After five years out of the classroom, I’m back at my current district, teaching AP U.S. History to a group of sophomore students. The course is part of a wider initiative whereby our high school students will have the opportunity to graduate with both their high school diploma and their associate degree from a local community college. My role is to use AP History as a vehicle to prepare students for reading college-level texts and providing analysis.
Quite naturally, I prepare my students by having them engage with college-level texts on U.S. history as part of their classwork. Thankfully, I don’t have parents demanding that my students not learn about certain truths of the United States’ past.
In fact, in the state of New Jersey, public schools are required to include instruction on the accomplishments and contributions of Black people in American history. In my class, we just finished An African American and Latinx History of the United States, by Paul Ortiz, and we’ll begin Color of Law: A Forgotten History on How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein, next marking period. In addition, we’ve read, and will continue reading, peer-reviewed journal articles on U.S. history.
What Experiencing the Socratic Method Is Like
Excited to be teaching again, I thought back to my time as a student and wondered what motivated me to complete the assigned readings in order to be ready for class. My mind led me back to my brief time as a law student.
I can remember the first time I sat in the lecture hall for my civil procedure class. I hadn’t read all of the assigned readings prior to class, but I figured that I could skate by that day and then prepare to answer questions for the next class. That was until I saw the professor call on students randomly, firing off question after question after question. There was a method to his madness. Indeed, a Socratic method to his madness.
For two classes, I was able to skirt by without being called on. The third class was my turn, and although I was still nervous, I was able to engage because I had done my reading. I didn’t get every question right, but I was in the fight. The same will be true of high school students as they engage in Socratic learning.
Getting Students to Interact With the Text
The Socratic method is a teaching tactic in which questions are asked continually until either the student gives a wrong answer or reasoning or the teacher is satisfied with the student’s responses. Law schools usually employ this tactic to develop critical-thinking skills in students, to improve their intellectual thinking about the law. As far as I was concerned, all it did was scare the hell out of me. But it did something else too: It forced me not only to read but to interact with what I was reading.
This is what I hoped would happen for my students.
The first day that I questioned random students back-to-back-to-back, they were terrified. Just like in law school, I allowed them to have their reading and their notes for reference, and I asked them questions and probed for a rationale. They were spooked. Some kids were visibly anxious, and the stress for some became too much. We paused. I told my students to take a breath.
I explained to them that this method is stressful, and I also warned them that some use this instructional technique in ways that are disrespectful, harmful, and unjust. However, I assured them that our classroom was a training ground for the rigorous style of instruction and demanding nature of textual exegesis they’d experience beyond high school.
I also told them that I believed they were more than capable of showing what they knew. With that, my students grew calmer and we continued. The next week we did it, more students were prepared. They had their notes, their books were highlighted, and they expected that they’d get called on.
I was proud. But I cautioned them that the point of reading is to engage with the text to not only learn information but also scrutinize it to inform their analysis of modern times. I told them the point isn’t to have the answers but to have an analysis. So, I mix fact-based questions with questions that require them to analyze what they’ve read.
How have they responded? Some actually enjoy it. Others, not so much. But when we begin, all my students are ready. They’re ready now and when they enter any room. If and when folks question their ideas, their intelligence, or their humanity… they’ll be ready then too.
10 Guidelines to Keep in Mind
I wouldn’t try this method with any grade younger than eighth grade, as it can be very intense. However, if this is something that you’re looking to do in the classroom, here are some simple tips on how to get started:
1. Prepare students by instructing them on what the Socratic method is, the reason and intention behind doing it, and how the structure of the class will go when you employ it.
2. Allow students to have all their notes and texts on their desk to help them when they’re asked a series of questions.
3. Insist that students keep their hands down and that you will call on whomever you’d like to answer a question.
4. Be sure to maintain a very direct and serious tone. This activity is serious, and your behavior must communicate that to students.
5. Keep a score sheet to track who’s been called on and answered questions correctly. This will help you keep track of who to call on next, who to go back to, and how many questions each student has answered correctly and/or incorrectly.
6. Ask a mixture of fact-based questions and questions that analyze a quote from the text or a concept gathered through textual study.
7. Walk around the room. Not only are you employing proximity, but your nearness to a student gives the impression that you’re ready to call on them. This helps ensure that they’re focused and engaged in the activity.
8. Don’t be rattled by the silence of a student scrambling for the answer. Don’t rush to call on another student or give the student help. Let them experience the discomfort of the moment while you patiently wait for them to answer the question. If they take too long (longer than 20 seconds), call on another student to answer, and return to the previous student with another question.
9. If a student answers correctly, it’s OK to ask them more questions to see if they can continue doing so. After five to seven correct answers (that’s my number, but you can do less according to your grade level and the rigor of the questions), you can move on to another student. It’s also OK to come back to that student after another one has answered.
10. If a student is wrong about a fact-based answer, say so directly. If a student’s analysis of a quote or concept is lacking depth, a detailed explanation of what they read, and an interpretation of its meaning and significance, probe them further to explain or unpack their thinking.