class taught by John Goens, Hon. also participated in the seminar.